Back to school: Retired NBA player J.R. Smith looking to hit links at NC A&T

The former Tar Heels commitment, who bypassed college basketball to turn pro, plans to take advantage of his unused eligibility with the Aggies golf team

Retired NBA player J.R. Smith, pictured left with PGA golfer Jason Dufner in 2016, is enrolled at North Carolina A&T and plans to play for the school's men's golf team. (Tony Dejak / AP Photo)

J.R. Smith always planned on attending college at a North Carolina school. Eighteen years after deferring that ambition for a professional basketball career, he’s finally ready to make it happen.

The former NBA first-rounder who committed to play basketball at UNC in 2003 is enrolled as a freshman at North Carolina A&T, where he was scheduled to begin classes on Wednesday with hopes of playing a different sport than the one that made him rich and famous.

“I’m trying to educate myself and do something important after basketball,” Smith said last week during a post-round interview session at the Wyndham Championship Pro-Am in Greensboro at which he announced his intention of joining the Aggies golf team.

“They always told me I could go back (to college) ‘whenever’ when I was coming out of high school. This is whenever.”

It’s not out of the ordinary for retired professional athletes to return to school in pursuit of the degree they put on hold while they were playing. Nor is it unprecedented for one to come back and play a different sport in college.

Former Carolina Panthers quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and former Boston Celtics star Danny Ainge are two of the most famous of those who began their college athletic careers after spending several seasons in professional baseball.

What sets Smith apart is he didn’t play golf when he was younger. He took it up only 12 years ago at the suggestion of Hall of Famer Moses Malone. The seed that led him back to school was planted by another former NBA star, Ray Allen, on a recent golf trip in the Dominican Republic.

“Golf is one of those games that has you feeling really high and or can bring you down to your knees and humble you,” Smith said. “To have that feeling and knowing that all of the game’s pretty much on my own hands and I don’t have to worry about teammates to pass the ball and receiving passes and playing defense, I can play my game and just have fun.”

Smith said his current handicap is five. Although that’s higher than he’d like it to be, he’s been honing his skills by playing with A&T coach Richard Watkins and some of his future teammates while he waits for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility.

According to NCAA rules, “an individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever competed on a professional team in that sport.”

That doesn’t apply to Smith because he has never played golf professionally. And because the 35-year-old father of three never attended class at UNC or anywhere else after graduating high school, his eligibility clock — which gives athletes five years to play four seasons — has not yet begun.

A&T spokesman Brian Holloway said the school is “just going through the normal process we would go through with any prospective student-athlete.”

Watkins, meanwhile, is optimistic his highest-profile recruit will soon be cleared to play.

“It’s a big deal for A&T,” Watkins said. “It’s not very often that somebody in his position really has an opportunity to have a thought, a dream, an idea and to be able to go ahead and move in that direction.”

Smith said he chose A&T because of his “deep roots” in North Carolina and because he was impressed with the school’s liberal arts program. The fact it is one of the oldest and largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the county also played into his decision.

He isn’t the first NBA player to associate himself with the golf program at an HBCU school. In 2019, North Carolina native Steph Curry announced he would fund the men’s and women’s teams at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for the next six years.

Although Smith’s contribution will be with his athletic ability rather than his wallet, the attention his participation will bring to A&T could be just as valuable.

A two-time NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers who scored more than 1,200 in his 16 seasons in the league, Smith said he’s excited about being on campus and having the opportunity to go through the entire college experience he missed out on when he was younger.

“It’s very special to be part of the HBCU family and be embraced by everybody on campus,” he said while admitting he’s a little nervous about returning to school after such a long absence. “I can’t wait to see the students and start going to some of the football games and really being part of Aggie Pride.”