Earl “JR” Smith III had many accomplishments during his 16-year National Basketball Association career, but now, at age 35, the two-time NBA champion has returned to school to pursue a different sport.
After petitioning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for eligibility, the 6-foot-6-inch former shooting guard will be the most famous member on the North Carolina A&T men’s golf team.
Smith enrolled as a freshmen and will pursue a degree in liberal studies.
During an online press conference Monday, Smith said that by going back to school, he wants to “change the narrative as far as athletes in general and Black men as well.”
“This was the best liberal studies program and best situation for me,” he said, “and it turned out to be the best golf program for me as well.”
NCAA rules state that athletes are ineligible to play college sports if they have ever competed at a professional level, but those rules don’t apply when a former pro wants to compete in a different sport. And because Smith went directly to the NBA from high school, he still has five full years of college eligibility.
While attending Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, Smith committed to play basketball at UNC Chapel Hill. Instead, he hired an agent and entered the 2004 NBA draft, where the New Orleans Hornets selected him with the team’s 18th pick.
Smith ended his NBA career with 12,148 points while playing on five teams and winning the 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. He won NBA titles with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.
Now as he enters college, Smith said he’s ready to experience life as a student.
“I definitely thought about it a lot in my earlier years, but then after a while school just disappeared in my mind,” he said. “Throughout actually growing up and maturing, I understand how important education is and try to do something with life after basketball”
Smith acknowledged that college may be a challenge. He finished his first academic assignment close to its approaching deadline on Sunday night.
“I’ve never done a PowerPoint presentation ever in my life,” he said. “I’m obviously not the average freshman, so I don’t know how I’m going to do.”
As for his golf game, Smith said he has been playing for 12 years. He developed an interest in the sport from attending a charity golf event and being encouraged by the late NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone to take a swing.
“After that, I was hooked,” he recalled. “From that point for five or six years, I was really, really bad, and then after that, I started taking it seriously, from hitting the range and trying to figure out my swing.”
Smith said he can hit for more than 300 yards off the tee and has a 5 handicap.
Richard Watkins, the school’s golf coach, said Smith will be a “helping hand” for his young program.
“Being able to compete at a higher level is what we’ve been about since the start of this program,” he said. “The addition of JR just simply expedites that move towards a much, much better program in the very near future.”
The Aggies’ first match of the season is scheduled for Sept. 24-25 at the Black College Golf Coaches Association Invitational in Newnan, Georgia.
Until then, Smith said he will continue to balance his virtual classes and work on his game.
When asked by QCity Metro if he would ever consider returning to the NBA, Smith said he was open to the idea.
“If the opportunity is there, then obviously I’m not going to turn it down,” he said.