Burlington, NC – JR Smith couldn’t help but feel anxious.
Sure, he spent 16 years playing in the NBA, earning millions and winning two world championships in packed arenas at the highest level of a global sport. But he was never in the position he was on Monday: putting up tee shots as a 36-year-old freshman walk-on while playing his first college golf tournament for North Carolina A&T at the Phoenix Invitational in Elon.
“I was nervous, I was,” said Smith, who scored a 12-over-par 83 in Round 1 and then a 7-over 78 in Round 2. “I really didn’t know what to do.”
It’s easy to understand what a big change this is for Smith. Exactly a year ago, to this day, he was a shirtless part of the oncourt celebration with LeBron James, when the Los Angeles Lakers kicked off a title race in the Florida pandemic bubble.
Smith was drawn to the Greensboro School because of his interest in attending a historically black college or university, a campaign by the NBA and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture at this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta. A push follows.
On Monday, Smith’s pride came from representing HBCU as an Aegis golfer for the first time in a two-day event at Alamance Country Club.
“We are such a small percentage of the country, let alone the budget system,” laughed Smith. “Because I see that everyone has a van and all that stuff. But that’s great. It’s great to represent them. It’s great to get the recognition for the school because they deserve it, and my fellow classmates.”
“That’s what I’m most excited about: to be able to be back on campus and have my teammates hold their heads high with the victory coming from a tournament we all want.”
It’s a college experience of nearly two decades delayed for Smith, who originally set out to play basketball in North Carolina before jumping from preps to the NBA in 2004 to become a first-round pick.
Aggies coach Richard Watkins said, ‘I was very happy with him. “They made some mistakes, did some things you would do if you weren’t used to competing. Just going out and playing recreational golf with your friends is very different from competing.
“That first 18 was just to get his feet wet. Then he leaned over and I was really pleased with what he did in that second 18, because education doesn’t come cheap. And I think he took some lessons there today learned.
Smith’s appearance in a blue A&T hoodie and white pants drew a mini-gallery of between 15 and 30 eager spectators following her around the course. Eli Ehrbar could not miss his chance to be a part of it.
The 21-year-old is a native of Cleveland, where Smith helped the James-led Cavaliers to the 2016 World Championships. Elon Sr. said it felt like a bit of a privilege that Smith qualified so closely for his first college tournament.
“When I saw he qualified, I was like, ‘I have to come over,'” Ehrbar said wearing a Burgundy Cavaliers hoodie. “I think I and some of my friends had the same feeling. We were like, This is a world class athlete, a world champion NBA player. Being from Cleveland in particular, it hit home a little bit differently. Is. “
Smith felt quite comfortable through several holes. When a tee shot hit a tree and landed in the fairway, Smith quipped what he called a bank shot. He gave a playful “beep, beep” as his car driven by Temple golfer Joy Morganti was making its way through spectators on the way to the car.
And when an excited 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named “Lucky” barked from the front yard of a nearby house during one of Smith’s shots, Smith stopped and shouted out to the green: “What’s your name?”
Smith stated that he wanted to be just one more competitor in the tournament, although he understood the extra attention that came with his debut.
“More than anything, it’s just being able to go out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and kick my[butt],” Smith said. “It was actually a very humbling feeling. Again, I’m ready to go to that extent to work on it. I had fun, but I don’t like to lose.”