Smith carrying 'a heavy heart' after his father's death last month
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The two tattooed teardrops under his left eye are a heart-wrenching reminder.
They're Tyler Smith's way of honoring his late father, Billy, who died on Sept. 19 after a valiant bout with lung cancer. The real tears have already flowed and more are sure to follow, especially next Friday when Smith makes his Tennessee debut in the Vols' exhibition opener against California (Pa.). A week later, they face Temple in their season opener on Nov. 9.
Not since Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were starring in the "Ernie and Bernie Show" in the mid 1970s has there been a more anticipated basketball season on Rocky Top, and the addition of the multidimensional Smith is one of the reasons why.
His mind will be racing next week when he steps onto the court in the newly refurbished Thompson-Boling Arena, almost three years to the date since he originally signed with Tennessee in November 2004.
He'll think about the circuitous road he's taken to get here, the stops at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy and Iowa.
He'll think about how much he's grown up and how much he's matured both as a man and as a basketball player.
He'll think about his 16-month-old son, Amare, whose mention lights up Smith's face like a Christmas tree.
He'll think about all the controversy that ensued when he and Tennessee parted messily after Bruce Pearl took over for the fired Buzz Peterson and refused to release Smith from his letter of intent.
But most of all, he'll think about his dad.
"This is where my father really wanted me to be," said Smith, who earned third-team all-Big Ten honors as a freshman last season at Iowa. "People try to say he made the decision for me when I didn't come here the first time. He would never do that. He was looking out for his son like any other father would. It just went the wrong way, that's all."
The cruel irony for Smith, 21, is that his reasoning for leaving Iowa last year had everything to do with his ailing father and very little to do with basketball. He simply wanted to be closer to his dad, to be able to see him and spend time with him and support him as he was going through radiation treatments in the fight of his life.
"Once I found out that his cancer had come back around midseason last year, that's when I made my decision to come back home," said Smith, who grew up in Pulaski, Tenn., about an hour southwest of Nashville. "Basketball really wasn't on my mind. I just wanted to be around my father and my family."
Tennessee made the most sense, especially with the way Pearl had energized the program with his frenetic, up-and-down style. Smith kept up with the Vols during his freshman season at Iowa and didn't need to be resold.
Plus, with Steve Alford leaving Iowa for the New Mexico head coaching job at season's end, there wasn't as much allegiance to the Hawkeyes. New head coach Todd Lickliter released Smith from his scholarship without any resistance. And less than a month after enrolling at Tennessee for summer school in June, Smith was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA based on extenuating family circumstances and was ruled eligible to play right away without having to sit out a year.
Being closer to home was comforting for Smith, but it didn't ease the pain of seeing his father's condition worsen right before his eyes. Smith did his best to stay positive. Much of his strength was derived from seeing how his father met his terrible disease head-on.
Occasionally, Billy would make the drive to Knoxville by himself. Father and son talked by phone daily, laughed, reminisced and shared what each knew down deep would probably be their final days together.
"He always had a smile on his face," Smith said. "Not once did I hear him saying anything about how much he was hurting."
The closest Billy ever came to telling his son that he probably wouldn't be around to see him play at Tennessee was right before Tyler left Iowa for good last spring to move back home.
"He just said, 'Son, I might not be here long, but I want to tell you that I love you,'" Smith said, his eyes moistening. "I knew then he was a lot worse off than what he was showing, but he never wanted me to worry. That was my father."
Before his death, Billy mended fences with Pearl. They met and talked on several occasions. And whereas Billy never developed a trust with Pearl the first time -- with the two of them digging in and making accusations against each other -- they came to an understanding that only one thing mattered this time.
Tyler's happiness.One of the last conversations they had before Billy died still tugs at Pearl's emotions.
The way I look at it is that he's going to be here for home games and away games now. He's going to see every game that I play from now on.
"He looked at me and said, 'You know I'm not going to be here for his whole career? You know that, don't you?'" Pearl recalled, his voice trailing off. "I said, 'Yes sir, I do,' and he just said, 'I'm trusting you to take care of my son.'"
If the start of practice is any indication, the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Smith will be in good hands.
He fit in immediately with his new teammates, on and off the court. The entire team -- coaches, players, managers and support personnel -- made the trip to Pulaski last month to attend Billy Smith's funeral.
"We just wanted him to know that we've got his back," said senior guard JaJuan Smith, no relation to Tyler. "He doesn't have to go it alone. We're there for him."
Smith will also be there for the Vols, who were already being picked by many to win the SEC title and potentially challenge for a Final Four spot. But with Smith immediately eligible, the hope in Big Orange Country is that he can be that missing piece from a season ago when Tennessee had Ohio State on the ropes in the Sweet 16, only to blow a 17-point halftime lead.
An accomplished passer with an NBA body, Smith is a superb athlete who can get to the basket and finish. His jump shot was good enough to average 14.9 points last season, and he led the Hawkeyes in rebounding and steals.
"It's what he can't bring to this team, that's the question," said senior guard Chris Lofton, who led the SEC in scoring last season (20.8 points) and should see the floor open up even more now with Smith's presence in the frontcourt. "He brings athleticism, inside-outside ability. He's the total package."
The part that separates Smith, though, is his basketball savvy, according to the person who probably has the best perspective on Smith's game. Alford coached Smith last season at Iowa and said it was one of the most impressive showings he's seen from a freshman in his 12 years in the Big Ten as a player and a coach.
"Everybody talks about how gifted he is as an athlete, but the thing about Tyler that's different maybe from a lot of other kids who have great athletic ability is that he really understands how to play the game," Alford said. "A lot of kids use their athleticism, but they don't have a feel for the game.
"By the time the year was over, Tyler was our best passer and knew who to get the ball to and when to get them the ball and where they were most effective with it. He's an extremely unselfish kid who could get you 25 [points] because he's so talented, but that's not his makeup. He wants to make everybody else around him better."
Smith's shot has improved, but he still has to prove that he can hit the open jumper consistently. He shot just 38.9 percent from the field last season in Big Ten games.
"A lot of kids who have a weakness don't spend time on it," Alford said. "Tyler's spent a lot of time on his shot, and that's a credit to him. He's a better shooter now and will only get better as he gets a greater volume of shots.
"The pros will love him. He's got NBA athleticism and a body like he's a 28-year-old. What they'll love about him most is his understanding of how to play. There's no doubt in my mind that he has great potential at the next level."
Sure enough, some NBA teams already have Smith on their board as a late first-round or early second-round selection next year. Smith hasn't looked that far down the road. Not yet, anyway.
But it's not out of the question to think that he could be one-and-done at Tennessee.
"I'm too excited about what all we have a chance to accomplish here to think about anything else past this season," Smith said. "This is the future I want to think about. Everything else will take care of itself, whether it's after this season or the next.
"I just want to do my part and to play my role to help us get to the Final Four, because that's where we expect to be."
Pearl, while transforming Tennessee's program into a national contender seemingly overnight, has waited three years to coach Smith. Not being able to hold on to him the first time around was both frustrating and disappointing. In fact, soon after Smith made it clear he wasn't coming, allegations surfaced that a Vols booster, businessman Donnie Cameron, had given improper benefits to Smith and his father during Smith's recruitment by the previous staff.
Those allegations were never proved, but Tennessee did self-report a secondary violation that Cameron had illegal contact with Smith. The university disassociated itself from Cameron for two years. Peterson, now the player personnel director for the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, called the whole thing a witch hunt. Cameron, who has known Smith since he was a kid, also denied any wrongdoing.
"There were a ton of people who had a ton of agendas, and they were all going, 'Don't do this. Don't do that,'" Pearl explained. "Unfortunately, Tyler knew them better at the time than he knew me."
Pearl's thrill with getting Smith back is tempered by the fact that Billy won't be there next week to see his son slip on his No. 1 Tennessee jersey for the first time.
"Tyler's a strong kid, and I think the path he took will serve him better than if he would have come here as a freshman," Pearl said. "But we'll all have a bit of a heavy heart, just knowing how much Tyler misses his dad."
In spirit, Billy hasn't gone anywhere. Smith says he can still hear his voice and can hear what he would say to him when he messes up on or off the court.
He can feel his presence during practice. He can feel his presence in the classroom, especially if he's a second late.
And most importantly, he can still see Billy's proud, fatherly smile, the most cherished keepsake of all.
"The way I look at it is that he's going to be here for home games and away games now," Smith said.
"He's going to see every game that I play from now on."
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.