LOS ANGELES — As J.R. Smith eased his golf cart around the fifth hole at El Caballero Country Club, he relayed a story about elementary school.
He thought he would grow up to be a writer. His teachers gave him notebooks and, for inspiration, picture cards — say, a boy, a mountain and a scary house — and he’d write stories for hours. He loved it, at least initially.
“Then school just wasn’t my thing, and writing and dyslexia — barely could read at times,” Smith said. “It was just like, ‘Yeah, this ain’t for me.’”
For a long time, it wasn’t. By his senior year at St. Benedict’s in Newark, he was a basketball star committed to play at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But about a month before the N.B.A. draft in June 2004, he decided to skip college and go straight to the pros. The New Orleans Hornets took him with the 18th overall pick. Making it to the league was a dream.
“I just wish I was more mature at the time, opposed to being so young-minded,” Smith said, adding: “I was 18, but I was more — at a mature sense — I was 13.”
He spent 16 N.B.A. seasons launching feathery jumpers in New Orleans, Denver, New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles. He had shirtless championship celebrations, and the Cavaliers suspended him for throwing soup at an assistant coach. He won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, and the N.B.A. fined him for “posting inappropriate pictures” on Twitter. His teammate LeBron James once looked at him in disbelief during the N.B.A. finals, and the moment became a meme. Then one day, it was all over.
It can be disorienting for players when the N.B.A. carousel stops. Smith was bored and puzzled when no team called to sign him after he won a championship with the Lakers in 2020. He spent hours in his game room, smoking and ruminating. I’m not playing. I should be playing. I want to play.
Basketball was all he’d known in his adult life. But soon he had a new thought: Maybe it was time to go back to school.
“I always wanted to learn about my heritage, learn where I came from, learn more about Black people,” Smith said. “It really turned into self-love, learning more about myself. That’s really what catapulted me back into therapy, to try to understand, and try to really master myself, and master my mind.”
‘Get Away From the Chaos’
Smith teed off, his golf ball hissing as it cut through the air. The ball hooked left. He grimaced.
“On the court, I know what to rely on,” he said quietly. “Out here, I don’t know what to rely on.”
It was a cloudless, brisk day, and he was with a longtime friend, C.J. Paul, the brother of Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, and a few other people. Smith got into golf after Moses Malone, the Hall of Fame center, encouraged him to pick up a club at a pro-am event in Houston. On his first try, Smith drove the ball around 300 yards, but he could not do it again. The contradiction fascinated him.
“It gives me something else to focus on other than my life,” Smith said. “It gives you lessons at the same time. For me, any time I get away from the chaos a little bit, that’s what it’s all about.”
During a round of golf a few years ago, Smith confided to C.J. Paul that he was considering attending college. Paul suggested that Smith also play golf at school. He put Smith in touch with Richard Watkins, the men’s and women’s varsity golf coach at North Carolina A&T, a historically Black university in Greensboro. At the time, Smith’s knowledge of H.B.C.U.s consisted of their famed drum lines and a vague recollection of some episodes of “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show” based at a fictional H.B.C.U.
In the fall of 2021, at 36 years old, Smith was in North Carolina A&T’s freshman class, becoming one of several Black athletes — including Chris Paul, Deion Sanders, Eddie George and Mo Williams — who turned to H.B.C.U.s later in life for schooling or jobs.
“There is something about a space in which you don’t have to grapple with race as the predominant variable of your experience,” said Derrick White, a professor of history and African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. “Black colleges, even though they’re multiracial, the history and culture of those institutions provide a space for Black folk to live and learn and experience higher education without having consistent battles about whether you deserve to be here or people saying that you’re undeserving of your spot.”
Smith walked onto the men’s golf team, took classes about African American history and hired a tutor, whom he credited with being patient. Beverly C. Grier, who teaches a class about race and social justice that Smith is taking, said it was “very admirable” for him to pursue a degree at his age. Students who return to learning after a hiatus are often more focused and determined, Dr. Grier said, adding that Smith had gone above and beyond on a recent assignment.
Smith earned a 4.0 grade-point average and the Aggies’ Academic Athlete of the Year in his first year. He proudly shared his accomplishment on social media
“Every day, locking in, sitting at the computer, trying to come up with a regimen of how to learn how to think,” Smith said. “Breaking down barriers of anxiety and feeling not able to do certain things, because I’ve always felt like that toward school.”
He has also been going to therapy again.
Smith said the N.B.A. required him to go to therapy when he played for the Knicks, but he hated it. “It felt like my story, my journey, was so much different than everybody else’s,” he said. “I didn’t feel like it would help at the time.”
He said he went on and off for two years.
“He was so much of a man-child coming out of high school,” said Jim Cleamons, a New Orleans assistant coach when Smith was a rookie. Cleamons added: “I’ve always thought J.R. could do what he wanted to do. He just needed to find out what he wanted to do and dedicate himself to that purpose.”
The N.B.A.’s lifestyle provided a mostly inflexible calendar: shoot-arounds, practices and games packaged around flights and hotel stays. But it had holes, countless empty hours sandwiched into the middle of days and late at night.
“I’ve got to continuously move around,” Smith said. “Because once I sit still, that’s when stuff starts spinning for me. I’ve got to stay busy, stay active, continuously creative, continuously doing something. It’s like that old saying, a wandering mind, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, and for me, a lot of the times where I got in my troubles, and stuff like that, it was because I was bored.”
In 2009, Smith was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to reckless driving in a crash that killed his friend, Andre Bell. In court, he said it was “unbearable to deal with.” By then, he had been traded to the Denver Nuggets. He was solidifying his reputation as a scorer, though one with a curious shot selection that caused conflict with some of his coaches.
“I felt like I was an artist,” Smith said. “And I was sensitive about how I worked at my game and the different shots I took because if anything, I would feel like I was getting something out of it. And if I can’t get what I want out of it, then how can I give you what you want? This is something I love.”
An Uncertain Future
In the N.B.A., Smith searched for an empty gym when he faced turmoil. There he found movement and expression. Golf, Smith discovered, enveloped him the same way.
“You’re out there literally by yourself,” he said. “Even if you’re with somebody, it’s still such an individual sport. You can really zone out and, for me anyway, find that same peace and that same energy.”
Though Smith plays golf at an H.B.C.U., the sport at large is still overwhelmingly white. Smith said he is conscious of the lingering stares he receives on golf courses that seem to go beyond people recognizing him from his days in the N.B.A.
“Certain people’s aura and demeanor like they don’t want you here,” Smith said. “It’s that old money that just ain’t going to change.”
He wants to make golf more accessible, especially for women and minorities. “I’ve got four girls who play sports and I’m around a lot of country clubs where it’s not as welcome for women as it is for men in the game of golf,” he said.
Smith played 12 rounds in four tournaments as a freshman with an average score of 85.58. Smith is not on North Carolina A&T’s campus as much this year. He had arrived in Los Angeles that week to shoot episodes with the celebrity jewelry maker Ben Baller and the fashion designer Stephen Malbon for their podcast, “Par 3,” about their love for golf. Smith takes most of his classes online and prefers training with professional golfers in Florida.
Nearly 20 years ago, Smith thought his school days were over, but his path seemed to be clear. Now, his plans are open-ended after college.
He wants to be involved in golf. He’s interested in becoming an athletic director at an H.B.C.U. He may even coach children, he said, “teach them the game of basketball, as opposed to running and chucking, this new-age game.”
From the eighth hole at El Caballero, Smith stood in the tee box, slightly bent forward at his waist and knees. He flushed the ball solidly down the fairway.
“Respect,” Smith said, returning to his cart. “That’s what I like about it the most. You’ve got to put the time in. You ain’t just come out here and think you’re Tiger Woods.”
Smith said it was his first good shot of the day and returned to his golf cart, his destination uncertain beyond the next hole.