J.R. Smith spent most of his life with a singular focus of making it to and staying in the NBA. After accomplishing that goal by carving out a 16-year career that included championships in Cleveland and Los Angeles, Smith found himself pushed out of the league’s door.
Like so many athletes, Smith struggled with figuring out who he was away from the game to which he devoted his life, and needed to figure out what his new purpose and passion would be. Smith’s choice was one not many anticipated, as he chose to attack his longest-standing insecurity by going back to school at North Carolina A&T, where he also joined the HBCU’s golf team to pursue his new sporting passion.
In a new four-part Uninterrupted documentary on Amazon Prime, Redefined, Smith takes viewers through his first year at A&T and opens up about his learning disabilities for the first time. Smith is extremely open about being bullied as a child (where he was one of only three Black children at his school) for going to special education classes and how that experience built a fear and disdain for education. Now, he’s finding a new perspective, hoping to show people you can overcome your fears and reach out for help, earning a 4.0 in his first year in college with the help of the school’s tutoring program and a full commitment to his studies.
On the course, Smith is also trying to be a quick learner, taking on the challenge of competitive golf and learning how different tournament golf is compared to a round with friends at home. Ahead of the April 4 release of Redefined, Smith sat down with Dime to discuss his return to the classroom and how surprised he was by the pride and gratification he got out of succeeding in his return to school, as well as an in-depth conversation about his golf game, embracing the frustrations and joys of golf, and how he’s having to relearn how to practice and compete in a new arena.
Doing this documentary and taking folks inside this journey that you’re going on, what are you hoping people can get out of seeing this and seeing your post-basketball journey?
I mean, for me more than anything, not just looking at it as an athlete switching over to do something another athlete can do. Mainly, I think for me, overcoming fears and insecurities — the younger version of me in elementary school and middle school is so insecure and intimidated just by education, because I felt like I wasn’t smart as the rest of the kids. I know I was different. I know I was pretty decent athletically compared to everybody else in growth and stuff like that, but just mentally, how I function and how I focused and how I couldn’t read as good or just comprehend as good as the rest of the kids. I think that was the biggest thing for me, and then be able to be where I am now: successful, champion, and all these other things that people quote unquote gloat and glorify.
I still had that the whole time, going through my whole playing career and it still never got to a point to where I felt really comfortable with speaking on it or just understanding who I am, in that sense. For me, I think I want, and I want people to take away from the documentary, you can overcome your fears and if you just take that first step. And for me, the first step was going back to school and taking my education seriously and understanding how important it is now being much older than I was in that position before. Because if I was to go to college out of high school, for me the goal was to go to the NBA, it wouldn’t have been to graduate college. I’d have taken a one and done situation, something like that. So to understand now how important my education is just to me, not even for everybody else. That’s what I really want people to take away from this doc.
You mention growing up, and during your career not wanting to talk about dealing with a learning disability. Have you been surprised by how people have reacted, the positivity that it seems like you’re getting for taking this step and for talking about? Obviously I think we’re just generally as a society in a different place when it comes to talking about these things and mental health and all of that. What has it done for you, just opening up about it and then being able to seek out a tutor to help you and finding that there’s people willing to support you?
For me, it’s like, it gave me an instant gratification within myself that I never knew I needed and desired — not that that’s what I needed, I didn’t realize that I desired it as much. That sense of accomplishing something that’s been just the insecurity for so long. I feel like that was immediate from everyone else, it felt better but it really it really hit home with me, again, having that feeling internally. But I get so much good, positive feedback from it now and I understand we’re in a different time and different age of it all, but also understand that we’re also still in the time when people love a comeback story or differently like those types of stories and things. So I take it all with a grain of salt, like obviously I’m appreciative of it, but at the end of the day, I’m not doing it for anybody else’s pat on the back. So for me, it’s really gratifying just knowing that I’m able to continuously accomplish different feats that have overwhelmed me at times in my life.
Something that you mentioned in the doc that that stuck with me was that this was really about, for the first time, trying to see yourself as not just J.R. Smith the basketball player, and how that become such a part of your identity, really becomes your whole identity. And what has that journey been like for you in being able to see who you are off the court and see the things you’re able to accomplish beyond playing basketball?
So many different layers to me that I’ve learned about through not playing and having to find [myself] away from the game. Because I did identify so many times as just being an athlete or a basketball player and I didn’t realize that. I think I knew I had so many different layers to me, but I didn’t realize how intrigued I would be by it, how into it I would be as opposed to anything else other than basketball. It was really a shock for me, because fortunately, we have like somebody like Uninterrupted who shot it, and it goes back to that just being more than an athlete. And I feel like everybody, not only did I put myself in that box, but everybody put me in that box of being somebody who just throws the ball into the hole and, you know, that’s pretty much all you’re ever good for. And now I feel like showing that within myself, I can do so many other great things outside of just being somebody who people look up to because I play basketball or a sport and I don’t have to use my body as much to make an impact. I’m important with my own mind and my thoughts and what I can create as well.
Something that I also found interesting was you finding that team camaraderie again with these kids who are 12-15 years younger than you. What has it been like getting to know them and some of them, like Diego, not even really knowing you as a basketball player? And has that been something that’s especially gratifying to you, getting to build these relationships with people who aren’t like, ‘Oh, you’re J.R. Smith, the basketball player’? They’re just getting to know J.R. in a way that not a lot of people probably do.
I think it’s great for them because they get to understand the what perception is and what reality is. So many times, I don’t think the younger generation gets the opportunity to see what reality is, they just see what’s getting the most views or likes or what’s trendy, and they think that’s the reality — like, this is life when it actually really isn’t. It’s literally 30 seconds or a minute and a half of somebody’s life that you see that’s just all the glory, or all the bad or whatever, as opposed to the actual day or week or how life is actually lived.
And for them, so many people throw me out as a wildcard, wild party dude, or whatever else and they get to see me as this 37-year-old man who has four daughters, who really cares about other things other than what people would stereotypically say I care about or think I would. They get to actually see me taking my studies seriously. Actually see me on the phone with my kids and see everyday life struggles and some of the conversations I have with agents or ex-players. They see how I carry myself and I feel like all of that is within. I know I’m being watched like a hawk for sure, so I still try to be me, but I also understand this is a bigger play here and to me, that’s them, even if they don’t see it.
I want to ask about your golf game. There’s such a patience required by golf, and for somebody who … you mention in the doc growing up, sports came easy to you. It’s basketball, it’s baseball, it’s football, you played all those things, and then there’s golf. I mean, it’s the most humbling game I think there is, because one day you go out and you feel like you figured it out and the next day you might feel like you can’t find the club face.
[laughs] That literally happened to me two days ago. Like, really.
No joke, last year I shot 71 and then I went to the range two days later, I was hitting everything off the hosel, and I was like, how does this happen? But how do you navigate that? And what has it taught you about building again and trying to lay a foundation again, that you can go back to when you have those days where you just go, ‘Alright, we got to start kind of kind of from scratch. What are my basics again?’
Yeah, like for me, if I had a bad shooting night, I would go to the gym and put up a lot of shots. But it was purposeful shots, you know? So it’s purpose shooting, game shooting, stuff like that. And it’s hard to translate that to golf because you’re never in that situation until you’re in that situation in golf. It’s not like, I mean visually, what I try to do as much as possible is putting myself in that situation, but it’s very hard to emulate. In basketball, because I’ve done it for so long, this is where my learning curve has changed in golf where I really started — my skill level has gotten so much better as opposed to just, you know, a swing thought or something like that. So in basketball, if I have a bad shooting night, I go in there shooting one-handed shot from two, three feet away. And then I’ll slowly gradually back four feet, five feet, six feet, seven feet, eight feet. And it’s a lot like putting if you have a bad round and think your putting’s off, you know, you go three feet around the cup, working your way back.
But I didn’t realize that it’s like that for every facet of the game in golf, where opposed to basketball, if I’m having a bad shooting game, there’s little things I can hang my hat on. I know I can get to the corner and you know LeBron will find me for the three here, and I know this is my shot where I feel more comfortable than anything. If I’m missing over here on the left wing or right wing or miss my little pull up, I know I can get to this right corner and that’s a dagger. I can be spinning out of bounds, it doesn’t matter, I know that’s my shot. And then golf, it’s hard to find that if you haven’t put in the time. So it’s hard to sit here and say, okay, I’m spraying my driver, I’m skulling chips, I’m misreading greens, I’m hitting thin with irons, and if you don’t know your game or know you don’t have a place to hang your hat on, then you’re gonna have a day and you’re gonna shoot a number. If you don’t know that alright, if I can get it to 120 and from 120 in this is my number, I feel good with this, this sand wedge or whatever it is in my hand. I think that’s where the skill level has really changed because then I’m able to know, alright, if I’m spraying my driver, if I can punch it out to this number, the worst I can make it to five. When you calculate it like that, I feel like my errors and my numbers have dropped dramatically as opposed to just going out there hacking.
Yeah, taking the big number out of play. I think that’s the thing that I remember when I would play high school, like that would be the thing that our coach would kind of hammer us on. You can make a bogey, you can come back from a bogey doubles and triples. You can’t come back from, like, you’re just not going to make enough eagles and things like that to erase that.
So how do you take the big number out of play? With that, what’s been the the challenge for you in adopting the right mindset going into a tournament? Because I hear pros always talk about aggressive swings to conservative targets and for me, that’s really hard for me to adopt. Because when I start thinking aggressive, I start looking at pins and I know I’m not supposed to, but it’s really hard for me to think that aggressive swing-conservative target. How do you feel like, now in your second year of of competitive play, like how are you growing mentally into the game?
I’m on a slow process. I think it’s, for me, it’s hard to take my ego out of the game. Like I come from such a make-miss sport to where golf is really just almost about misses. Like knowing your miss. And for me it’s like, I don’t want to know where I miss. I want to know my makes and I want to get so good with my makes to where my miss is like, okay, I can live with that. And for me, it’s very hard to, because like I’m a streaky shooter. People call me a streaky shooter, so it’s like off-balance shots and spot shots and one-legged shots and stuff like that, like I can make with ease.
So in golf it’s a little difficult because everything is about balance in your swing. So if I can sit here and be balanced and make a full swing and not swing out of my shoes, I feel like 90 percent of my shots are going to be pretty good. But then there’s times where it’s like you didn’t fly it far enough and you’re in a bunker and it’s like there’s certain things you just can’t prevent. And that’s one thing I love about golf because there’s so many other elements to the game other than just you to where it’s not like we can just oppose your will on a game like that. You know, in certain aspects you can if you get to skill level of Tiger and Rory and these guys, but even then sometimes they just can’t do it.
Yep. Another unique thing about golf is every courses is different. And, you know, when you go and you start playing at a competitive level, you end up at these courses you’ve never played. You’re practicing on your home course and you get really dialed at your home course and you feel really comfortable, and when you get on that tee — this is the thing that I struggle with the most — when I play my course that I’ve played a bunch, every swing feels comfortable. I know what I’m trying to do, but it’s when you can’t see it and you don’t have that comfort and those little thoughts creep in I feel like that’s unique to golf. Basketball courts, it’s the old Hoosiers line — the rims are all 10 feet tall and the three point line’s the same distance. But man when you can’t see the landing area and you don’t quite know what’s by the green, it’s so tough. What’s that adjustment been like coming from a sport where you don’t have those differences from where you play one night to the next?
You know, I love that. I love that more than anything about it. Because it’s like if you’re a plus-five [handicap] difference between somebody who’s a plus-five, and then there’s a traveling plus-five, like there’s a dude who’s a plus five at Lakeside, and he’ll go to Sherwood and he’ll shoot 85, you know, or shoot 75 or something like that. But he’ll go to Lakeside all day long and shoot 65, 65, 64, 66 all day long, and it’s literally just the elements of not being comfortable with the plan. And for me, you can travel and you can play anywhere. And that’s what makes you superior.
Different talent level, I’m a 0.6 but I’m not a traveling 0.6 and I know that and so whenever I go to a tournament, I’m like, guys, I promise this is not real. Like, just ignore this. My home course is like made for me. I can walk into a 71 there. I was like, please ignore this. I’m really I’m really a five or a six, please.
[laughs] For sure, especially if you you gotta give them shots.
Oh no. No, that doesn’t work for me. And something I want to ask you about is being on a golf team because it’s … I feel like there’s some elements that are similar, but you’re competing for one of five spots go into a tournament with these guys each week. And so in basketball, you’re competing for minutes, but maybe it’s a little less of a direct competition than in golf. What has it been like being on a golf team in an individual sport? And how have you felt that has been as a kind of adjustment for you? Because you talked in the doc about wanting that team camaraderie again, but golf teams are kind of a unique ecosystem.
Yeah, it’s definitely unique. So like, in a tournament you’re obviously rooting for everybody. But when it’s practice, it’s like I’m rooting for you, but I’m not rooting for you. Obviously I want you to play well, but I don’t want you to play well enough to where I don’t qualify [laughs]. But it’s a great dynamic because we’ve got a good group of guys who really want to see everybody get better, no matter what the outcome is with who qualifies and who doesn’t. Everyone’s still competitive, but it’s more like atmosphere where we just want to get better and want to see everybody get better. So, I’m fortunate that I walked into that aspect, because I talked to some guys from other teams and different schools and stuff like that, and it’s definitely not like that. You have some guys who are more superior than others and let it be known throughout the team and stuff like that. And I’ve been on teams like that in professional settings, and I’ve never really liked those type settings and situations. So I try to … on top of I’m already bringing so much notoriety and attention to the team, so I’m just trying to like, blend in as much as possible. So, yeah, I mean, it’s a great group, but it’s different from the tournament aspect, right.
You know, we talked about taking the big number off and trying to do things for the good of the team. I think for me, just like where I change the most in like tournament play, as opposed to like, playing with my boys or something is par fives and going for it. In tournament play, you’re like, I’m not going to hit this hybrid. I’m gonna go for birdie and not risk it. Like, I think I can cover it, but for what we need right now, I’m gonna just lay up. But the worst part about that is when you do that in a tournament and you still hit that shot you hit to layup to a certain yardage and you skull that or something, oh my god!
There’s no worse feeling.
I should’ve just hit that hybrid. Should’ve just hit hybrid or 3-wood.
Yeah, it’s like I should just bomb it into a bunker up there. I know I can get up and down to at least make par from there.
I know I’m making par from there! I’m getting out of it!
But you think okay, well this 56 is money from 100 and then you chunk it.
That 7-iron you just skull. Oh my god.
It’s the worst. I guess finally, I know y’all were talking in the doc about things you wanted to see change from year one to year two. Have you felt like you’re having that where you mentioned, you know, wanting to practice with more purpose and seeing some of that? Are you feeling like this group is able to do that a little better this year, or is that something that you’re still trying to see improvement on?
We’re still trying to see improvement on that. I think it’s a lot of that, because golf is such an individual sport and we have different swing coaches, which I really didn’t realize how important that was in the game, because everybody comes from different backgrounds and what not, and everything translates to people differently. So you can’t really coach everyone the same, especially in golf. We talked about that a lot in basketball, in the new modern day game being able to coach people definitely. But when I first came in, it wasn’t like the everybody was trying to do it the same. But now, I mean, I think it’s in a better space. It’s just, again, it’s different because you’re trying to tell somebody what your coach taught you let alone with their coaches teaching them and without messing each other up.