News & Tours

Back to the future

College golf at 35? Former NBA champ J.R. Smith is going to take a shot

August 11, 2021

J.R. Smith, hits his tee shot during the pro-am for the 2018 Northern Trust.

Tracy Wilcox

If it comes to fruition, and 35-year-old former NBA champion J.R. Smith does make the college golf team at North Carolina AT&T State University, imagine the looks on the first tee at tournaments. Before his opponents try to beat him, they’re going to want his autograph. It would be quite the sight, a 6-foot-6 father of four kids walking down the fairways, lugging his bag with teenage teammates in tow.

Smith, who went to the NBA straight out of high school, played 17 years and won titles with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, was on a trip with some other former pro athletes when they started to talk about going back to college. The idea resonated with the Freehold, N.J., native, and he began exploring his options. He liked that North Carolina AT&T, a historically black college, had a respected program in liberal studies, and when he inquired about joining the golf team, Smith got an enthusiastic reception from men’s and women’s golf coach Richard Watkins. After all, what did he have to lose?

“It's a big deal for A&T. It's a big deal for him,” Watkins told PGATour.com on Wednesday, as Smith played in the pro-am of the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, NC. “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.

“He's a former professional athlete, but [it’s] a unique set of circumstances. He didn't go to college, never matriculated, the [college athletic] clock never started.”

The school and Smith are still awaiting an NCAA ruling on his eligibility, but he plans to start classes on Aug. 18 and hopefully begin playing for the Aggies golf team. Smith said he has a 5 handicap and started playing golf 12 years ago with the encouragement of late NBA great Moses Malone.

“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 told a group of reporters on Wednesday. “And 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.”

North Carolina A&T plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and last April the Aggies finished second in the conference tournament.

Smith said he’s going to be a busy guy, between his family duties—he’s got three daughters at home—and going to school and probably attending some football games. He’s making up for the opportunity he passed up in his youth, when scouts told him he could always go back to school “whenever.”

“So this is whenever,” Smith said.