Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Updated: February 4, 1:43 PM ET
WHAT YOU GOTTA DO
By Tom Friend
He wore a new suit to the funeral and brought something special he kept in a bag. God, this was going to be hard, burying the man with the deepest voice in Tennessee. They'd had each other for only six years, but when your dad becomes your buddy, your rebounder, your spokesman, your drill sergeant and your cancer patient, six years might as well be 26.
Just last summer, they were living together in public housing, the son cooking his dad dinner every night, until the old man finally blurted out, "The chemo's not going to kill me, your Hamburger Helper is." That was Billy Smith: sicker than hell, but able to laugh with every bit of his one and a half lungs.
Then he coughed up too much blood one afternoon, while he was alone, while he was counting the days until the Tennessee Vols' basketball season, and that was the end. How could he die? How could he die after Tyler had pulled off one of the most daring mulligans in college basketball just for him? How could he die when he was weeks away from being back in the third row, with his baritone voice saying, "Boy, you better rebound"?
But that was Billy Smith's body right there, in the casket. Mourners filed in. Over there, the Tennessee basketball players. Over there, the university booster. Over there—gulp—Bruce Pearl, and over there … wait a minute, that's not Tyler. Where's Tyler? Friends searched outside, found him leaning against a car. "I can't do this," he groaned. Then someone gave him a pat on the back, and he remembered his dad's advice: Do what you gotta do.
So Tyler Smith entered the church. Carrying his bag.
When Tyler was 9, he told his mother, "I'm going to put Tennessee on the map." Instead, here is his gut-wrenching story of putting Tennessee on hold. It starts in the matchbox town of Pulaski, Tenn., where Billy Smith worked the graveyard shift long before he ended up in a graveyard. He was a former high school hoops legend who, by day, played ball and by night made ball bearings at a factory. In between, he couldn't find much time for his son, Tyler, and the wife, Shawanda Kennedy, he ended up divorcing. When Tyler finished seventh grade, Shawanda remarried and moved Tyler to Texas. But by ninth grade, a homesick Tyler asked to move back with his grandma in Pulaski. Shawanda had another idea—live with your father.
Live with Billy? Tyler was hesitant, because the old man was a mystery. Billy worked nights and otherwise seemed unavailable. Plus, he'd remarried, and Tyler wondered if Billy'd rag on his mom. But Billy told Tyler they were going to start from scratch, that he'd rather be a friend than a bossy dad, anyway. The past was past—no grudges. Then he asked Tyler to come see the 7-year-olds.
Tyler had no idea Billy coached a second grade AAU squad, had never seen this side of his dad. Tyler became his assistant, and basketball—plus a mutual love for Tennessee hoops in particular—became their connection. Every free moment Billy would watch Tyler play pickup ball, and Tyler began going to Billy for free throw advice, girl advice, whatever. Billy hammered at Tyler: Don't end up in a factory. Use basketball to get out. Do what you gotta do.
That first year, two key events happened: Tyler became the first freshman in the city to dunk in a high school game, and he met the coach of local Martin Methodist College, Chuck Benson. Over the next four years, Billy—with Benson often nearby—saw all of Tyler's games and never forgot to bring his son's favorite postgame drink: apple juice. He parked in the third row, demanded unselfish play and busted Tyler's chops afterward. "I'd have a good game," Tyler recalls, "and he'd say, 'Boy, that was something I could do in a half.' "
By 2003, Benson was a lead recruiter for Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, which made the 6'7" Tyler, Tennessee's Class 2A Mr. Basketball in 2005, a lock to join the Vols. Except for one problem: Soon after Tyler signed a letter of intent, Peterson was fired.
Who would replace him? Billy pushed for Benson, who was still temporarily on staff. But Tennessee chose a bundle of nerves named Bruce Pearl. Pearl was a Boston native, a Yankee heading south, and that made Billy suspicious. Before their first meeting, Billy told Pearl, "I don't know y'all," and asked the new guy to bring along Benson. Pearl reportedly said he would. But, when Pearl arrived, no Benson.
Billy was further miffed when he was told Pearl stopped to recruit in-state juniors Brandan Wright and Thaddeus Young on his way to Pulaski. Word was, Pearl's staff didn't consider Tyler a must-get. True or not, the new coach walked into a cold meeting at the Smiths. "Billy had his mind made up about me," Pearl says. "There was nothing I could say. It was, 'We're not coming to Tennessee.' "
Twist was, Pearl, at the meeting, noticed Tyler nodding at his pitch: that UT would lead the SEC in scoring, that they'd run and pillage, that, if anything, he gave players too much freedom. "Tyler wanted to come, wanted to like me," Pearl says. In fact, Tyler had told him as much. In an earlier phone conversation he'd said he wanted to be a Vol, so Pearl wasn't about to give up. He arranged a private meeting with Tyler, through Tyler's high school coach, but Pearl overlooked one detail: Tyler told Billy everything. And Billy was irate. He nixed the meeting and told friends UT was done.
Pearl wasn't done, though. He refused to let Tyler out of his LOI, after first saying he would if Billy was uncomfortable. It got uglier, too. When Pearl heard Donnie Cameron, a UT booster who was a friend of Billy's, might have provided Billy with rent money and tickets, he told university officials. "First time I didn't let a player out of a letter of intent," Pearl says. "But I didn't feel comfortable how it was going down. I'm not blaming Tyler's dad. There were a lot of people saying, 'Get out of the letter.' But it was those people I wasn't going to reward. I knew I was being played."
Tennessee self reported that Cameron had made illegal contact with the family—which resulted in UT disassociating itself with Cameron—and the rift went national. Tyler drank in all of it and finally crossed UT off the list. Billy meant too much to him. "My father was only trying to look out for his son," Tyler says. "Making sure I went to the right coach."
This coach had to be someone Billy believed in, someone who'd care for his son, bring him apple juice. Because there was one other detail: Billy was getting sick. He'd started to cough a lot, lose his breath. What if Billy was seriously ill? Could he ever leave his son to a coach like Pearl?
Instead of from the third row, Billy watched Tyler on TV or tape. And it's not clear which hurt more—living without his son or the lung cancer that had just moved in. Because Tennessee held his rights for a year, Tyler spent 2005-06 at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, and while he was away, Billy underwent surgery that removed half a lung. He downplayed it with his son, and focused instead on steering Tyler to what he believed was the best program for him: Iowa.
The next year, Tyler thrived under Steve Alford and his assistant Craig Neal. He scored 21 points in a half against Greg Oden's Ohio State team, and by season's end his all-court game had earned him third-team All-Big-Ten honors. But Billy only got to Iowa City for one game. Trying to shield Tyler, he'd say, "Chemo is a walk in the park," and Tyler bought it. He had no idea Billy was being driven to treatments lying in the back of a truck.
Billy preferred to talk hoops, and what kept coming up was Tennessee. Pearl hadn't lied: The Vols were chucking up threes and winning. Billy saw every game; Tyler caught the highlights. Meanwhile, Pearl asked Alford to tell Tyler he was proud of him, that he hoped Tyler wasn't mad. He wasn't, and Pearl was about to hear from the kid. In January 2007, doctors found a spot on Billy's lung. He could barely talk or leave his bed and, after another divorce, he was living in public housing with no one to cook or care for him. Tyler started to think about returning home. He wanted to rescue Billy, wanted to see his newborn son, Amare, whom he'd had with Brooklyn Russell, his high school sweetheart. He missed Pulaski so badly he'd had TENNESSEE tattooed across his stomach. Pearl would take him back, right?
After the season, he straight-out told Pearl: "You don't have to recruit me. I'm recruiting you." A thrilled Pearl welcomed him. Tyler's next call was to Billy.
"I'm transferring home," Tyler said.
"Where?" Billy said. "Vanderbilt?"
"Nah," Tyler said. "Tennessee."
Given the history, Pearl promptly went to Pulaski to smooth things over with Billy. Turns out, there was nothing to smooth over. Billy had already let it all go. At first, he'd worried that Pearl would bury Tyler on the bench, out of spite. But Tyler said, "I take his word," and, to Billy, who had always told Tyler "no grudges," that was enough.
Billy (to Tyler's left) would have loved to see Tyler put up his 13.5 ppg.
He shook the coach's hand, and before Pearl could even begin his spiel, said, "My son wants to come home. I've seen what you've done with the team. You have my blessing." The news only got cheerier when the NCAA made Tyler eligible right away, granting him a hardship waiver because of Billy's illness.
By summer, Billy and Pearl were phonemates. The coach dialed up the dad weekly—"Why you calling? We're still coming," Billy would say, laughing—and then one day, Billy drove to Knoxville to see Pearl. Billy looked robust after the latest round of chemo, and Pearl assumed he wanted to talk hoops. Instead, the deepest voice in Tennessee softened … and Billy told Pearl he was dying.
"I won't be here his whole career," he said. "Take care of my boy. He'll be your responsibility." Pearl promised he would. And Billy was free. He'd done it. He trusted the Yankee.
By August, he was at peace. He had reconnected with his first wife, a teacher named Annette Robinson, and they had planned to remarry. But another round of chemo sapped him. He looked hollow. In mid-September, on a day Annette was at work, Billy started to cough up blood. He crawled to a neighbor's home then blacked out. Tyler rushed to the hospital from Knoxville, but by the time he arrived, his dad had so much brain damage the doctors asked Tyler to consider removing him from life support. Tyler said no, and when Billy's status improved a bit, Tyler left to get some rest.
By the next morning, Sept. 19, 2007, Billy was gone. Tyler got 10 minutes alone with his deceased dad. The first five, he sobbed. The next five, he promised: I'll go as far in basketball as possible. I'll do what I gotta do.
Pearl and his Vols bussed in for the funeral, which turned heads because "people thought coach and my dad were still feuding," Tyler says. Right away Pearl bumped into Cameron and said, "Let's let bygones be bygones." He then bumped into Billy's brother, J.B., who asked Pearl to be Tyler's new Billy.
It was a rough time, and when Tyler returned to Knoxville a few days later, he was sporting a startling new tattoo: two teardrops below his left eye. His teammates hugged him, then Pearl did what he does best. He started yapping.
On days Tyler didn't study, Pearl said, "Billy would be going off right now!" On a day Tyler took a rare charge in practice, Pearl shouted, "Billy, can you believe it? Tyler hit the floor!" Tyler doubled over in laughter, and appreciated Pearl keeping his dad's name alive. "Never thought Coach and I'd be this good," he says.
At first Tyler had been somber, but the more Pearl channeled Billy, the better Tyler played. He began setting up teammates early in games and taking over late, becoming the team's third-leading scorer (13.5 ppg) and top assists man (3.6 apg). Pearl, after seeing him explode for 22 points, eight assists and seven rebounds against Louisiana-Lafayette Nov. 30, said, "I'm coach Bruce Pearl, and you are … Oh, you're Tyler Smith, transfer from Iowa. Nice of you to finally show up!"
Again Tyler doubled over, and he knew Billy would be laughing with every bit of his one and a half lungs too. Billy had so badly wanted to see this, to be a part of this, to be in the third row.
And that's why, in front of everyone that day at the funeral, Tyler walked up, opened his bag and put a parting gift inside Billy's casket:
His Tennessee jersey.