BURLINGTON, NC – JR Smith couldn’t help but feel anxious.
Sure, he had played in the NBA for 16 years, made millions, and won two world championships in crowded arenas at the highest level in a global sport. But he’s never been in a situation like on Monday: As a 36-year-old freshman, he had run his first college golf tournament for North Carolina A&T at Elon’s Phoenix Invitational.
“I was nervous, I was,” said Smith, who shot a 12 over par 83 on round 1 and then a 7 over 78 on round 2. “I didn’t really know what to expect.”
That’s easy to understand considering how massive it is for Smith. Exactly one year to the day before, he and LeBron James were shirtless part of a celebration on the court after the Los Angeles Lakers had just completed an NBA title run in the Florida pandemic bubble.
Smith had since been drawn to Greensboro School because he was interested in attending a Historically Black College or university that follows pressure from the NBA and its players to embrace the traditions and culture of the HBCU at this year’s All-Star Game in Support Atlanta.
On Monday, Smith was proud to represent an HBCU for the first time as an Aggies golfer at the two-day event at the Alamance Country Club.
“We make up such a small part of the country, let alone the budget system,” Smith said with a laugh. “Because I see everyone else has Vans and all that other stuff. But it’s great. It’s great to represent them. It’s great for the school to get the recognition because it deserves it and my classmates.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to most: Coming back on campus and holding my teammates up with a tournament win is what we’re looking for.”
It’s a college experience that was delayed for nearly two decades for Smith, originally intended to play basketball in North Carolina, before switching from prep to the NBA to become a first-round pick in 2004.
“I was pretty happy with him,” said Aggies coach Richard Watkins. “He made some mistakes, did some things that you will do if you are not used to competing. Just going out and playing recreational golf with your friends is very different from competing.
“The first 18 were just to get your feet wet. Then he buckled up and I was really happy with what he did in the second 18 because education isn’t cheap. And I think he has some out there today Lessons learned.”
Smith’s presence in a blue A&T hoodie and white pants attracted a mini-gallery of 15 to 30 curious onlookers who followed him down the track. Eli Ehrbar did not miss the chance to be there.
The 21-year-old is from Cleveland, where Smith helped James-led Cavaliers win the 2016 World Cup. The Elon senior said it felt like lucky that Smith narrowly qualified for his first college tournament.
“When I saw that he qualified, I thought, ‘I have to come,'” said Ehrbar, who wore a burgundy Cavaliers hoodie. “I think that was a feeling for me and a few of my friends. We thought this is a world-class athlete, a world champion in the NBA. Especially from Cleveland it is a little different.” “
Smith seemed relaxed enough through numerous holes. When a tee hit a tree and landed in the fairway, Smith was quick to joke that he called the bankshot. He gave a playful “beep, beep” as his cart, driven by Temple golfer Joey Morganti, made its way through the onlookers on the cart path.
And when an excited two year old yellow Labrador Retriever named “Lucky” started barking during one of Smith’s shots from the front yard of a nearby house, Smith stopped and shouted over the green, “What’s your name?”
Smith said he just wanted to be another participant in the tournament, although he understood the extra attention that came with his debut.
“More than anything, it’s easy to be out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and mine [butt] kicked, ”said Smith. “It was actually a very humiliating feeling. Again, I’m ready to go into this area to work on it. I had fun, but I don’t like to lose. “