BURLINGTON, NC – JR Smith could not help but feel anxious.
Sure, he played in the NBA for 16 years, earned millions and won two world championships in full arenas at the highest level of a world sport. But he’s never been in a situation like Monday: he drafted as a 36-year-old freshman who played his first college golf tournament for North Carolina A&T at Elon’s Phoenix Invitational.
“I was nervous,” said Smith, who shot a 12-over par 83 in Round 1 and then a 7-over 78 in Round 2. “I did not really know what to expect.”
This is easy to understand, given how big a change this represents for Smith. Exactly one year earlier, to this day, he was a shirtless part of a celebration on the track with LeBron James after the Los Angeles Lakers has just closed an NBA title in the Florida pandemic bubble.
Smith has since been attracted to Greensboro School because of his interest in attending a Historically Black College of University, following pressure from the NBA and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture in this year’s All- Star Game in Atlanta.
Smith’s pride on Monday was the first time he represented an HBCU as an Aggies golfer at the two-day event at the Alamance Country Club.
“We are such a small part of the percentage of the country, let alone the budget system,” Smith laughed. “Because I see that everyone has other pickups and all the other stuff. But it’s great. It’s great to represent them. It’s great for the school to get recognition because they deserve it, and my fellow classmates.
“This is what I’m most excited about: returning to campus and keeping my teammates upside down with a win from a tournament is what we’re looking for.”
It’s a university experience that has been delayed for almost two decades for Smith, who originally planned to play basketball. North Carolina before jumping from preparation to the NBA to becoming a first-round pick in 2004.
“I was very happy with him,” said Aggies coach Richard Watkins. “He made some mistakes, did some things you would do if you were not used to competing. Going out to play with your friends and play golf is very different from competition.
“The first 18 were just to wet his feet. Then he bent down, and I was very happy with what he did the second 18, because education does not come cheap. And I think he learned lessons from it today.”
Smith’s presence in a blue A&T hoodie and white pants drew a mini-gallery between 15 and 30 curious spectators who followed him on the track. Eli Ehrbar did not have a chance.
The 21-year-old is a native of Cleveland, where Smith helped the James-led Cavaliers to the world championships in 2016. The Elon senior said it feels a little lucky that Smith qualified so close for his first college tournament.
“When I saw him qualify, I thought, ‘I have to come,'” Ehrbar wore a burgundy Cavaliers hood. ‘I think it was a feeling from me and some of my friends. We were like a world-class athlete, a world champion in the NBA. “
Smith looks relaxed through numerous holes. When one tea shot hit a tree and ended up in the fairway, Smith was quick to stop him calling the bank shot. He gives a playful “beep, beep” as his cart, driven by Temple golfer Joey Morganti, walks through the spectators on the wagon road.
And when an excited 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever named “Lucky” starts barking during a Smith’s shot from a nearby house’s front yard, Smith stops and shouts from the other side, “What’s your name?”
Smith said he just wanted to be another competitor at the tournament, although he understands the extra attention that comes with his debut.
‘More than anything else, it’s just that I can get out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and get me [butt] kicked, “Smith said.” It was actually a very humble feeling. Again, I’m ready to go to the series to work on it. I had fun, but I do not like to lose. ”