Thursday, August 8, 2013
One fan's special friendship with J.R. Smith
By Jared Zwerling
LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- About three years ago, when J.R. Smith was a Denver Nugget playing in a road game in Philadelphia, he seemed worried about something before tipoff.
Smith spotted his father, Earl, in the crowd -- but he didn't see Brad Hennefer, a young man he'd befriended who lived in Cherry Hill, N.J., about 20 minutes outside of Philly.
J.R. Smith and his biggest fan, Brad Hennefer, who has Down syndrome.
"J.R. comes out on the court and he's looking at his father saying, 'Where's Brad?'" Hennefer's father, Bob, told ESPNNewYork.com. "I could read his lips. And Earl pointed over and Brad stood up, and J.R. just ran off the court to come see Brad. You just don't see that."
Over time, Smith and Hennefer's connection has grown in ways athlete-fan interactions usually don't. And it all started with two of their passions: basketball and golf.
While Smith plays hoops professionally and golf religiously in his spare time, Hennefer competed in high school basketball for four years at Cherry Hill High School East -- his last one on varsity. He was also on the varsity golf team all four years.
When the two of them met on the golf course for the first time -- a meeting Bob and Earl arranged after connecting at a fundraiser -- they hit it off. It was at Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Smith's hometown of Lakewood, N.J., and Smith knew nothing about Hennefer -- not even about his lifelong disability.
"The first year we played golf here, J.R. played with Brad," Bob said. "Just that whole day with the camaraderie with J.R. and Brad, how they interacted with each other, was just spectacular. J.R. didn't even know anything about Down syndrome and didn't know anything about Brad -- he just embraced him like anyone else. And it's just been an awesome story ever since."
On Thursday, Smith and Hennefer reconnected at Eagle Ridge Golf Club, where the Knicks shooting guard was hosting a golf tournament to benefit his youth foundation. Not only did Hennefer hang with Smith, but the 24-year-old spent time with Smith's relatives, as well as his agent, Leon Rose, all of whom treated him like a family friend.
"J.R. is a great friend of mine," Hennefer said. "I like him a lot. I'm proud of him winning the Sixth Man Award. I always follow J.R. for every game. I got NBA gear of the Knicks; I got a jacket, pants and jerseys."
At Cherry Hill High School East, Hennefer was the first student with Down syndrome to earn varsity letters in two high school sports. He was also the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from the school, and his accomplishments earned him recognition in the national media, including Sports Illustrated and "Good Morning America."
These days, Hennefer helps run his family's Golf For Life program, which offers clinics, taught by PGA professionals, to children with Down syndrome. He also travels the country as a motivational speaker. Last year, he held 52 events; this year, 42, including one recently at the United Nations.
"Brad's a great guy, just to hear his story and how much he loves not only the game of golf, but the game of basketball, and how much he just inspires me to go out there and play hard," Smith said. "I know he's watching, and the next time I see him, he's definitely going to let me know about it."
While Smith sometimes gets a bad rap for his off-the-court antics, Hennefer's father feels there's a lot more "good J.R." in him than what some people may believe.
"With J.R. jumping on board and helping with the cause, and giving us a lot of inspiration through what he does, it's just been incredible," he said. "When we went up to Madison Square Garden for the first time, J.R. waved him down and Brad was able to go down to take a picture courtside at halftime.
"What [Smith] does off the court is just unbelievable -- what he does for the underprivileged kids through his foundation and what he's done for the Down syndrome community. It's amazing what he does."