With Golf Clubs in Hand, J.R. Smith Rewrites His Narrative

The NBA star turned college golfer on overcoming his fears and starting fresh post basketball.

Golf
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Retirement doesn’t have to be the end for professional athletes. In fact, it can be the start of something new. Basketball fans know J.R. Smith from his time in the NBA as a player who never turned down a difficult shot. By any measure the New Jersey native had a successful career, winning two NBA Championships and earning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013. At the beginning of his career, Smith took the high school to NBA route. And 16 years later, he surprised everyone when he announced he was going back to school to complete his education at North Carolina A&T, and he hoped to compete on the university’s golf team.

Smith has made it clear he feels that decision was forced upon him, stating in an interview in September of 2022 that he ‘100 percent’ believes he was blackballed out of the league. The former guard is confident in his abilities and thinks he had more to give on the court. But rather than beating his head against a wall, Smith took all that energy and channeled it into something new: his education and golf. The 37-year-old even started a new golf podcast which he hosts along with Stephen Malbon and Ben Baller.

And for a player who suffered throughout his career from a perception of being lazy, selfish and low IQ, Smith accumulated a 4.0 GPA in his freshman year in North Carolina, earning him Academic Athlete of the Year honors. Enrolling at the HBCU represented an opportunity to start anew, forge new relationships and rewrite his own narrative. The athlete-led storytelling of UNINTERRUPTED gave him the platform to do just that. Smith sat down with Hypegolf to discuss the docuseries called Redefined: J.R. Smith that was produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter and is now streaming on Prime Video. He also spoke more broadly on his journey with golf and overcoming his fears to complete his education.

HB: Tell us about UNINTERRUPTED and how important it is for athletes to have a forum where they can tell their own stories.

J.R.: I mean UNINTERRUPTED is amazing. It’s an amazing platform that Bron and Mav created to really speak to the athlete where our values and what we think matters as well. We’re not just categories. And for me it’s very important because so many times outlets have pushed the narrative of who I am to the masses of people, and I didn’t really have a say in how that comes about.

So to be able to partner with them and do this is really amazing. I really appreciate the relationships and friendships that I’ve made with them. And throughout the years especially when you do stuff like this, it only gets deeper and deeper with the friendships.

As a public figure enrolling at North Carolina A&T and joining the golf team, were you at all apprehensive about how you would be perceived? And how has it played out?

I mean, yeah I was kinda nervous. More so with my teammates, my peers and at school, you know what I’m saying. I put more emphasis and value on how they felt about it than anybody else. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who I’m going to be around and consistently have to deal with stuff.

But the outside world didn’t really matter to me. I knew people were gonna talk about it regardless. But for me it was really important just to be cool with the dudes on my team, the girls on the girl’s team and the people around the campus.

What does it mean to you to be at an HBCU?

I mean, to be able to like to do it at an HBCU is everything because kids who look like me and grew up like me get to see me, a person of quote unquote a large following who hasn’t always been in the good eye of the following, from the public eye anyway. And for them to see me taking my education serious, I think it only emphasizes more for them, and I can be the role model I want to be. And I think they perceive it well. So around campus and stuff is great, I can’t complain honestly. It’s a great group of people and it’s a great place. You know, from all the professors to the administration, everybody’s been really helpful in my journey.

You’ve talked about how golf has been like an escape from basketball. How does your relationship with basketball compare to the one you have with golf and are you able to channel that competitiveness on the golf course?

I’m learning how to channel that competitiveness into golf because with basketball you can play harder, you can speed things up a little bit. You can slow things down. Like you can really change the momentum of the game. In golf it’s really hard to do that because the more you speed up the more errors come into play.

So I’m really trying to find my change of pace with golf, but my relationship with the game is great. I love the game, I love the practice because I can really see myself getting better in so many different areas of the game. There are always different shots to hit, and you could play the same course back to back and not have the same shots. So it’s a game like no other, it’s continuously making you think and making sure you hit different shots. And with basketball…I kind of mastered it to an extent because I spent 20, 30,000 hours on the game.

“It’s hard because they say [golf is] a game of misses and I come from a game of makes. You make shots or you miss shots. And then golf is like, no, you have to perfect where your misses are. And that doesn’t make sense to me.”

I know right now, even though I haven’t been working out if I get in shape, then there’s still going to be 97% of the world that can’t beat me. It just is what it is. But golf isn’t like that. Golf is a game you have to continuously, consistently work on. And still it’s not something you can master. From that aspect of it, I accept it even though it’s hard because they say it’s a game of misses and I come from a game of makes. You make shots or you miss shots. And then golf is like, no, you have to perfect where your misses are. And that doesn’t make sense to me. But yeah I’m trying to get it down.

That must have been a shift to go from the top 1% of best basketball players to all of a sudden you’re trying to lower your handicap and compete with the other guys on the team.

Yeah I think that was different. It was such a humbling feeling because I can be in the 1% of best basketball players in the world, and I can be just like everybody else on the golf course. But it takes that pressure off of me, I think, as opposed to having to perform at the highest level every single time. But it’s still difficult to come to terms with internally.

Throughout your basketball career you were known as somebody who was never afraid to have the ball in a crucial moment or to take on a contested shot. If somebody were to compare your playing style as an NBA player to a golfer it might be to somebody like a Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or John Daly. But does that match up with how you approach the game?

It definitely matches up with my golf game. That’s why my handicap is going so high right now. I was at like a 1.2, 1.6 or something like that probably like two months ago. Now I’m at a 4.4 just because I’ve gotten to a point to where I feel like I can reach every par 5 and I consistently hit my 3 wood well enough to know I’m going for every par 5.

And then lately I’ve just been putting it out of bounds instead of playing for that number. Now I try to reel it back in and it’s hard. It’s a game where if you let your ego get the best of you it’ll kill you every time.

You just launched the podcast with Stephen Malbon and Ben Baller, and then you’re balancing that with classes, tournaments, family. Do you feel like you’re juggling more now compared to your NBA career?

Way more now. I mean starting Par 3 has been fun with those two dudes. But again, it’s like we shoot in LA and at the time [when we started] I was living in Florida. So flying back and forth, going up to see my kids in Jersey and Houston. So it’s way more travel for me now than when I was playing.

And my schedule is more spontaneous than it was. Before you had a set schedule, you knew where you were playing, what hotels you were staying at. You pretty much knew you could plan for the month or for the year. Now it’s like I’m everywhere, I feel like a damn pinball machine.

“I need to see somebody like literally with Js, like show me who’s nice? Somebody like Rory [McIlroy] in some Jordan 4s.”

We’ve seen fashion become a big part of the NBA with this phenomenon where players are dressing for pregame, do you see the same fashion movement happening in golf?

Yeah, I think it’s slower. Just because golf is so old, the game is so old. You look at the people who run these clubs and where some of these tournaments are. But with the PGA TOUR I think it’s coming along, but it’s still got a ways to go. I mean you have Tony Finau and JT [Justin Thomas] but I need to see somebody like literally with Js, like show me who’s nice? Somebody like Rory [McIlroy] in some Jordan 4s. But it’s coming along now with Malbon, Oakley, different companies. I think they’re getting a lot better with putting out things that maybe the younger generation will wear, which is really dope.

We always like to ask about footwear at Hypebeast, and we’ve seen you wear the Air Max 97 pretty consistently. What about that silhouette appeals to you and does the coach embrace you guys choosing whatever it is you want to wear?

Yeah I get to wear whatever Nikes, Jordans or FootJoys I want. But my favorites are probably the 97, yeah. That’s probably one of my favorite shoes in general, but the golf version is really good too. The balance, the comfortability on them. The Jordan 1s are good but they just slide a little bit because they’re spikeless. The Jordan 5s are really good too. And then FootJoys are obviously classic, the wing tips.

What do you hope people’s takeaway will be from the series?

I think more than anything it’s changing people’s mind on their insecurities and trying to help them overcome it. For me, for so long education has been such a big insecurity of mine. So hopefully they take away that you can overcome your fears if you just take the first step and try and knock it down one by one.

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