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THE CITY OF BURLINGTON, N.C. — JR Smith couldn’t help but be apprehensive.
Sure, he’d spent 16 years in the NBA, earning millions of dollars and won two world championships in front of sold-out crowds at the pinnacle of a global sport. But he’d never been in a position like the one he found himself in on Monday: lining up tee shots as a 36-year-old rookie walk-on for North Carolina A&T at Elon’s Phoenix Invitational.
“I was worried,” Smith said after shooting a 12-over-par 83 in Round 1 and a 7-over-par 78 in Round 2. “I didn’t know what to anticipate.”
Given how significant a shift this is for Smith, it’s simple to understand. He was a shirtless part of an on-court celebration with LeBron James exactly one year ago, to the day, when the Los Angeles Lakers had just finished an NBA championship run in the Florida epidemic bubble.
Smith was attracted to Greensboro because he wanted to attend a historically black college or university, which coincides with the NBA and its players’ effort to promote HBCU traditions and culture during this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta.
Smith’s pride stemmed from his first time representing an HBCU as an Aggies golfer at the two-day tournament at Alamance Country Club on Monday.
With a chuckle, Smith added, “We’re such a tiny proportion of the nation, let alone the budgeting system.” “Because I’ve seen that everyone else has vans and such such things.” But it’s fantastic. It’s fantastic to be able to represent them. It’s fantastic that the school has received attention, since they deserve it, as do my students.
“That’s what I’m most thrilled about: going back to school and seeing my teammates with their heads held high after a tournament win is what we strive for.”
Smith, who was initially supposed to play basketball at North Carolina before leaping from the preps to the NBA and became a first-round selection in 2004, is now getting his collegiate experience.
Coach Richard Watkins of the Aggies stated, “I was very impressed with him.” “He made some errors and did some things you’d expect from someone who isn’t accustomed to competing.” Going out and playing recreational golf with your friends is a very different experience than competing.
“It was just for the first 18 that he needed to get his feet wet. Then he became serious, and I was very impressed with what he accomplished in the second 18, since education isn’t cheap. And I believe he learnt some valuable lessons today.”
Smith’s appearance on the course, dressed in a blue A&T sweatshirt and white trousers, attracted a mini-gallery of 15 to 30 interested spectators. Eli Ehrbar couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be a part of it.
Smith, 21, is a native of Cleveland, where he played for the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. Smith’s tight qualification for his first collegiate tournament, according to the Elon senior, seemed like a stroke of luck.
“When I saw he qualified, I knew I had to come,” Ehrbar, who was dressed in a burgundy Cavaliers sweatshirt, said. “That was my impression and the impression of a few of my pals. This is a world-class athlete, a world-champion NBA player, we thought. It just strikes home a bit differently for someone from Cleveland.”
Through a number of holes, Smith seemed to be at ease. When one of his tee shots struck a tree and landed on the fairway, Smith joked that it was a “bank shot.” As his cart, piloted by Temple golfer Joey Morganti, made its way past the spectators on the cart route, he issued a lighthearted “beep, beep.”
During one of Smith’s shots, an enthusiastic 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever called “Lucky” began barking from a neighboring home’s front yard, Smith came to a halt and yelled across the green, “What’s your name?”
Smith said that he wanted to be treated like any other participant at the event, despite the fact that he was aware of the additional attention that comes with his debut.
“More than anything, it’s just being able to go out there and compete as one of the guys, just a different name,” Smith said. “It was a really humbling experience. I’m ready to go back to the range and work on it. I had a good time, but I hate losing.”
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