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Today’s social media oversharing means celebrities have far fewer surprises to share with fans. So it’s rare when someone changes their accepted narrative in an authentic way, But two-time NBA champion J.R. Smith has done so in his new Prime Video docuseries Redefined.

The four-episode doc was produced by Springhill Productions, which happens to be the multimedia property of Smith’s most prolific ex-teammate, LeBron James, and his production partner Maverick Carter.

It’s a little dicey when an artist participates in their own documentary, even though it’s only right they get to tell their own story. But will they really admit to personality failings, diva behaviors and vulnerabilities that aren’t perfectly pitched to appeal to their fanbase?

In Smith’s case, the answer is yes.

Throughout his 14-year NBA career, Smith was known as a volatile sidekick to LeBron James with whom he got two rings. You may remember him as the guy who went shirtless in all his tattooed glory when Cleveland won the championship in 2016. He even got ragged on by then-President Barack Obama, of all people.

But in Redefined, Smith shows you another side – the vulnerable special education student who struggled in school, unsure he’s even going to make a college golf team. After the 2020 season, Smith, who was drafted right out of high school in 2004, decided to attend HBCU North Carolina A&T and join the golf team.

Unlike most celebrity profiles that celebrate big status victories, this one celebrates a man for whom personal evolution is the main accomplishment. We talked to Smith recently about why.

CASSIUSLife: How did the idea come about to document your journey returning to school after so long?

J.R. Smith: I pitched it and was thinking about it for a while. Was I gonna be, you know, able to let down my guard, because I was already very insecure with school and my education. And then once I figured it out, I knew I would have to put it on camera and that made me even more nervous. But Mav [Maverick Carter] and Bron [LeBron James] were really comfortable with it and [so was] the team at Springhill. So it came out really, really good, I think. So I’m excited about it, but I’m not gonna watch it.

So you wanted to do it but you were nervous about it —

I didn’t want to record it initially, no. Because I was insecure about my education for so long. I remember when I was in the third grade, trying to read in front of the class and I was stuttering and didn’t really understand like, ADD and ADHD, dyslexia and what all that stuff really meant. And they were telling me that that’s what I pretty much had.

And so when I got up to read in front of the class, you know, kids would make fun of you and sh-t like that. And you know, kids are cruel. So for me, that was something I grew with over time. Even now to this day, reading on camera; it’s something that I deal with. It’s just something I just have to attack one [step] at a time and be comfortable with.

I didn’t want to record it initially, no. Because I was insecure about my education for so long.

I can relate to you going back to school as an adult, because I did, too. But I’m a writer and it was still hard. So watching you go back, never having gone to college and with a learning disability, that was a lot. 

One hundred percent. Fortunately, they gave me tutors that we already had at the school and she was an IEP [Individualized Educational Plan or Program] specialist as well. I was probably on my laptop with her eight to three every day, five days a week. And it was literally reading, writing, figuring out how to format things like MLA, APA. I had no clue. Even in high school, I wasn’t really writing papers like that. I had to go back over punctuation, abbreviations, all of that.

So we get to see your journey as a person, but Redefined is also an excellent recruiting film for North Carolina A&T. It really portrays HBCU history and culture in a beautiful way. Did you intentionally want to send the message that education is its own reward?

Yeah, 100%. Growing up with so many disabilities and just shying away from it just because you’re insecure—like, that’s what it’s about: attacking one by one, step by step, like literally doing the work, doing the groundwork. And for me taking that first step and starting, I think a lot of people overthink it, and don’t just start with what they want to do or what they want to achieve.

And think it’s so much harder than what it is unless you put the work in. I knew what it took to get there. Once I achieved a 4.0., once I got it, I was so proud because I know I did the work day in, day out. It all paid off. And I think that is the most gratifying thing you can receive from yourself because there’s no one that did it for you.

I lost my grandmother when I was 9. I inherited like 1000 grandmothers at homecoming.

What did attending an HBCU do for you personally?

I lost my grandmother when I was 9. I inherited like 1000 grandmothers at homecoming. It’s my greatest joy to go to homecoming and see women, 50 ,60, 70, 80 years old, coming back with their sisters they crossed with, playing spades, playing bid whist, gin rummy and watching them talk junk. It’s so much joy when you come to an HBCU. It makes you feel like you’re really part of your own tribe and everybody is there to help you succeed and wants the best for you. Every time I step on the campus, it’s like holy ground.

Ben Affleck said golfers are like meth addicts with better teeth. 

That’s for sure [laughs]. It’s an addictive game and it really takes literally one or two points to play and you can get hooked. Like, that’s literally all it took for me was one swing, and I knew this was something I wanted to do for the long term.

Why do athletes take up golf? Is it because you still need to be competitive once your playing career starts to wind down? I took a golf class in Mexico and I thought, I never need to do this again ever.

Yeah, I think it’s just a challenge repeating something over and over again. And the success rate being so low. It’s probably one of the hardest things to do and try to make this ball go where you want it to go and do what you want it to do. And it’s mind-boggling. It’s crazy. It’s psychotic at times, but we all love it. The last time I played was two days ago, and I can think about every shot I hit. I played basketball my whole life. And I can’t really go back and tell you one game, every play-by-play.

I just want this docuseries more than anything to be an inspiration for people like that.

Did you do this doc because you wanted to reclaim the narrative about who you are?

Initially, that’s what I thought the story was going to be driven by. And then I started talking to my parents. They were like you have an opportunity to really share with people something so tragic and traumatizing for you and then overcome that. So many people have felt that way with something in their life and they haven’t overcome it yet. I just want this docuseries more than anything to be an inspiration for people like that.

Say hello to your parents. They look like the kind of folks that always have good food at their house. I want to come hang with them. So, are you going to finish?

For at least every decade I’m alive, I plan to get a degree. So fortunately, I’m in my 30s, and by the time I’m 40, I’ll have my degree in Liberal Studies. I’ll have my associate’s by the end of this year. I want to get my doctorate in Liberal Studies. I want to get a master’s in marketing and probably something in finance somewhere. I’m not a math guy, but I just feel like it’s good to know what you’re dealing with [as it relates to] my money as opposed to just relying on somebody else.

Redefined: J.R. Smith, a four-part docuseries, comes to Prime Video April 4.

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