A Global Bromance With NBA Champion J.R. Smith | Global Down Syndrome Foundation

A Global Bromance With NBA Champion J.R. Smith

From Issue Fall 2016

NBA Champion J.R. Smith And Accomplished Athlete And Self-Advocate Brad Hennefer Are Proof Positive That No One Should Judge A Book By Its Cover.

One of Brad Hennefer’s favorite sayings is a tagline often repeated in the Down syndrome community: “We’re more alike than different.” It certainly applies to 6-foot-6-inch J.R. Smith and 5-foot-10-inch Brad Hennefer. They’re athletes, change agents — and two people whose first impressions tell a fraction of their stories.

J.R., 31, a guar d for the NBA championship-winning Cleveland Cavaliers, has a tow ering physique, sports tattoos, and is often judged by the national media due to his out ward appearance. But, when not in the public eye, he devotes himself to family and friends. Brad, 27, who has Down syndrome, would appear to be a quiet and unassuming sports fan you’d expect to see in the stands, not setting records on the fairway during the Special Olympics USA Games or breaking down barriers as the first student with Down syndrome in the United States to letter in two high-school varsity sports.


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Yet when these two good friends are together, as they were for a friendly game of golf on a r ecent summer day, they show their true colors — friends who love sports and, even more, love to see each other succeed. J.R. and Brad, joked, laughed, and talked sports on the green, where their friendship first took root.

SPECIAL BOND

Nine years ago, during a chance encounter at a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, their fathers, Earl Smith, Jr., and Bob Hennefer, started talking sports and families. The conversation ended with Earl inviting Bob to bring Brad, who was already a star on his high school’s varsity golf and basketball teams, to the annual J .R. Smith Youth Foundation golf tournament to benefit underprivileged and differently-abled children.

Brad’s golf prowess was eye-opening to the Smiths.

“Brad was surreal,” Earl said. “We didn’t see his disability. We just looked at him as a person.”

From the moment J.R. and Brad met, they had a connection and, over the years, became really close friends.

“People tend to look at those with Down syndr ome differently,” J.R. said. “But ever since I met Br ad, I’ve just seen him as Br ad. He’s a fan of mine and loves me for what I do, but he loves me as a person, too .”

The two see each other often. Br ad attends as many of J.R.’s games as he can and had no difficulties shifting his team loy alties from the New York Knicks to the Cleveland Cavaliers when J.R. was traded during the 2014–2015 season. They talk on the phone regularly, play video games at J.R.’s house, and, of course, they golf.

“Brad loves to have fun,” J.R. said. “He happens to be a hell of an athlete, too. If he hits a bad shot, he just hits another and keeps playing. He understands everything is not going to fall in his lap . He works for it.”

“J.R. is a great man, and we’re great friends,” Brad said. “He’s a goodathlete and a good person.”

DRIVEN TO COMPETE

Throughout their friendship, Brad has gotten to know the J.R. Smith the American public doesn’t always get to see — a man who may appear to have a rough exterior but remains committed to his friends and family and to making sure everyone around him has a fair shot at success.

“I started playing basketball at age 3, when my dad put a ball in my crib,” J.R. said. “I always set my goals toward sports. From the time I understood what the NBA was and watched Michael Jordan and the other players, I wanted to be like those guys. I always believed I’d have an opportunity if I worked hard enough.”

A highly rated prep prospect from suburban New Jersey, he entered the NBA out of high school in 2004 . His professional journey has included playing for the New Orleans Hornets, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, and most recently, Cleveland Cavaliers. Nevertheless, his career has had its share of bumps.

Early in his NBA career, J.R. sometimes clashed with coaches, endured suspensions, and fought perceptions of underachievement and a bad-boy persona. He knows he’s not the person some may think he is.

“I’ve been through a lot, but I don’t let that deter me f rom being who I am,” he said. “People can say what they want to say about me until they meet me and talk to me . I’m just a family guy who likes to hang out with my wife, kids, parents, and siblings, and I work hard. I just like to express myself in different ways, like getting tattoos. I’m just me.”

Earlier this year, J.R. reached the pinnacle of his profession when the Cleveland Cavaliers made history by overcoming a three-gamesto-one deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship.

“It was the highlight of my life, other than having kids and getting married,” he said. “To actually achieve something that w as always my goal has been unbelievable. It’s something I truly cherish.”

Even that victory was overshadowed somewhat by his larger-than life personality, when photos of him celebrating shirtless at nightclubs and on an airplane circulated through cyberspace and attracted the attention of bloggers, paparazzi, and even President Obama.

“People can look at you a certain way, but with hard work and dedication, you can do anything you want to do,” J.R. said. “Don’t let anyone say you can’t do something — that’s what Brad has taught me. Both of us have the platform to share that message with others. We’re just people who want to help other people.”

SHAPED BY SPORTS

J.R.’s close-knit extended family — his parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, and cousins — provided the supportive environment he needed to succeed, and likewise, Brad can trace his passion for athletics back to his family.

“It’s about my brother, Bob,” Brad said.

“Bob is a PG A golfer and five y ears older than Brad,” Nancy Hennefer, Brad’s mother, said. “When Brad was very young, he was always watching, practicing with, and learning from his brother.”

Brad tried several different sports as a child, but golf and basketball were his favorites. He participated in Special Olympics, which caught the attention of the basketball coach at his high school, Cherry Hill East in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“The coach had heard that Brad played basketball in Special Olympics and was intrigued to see what he could do,” Brad’s father, Bob, said. “He gave Brad an opportunity, and his teammates, their parents, and the entire school embraced him. It was amazing to watch.”

In addition to lettering in both golf and basketball, Brad played in more than 30 basketball games during his senior year. His athletic abilities attracted media attention from the likes of Good Morning America, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and CNN.

“I did great in high school, but it w as all about my teammates,” Brad said. “I was happy to have the opportunity to play both sports. I’m in my high school’s hall of fame.”

Brad’s athletic success did not come without plenty of hard work and sacrifice.

“Brad’s ability to play sports in high school took y ears of preparation, not only in terms of his learning to play the games, but also learning to act appropriately in social settings, pick up on social cues, and interact with others,” Nancy said.

“There were definitely challenges. We chose to be at every game and practice for four years so if Brad got tired and needed our assistance, we could facilitate that without taking away from what the coaches and other players were doing.”

Brad’s playing days didn’t end with high school graduation. When he’s not working at a local Wegmans supermarket — he just received his 10-year anniversary pin — he enjoys competing in the Special Olympics and won the gold medal in golf at the 2014 USA Games with his older brother as his coach.

He also promotes golf to other individuals with Down syndr ome through the Brad Hennefer Golf for Life Foundation, has advocated at the state and national levels on behalf of people who ar e differently abled, and has delivered numerous keynote addresses, including at the National Down Syndrome

Congress Annual Convention and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In 2014, he earned the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s 2014 Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award.

“That was the best award I ever received,” Brad said. “People with Down syndrome can do amazing things if they have the opportunity to try.”

TRUE TO THEMSELVES

“When you peel back the layers and look at Brad and J.R., you see they’re both full of heart, and that’s what it’s all about,” Nancy said. “There’s a deep love between them. They’re two people who truly relate to one another.”

J.R and Brad are both real life proof that no one should be prejudged based on their outward appearance.

THE POWER OF OPPORTUNITY

Bob and Nancy Hennefer have always taught their son, Brad, to recognize and seize opportunities. Nothing has had a more profound effect on Brad’s life than the opportunity to attend school in an inclusive environment. It was a hard-won victory.

“Twenty years ago, it wasn’t common for children with Down syndrome to enter a typical kindergarten class in their neighborhood school,” Nancy said. “Our biggest challenge

was advocating to get Brad into the Cherry Hill [New Jersey] Public Schools. As the first family in the district to attempt to send a child with Down syndrome through typical classes (rather than segregated), we were in uncharted territory, and it was difficult to break down those barriers.

It was worth it, though. By the time Brad got to high school, the school embraced him. Getting him into a typical kindergarten class changed the entire trajectory of his life.”

Brad blazed a trail for other students with Down syndrome to follow. In 2008, he became the first person with Down syndrome to graduate from Cherry Hill High School East.

The article was published in Down Syndrome World™ magazine. Become a member to read the whole magazine and get future magazines delivered to your door!

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