For years, two-time NBA champion J.R. Smith spent money with abandon.
He frequented clubs, dropped large amounts of cash on clothes and used the $90 million he made in salary over 16 NBA seasons to pay fines levied by his teams or the league. Now, the former shooting guard says he wishes he'd spent more giving back to his community — and he's advising young people to learn from his mistakes.
"I could have fed my whole community 10 times over with the money I was just [paying in fines for being] late on the bus," Smith, 36, said in a February episode of the I Am Athlete podcast, hosted by former NFL player Brandon Marshall.
One of Smith's biggest regrets, he said: spending tens of thousands of dollars at clubs, when he could have used at least some of that money philanthropically.
"You know how many people you can change [their] lifestyle with $10 million in our hood?" Smith said. "We'd rather go throw $60,000 in the strip club…than go feed 2,500 people in the hood."
Smith grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey, a small, blue-collar community about an hour from both Philadelphia and New York City. He went straight from high school to the NBA after being drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2004.
For years, he said, he dwelled on maintaining an image through "designer jackets...jeans [and] book bags." None of it left him feeling personally fulfilled, he added — which didn't occur to him until after he won his second NBA championship, with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.
"I felt like I had everything, but I still wasn't whole with me, because I knew there was something missing," he said.
After retiring from the NBA later that year, Smith started pursuing a liberal arts studies degree at North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU in the country. He competes on the school's golf team, and said on the podcast that he wanted to attend an HBCU because he knew his money would go toward improving education for Black students.
"[Athletes make] their schools... millions and millions over again… and the $50,000 [they donate back] changes nothing," he said, noting many universities put that money toward on-campus construction projects. "But the $50,000 to $100,000 you give to HBCUs, it changes lives."
It's unclear whether Smith has donated any significant funds beyond tuition, or contributed to major philanthropic initiatives since retiring from the NBA. Smith did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment. But, as he pointed out in the interview, "small" amounts of money for high-earners could easily be life-changing amounts of money for others.
"We're so trained, so embedded to have that Eurocentric mindset, to worry about myself, worry about me, worry about mine," he said. "When you make over $100 million in your career, is [giving $5 or $10 million] going to change your lifestyle?"
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