The end of basketball season means the beginning of tee time for New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith.
The 26-year-old St. Benedict's Prep alumni traded the hard wood for the putting green Wednesday as he joined nearly 75 budding athletes for a circuit game of golf at Weequahic Golf Course in Newark.
A relative newcomer to golf, Smith and members of The First Tee of Essex County and his eponymous foundation spent the late afternoon practicing swinging, chipping and putting at the course's practice green. The visit, which also included an appearance by Knicks' assistant coach Herb Williams, coincided with the grand opening of the Youth Learning Center, a 1,600-square-foot facility that allows The First Tee program to operate year-round.
"The most important thing you have to have is self-discipline. I think golf teaches you that," said Smith, donning a breezy golf polo, black Nike cap and khakis.
Through the J.R. Smith Foundation, the pro baller puts an emphasis on education and family, through helping students get into St. Benedict's Prep to providing assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims. The Freehold, NJ native, who was New Orleans Hornets' first-round pick in the 2004 draft, credited athletics with allowing him to now carry out his philanthropic mission.
"Fortunately enough for me, I didn't have to go to school (but now) I'm able to send kids to school," said Smith.
A newfound proponent of golf, Smith's visit to the new Newark facility and historic golf course could spur a partnership between his foundation and The First Tee of Metropolitan New York, which runs youth programs across the tri-state area. Each program, including the one at Weequahic, focuses heavily on education, providing courses like SAT prep, resume writing, interview skills and college readiness and teaching the youngsters key life principles through the game of golf.
The Youth Learning Center, which sits within the Charles W. Johnson Clubhouse dedicated to the local golf champion last month, has a brand new, state-of-the-art golf simulator that tracks distance, spin rate and swing, allowing for hands-on instruction even during inclement weather.
"Now we don't have to stop playing golf because of the weather," said Barry McLaughlin, executive director of The First Tee of Metropolitan New York.
The Essex County chapter has about 300 active members from ages 7 to 17, though the number is expected to jump as a result of the new year-round instruction, according to McLaughlin.
For Smith, hitting the links has become a family affair. With his basketball season over (the Knicks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference playoffs), he's looking forward to hitting the Charleston Springs Golf Course in South Jersey for upcoming Father's Day.
"I played last year on Father's Day, so I think we're going to make that an annual thing, me and my dad," said Smith, adding that since his teenage years his father, an avid golfer, had pestered him to pick up the sport.
"I think he's more happy than I am," Smith added about becoming a golfer three years ago. "It gives us a little more bonding time."
The green, Smith said, has also become a bit of serenity, a place that could serve as a haven for inner-city kids with lives riddled with crime and violence.
"This golf course right here, right in the heart of Newark, you go right or left and there's violence. You step over here (the golf course) and it's somewhere you can get away from it," said Smith. "There could be the next Tiger Woods right there in the projects somewhere. You never know."