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J.R. Smith's HBCU journey is a shining example of Black excellence

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·6 min read
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J.R. Smith is a two-time NBA champion and a former Sixth Man of the year who earned millions of dollars over the course of his 16 seasons. 

When he retired after his second title, with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, he could have done just about anything. Smith had enjoyed a long basketball career, had picked up a serious love of golf, and presumably had the means to travel the world pursuing that passion.

Instead, the 36-year-old, who jumped straight from Newark's famed St. Benedict's Prep to the NBA, entered college.

And not just any college, the largest HBCU in the country: North Carolina A&T.

What's more, he joined the Aggies golf team.

Best of all for the rest of us, he's basically live-tweeting his experience.

Smith doesn't have to do this, not the tweeting part. Of course there would have been news headlines that a former NBA player had decided to enter college and got clearance to become a student-athlete at age 36, maybe a few reporters showing up at A&T's first tournament in Georgia on Sept. 24-25 to check out the unconventional freshman with one of the finest sets of clubs on the college circuit.

But taking us along for the ride and opening himself up is admirable. Of course Smith has been ridiculed by some, but that's unfortunately part of Twitter.

There are fun moments, like Smith saying he's getting North Carolina fast-food chicken staple Bojangles delivered when another student laments that the Chick-Fil-A on campus has a late opening, or making an endorsement video for a student running for campus government, but it's also a window into what it's like to start college as an adult and seeing everything through older and more worldly eyes.

Smith is also offering a glimpse at how large swaths of the American school system have neglected to teach the true history of this country, as when Smith noted that the maps and globes used in many schools show North America as being the same size as Africa when in reality Africa is larger, or that Christopher Columbus "found" America when it was already inhabited.

Beyond all of that, Smith is inspiring many. The actress Holly Robinson Peete has tweeted that Smith's posts are "seriously encouraging" her to follow through on her desire to get a master's degree, and another of his followers said if he goes back to finish his degree, Smith's experiences will be the reason ("You should for sure do it!," Smith responded. "Love being around the younger generation learning a lot from them").

After some first-week stumbles before he arrived on campus from Los Angeles ("I have to learn to do a better job at taking notes," he lamented. "For some reason I have a hard time on what's important information. I mean to me it all seems important."), Smith has gotten himself a tutor and seems to be cruising.

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - JANUARY 29: J.R. Smith smiles on the 16th tee box prior to the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on January 29, 2020 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
J.R. Smith smiles at the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

In recent days he's reported getting all 75 questions correct on two African American history quizzes and he wants to be on the Chancellor's List, which at A&T means a 3.75 GPA or better for a semester. 

He's even floated the idea of going beyond earning a bachelor's.

"Dr. Earl Joseph Smith III, has a dope ring to it! A hell of a long way to go but not impossible. One day at a time!" he tweeted earlier this month.

With the six-man golf team's first tournament upcoming, Smith has also started practice, which is another thing to balance with his academic schedule.

If you're wondering how it's possible that a former professional athlete is able to play on an NCAA team, the organization's rules stipulate that you can be on a team as a professional athlete as long as it's not the sport you earned money playing. In other words, since Smith wanted to be on the golf team and wasn't trying to join the A&T basketball team, he's good to go.

As a guest on the first episode of the "All the Smoke" podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson in 2019, Smith said it was the late Moses Malone who got him to first pick up a golf club. Smith was at a charity tournament just goofing around, but Malone told him to grab a club, and since Smith has a rule to never disrespect Hall of Famers, he did.

"Hit the ball 300 yards down the fairway, first time," Smith said. But later that same day, this time with a crowd watching, he tried again and couldn't hit the ball. 

He was hooked, and bought his first clubs.

He's now a 5 handicap, and has played at some of the best courses in the United States. While some have groused that Smith potentially took a roster spot away from a young golfer, in an interview with The Undefeated last month Aggies coach Richard Watkins insisted that he earned a spot.

Smith is paying his own way to school, so no one is losing out on a scholarship, and Smith just asked for the chance to try out. 

“Athletic competition at very high levels is an earned privilege. If you don’t earn it, you don’t get to do it. And that’s in an 18-year-old’s case, or 35-year-old’s case. If you don’t earn it, it’s not just granted to you. And from a coaching standpoint, me and J already had this discussion,” said Watkins. “There’s only two ways for a team to get better. Either the players that they have, have to improve, or coach has to go out and get better players. So, he’s not being given a spot because he’s J.R. Smith.”

Whether or not he goes on to earn a doctorate, Smith still has lofty goals: he wants to be an All-American by his senior year, and to help recruit more students to North Carolina A&T.

He also envisions founding a school that focuses on STEM but also involves golf and wants to introduce more kids to the sport.

Before all of that there's his debut as a college athlete at next weekend's Black College Golf Coaches Association Invitational and next month's GHOE, or Greatest Homecoming on Earth, A&T's signature campus event.

If the last month is any indication, Smith will keep us posted on all of it.