J.R. Smith Has Game

How golf hooked the Nuggets’ long-range marksman.

Truth be told, my perceptions of Earl Smith III—known to one and all as J.R. Smith—were embedded in a bunker of stereotypes.  

Waiting for him to arrive at City Park Golf Course, I fully expect the 23-year-old Denver Nuggets guard to pull up in an expensive sports car, his baseball cap turned sideways and with gold chains and tattoos proudly exposed—a look offered by so many NBA players, the look of a “baller.”

On this particular cool, overcast mid-October afternoon, Smith slam-dunks those preconceptions. He pulls up in an understated Mercedes sedan. From head to toe, he is dressed in gear fit for a golfer—albeit a 6-foot-6 golfer who towers above everyone there but his father, Earl Sr., a former college basketball player whose perpetual impish smile serves as a friendly complement to his commanding presence.

Smith takes time to pose for photos before heading straight to the first tee. It doesn’t take long to see that with Smith, hip-hop and golf make for an interesting pairing on the links, sort of like Jay-Z meets Vijay.

“Times are changing,” Smith says, acknowledging my observation. “I’m not the average 23-year-old, either. At least, I don’t think I am. I started off when I was 18, playing in the NBA. It seemed cool and hip when I was younger, but now I feel myself maturing, just slowing down.”

On the court Smith isn’t slowing down. A gifted athlete with a vertical leap once measured at 44 inches at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, he received more scholarship offers in football than in basketball. He skipped college and went straight into the NBA. As the Nuggets’ sixth man, he finished last season, his fourth in the NBA, with career-high shooting percentages on field goals and three-pointers, and averaged 18 points per game during last season’s playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Golf? The tempo of Smith’s full swing and smooth follow-through off the first tee offers little reason to believe he has been playing the game for all of two months.

Two months. Without a lesson. Pinky swear. Smith has already carded an 85 and is chipping with fair accuracy, swinging with confidence from the fairways, dialing the right club on long par threes—and on this day, using jargon like “lumberjack” and “lawn mower” to tease shots by his dad and longtime Nuggets Equipment Manager Sparky Gonzalez.

Smith was talked into playing his first round of golf this summer while at a charity tournament in Houston held by fellow NBA player Rashard Lewis. He took his first swings with clubs belonging to basketball legend Moses Malone. “It was crazy. My first time playing golf was with a Hall of Famer, somebody I could really look up to as far as basketball,” Smith says.

“And then to have a common interest in golf–especially for my first time. I did all right. Moses just let me play, and that was the best thing about it. If you ask, he’s more than willing to help.”

Unlike his very first swing with Malone’s club, which hooked hard into some Texas swamp—“I didn’t even try to look for the ball,” Smith says—on this day at City Park the shooting guard’s first tee shot lands just left of the fairway, traveling more than 300 yards on the uphill par five. “My problem isn’t the distance,” he says. “It’s just keeping it straight.”

Smith reaches the green in five, coolly one-putts and pencils a 6 on his scorecard. One hole is all that’s needed to see that a golf bug didn’t bite Smith. It gored him.

How else to explain why he went online to purchase a throwback golf wardrobe, complete with plus-fours? Or why he purchases sets of golf clubs with the same obsession some hoops players collect sneakers? “It’s worse,” Smith admits. “It’s like anything—you’ll love it until you see something else. Everybody was using Callaways, so my first set was Callaway. Then I went to Nike, back to Callaway, back to Nike … I ended up with six sets of clubs and started giving them away.”

Smith gives nothing away on the course, however. He focuses intently on every shot. He putts everything out. Instead of a cell phone, he carries a range finder. Golf Channel has become his must-see TV. And he has become obsessed with the golf game on the Nintendo Wii—one of the features, he says, is a video coach that offers a lot of tips.

Once he escapes the virtual clubhouse, Smith practically lives on golf courses. Willis Case. City Park. Bear Creek Golf Club. “I’d play every day if I could,” he says. In two month’s time, he has become golf’s version of the gym rat.

“I’m not really a lessons-type of guy,” Smith says. “I like to go out and experiment on my own. I tend to play with guys who really know what they’re doing. They give me tips while I’m playing. I like to learn as I go.

“I have so much confidence in doing what I can do without lessons, I think I can make birdies and pars and be a good player.”

What took him so long to get into it? Smith’s father tried to steer him toward golf early on. He balked, in typical teenager fashion. “I thought it was boring and too slow,” Smith says. “I’m such an action guy. Basketball is fast. Football is fast. I played baseball, but never liked to watch it. But golf is just like baseball, which was my second love at one point. It’s slow while you play, but you have so much fun while you’re playing it.”

Golf, Smith’s father says, is helping to reshape his son’s fast-break approach toward life—an approach that has led him into episodes of trouble on and off the basketball court. “It’s mellowed him out; he’s not in a rush anymore,” the elder Smith says.

“Everything doesn’t have to be 100 miles an hour,” his son adds. “You have to take your time with things and appreciate the time you do have to do these things.”

A pivotal moment in Smith’s maturation came last year in New Jersey when he was the driver in an automobile accident that claimed the life of one of his best friends. “I’ve been blessed to be able to do a lot of things. But my car accident—I always take it back to that. It really slowed my life down to where it showed me that tomorrow isn’t always promised.

“So you live for the moment, but I try to plan ahead as much as I can. Yeah, you could go out, go to the club every night or do extravagant stuff. Or you could take it easy and appreciate certain things, like golf.”

Time will tell what comes first for Smith: a hole-in-one, a 450-degree dunk or beating his father in a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E. “He still can’t out-shoot me (in basketball),” the elder Smith teases. “My wind isn’t as long, but I’ll wear him out. I still have the trick shots.”

Dad may still call the shots in the gym, but the son already has it over him on the course, where Dad picks up on half the holes. “Golf has taken J.R. to another level—in basketball and in life,” Earl Smith Jr. says, watching his son zero in on a long par putt. “You know, that little white ball—you might get it some days, but most of the days it’s going to get you.”