Smith forced to watch Vols’ run from afar
ST. LOUIS – Tennessee is a win away from playing in its first Final Four, and its best player is some 6,000 miles away.
While the Volunteers were polishing off a 76-73 victory over Ohio State on Friday night to earn the school’s initial Elite Eight appearance, Tyler Smith was shouting at a TV in Turkey, where he now plays pro ball for the Bornova Bid.
Sitting in his apartment in Izmir, where it was 3 a.m. local time, Smith was living and dying with every possession. When the game was complete, he instant messaged Melvin Goins to let him know how proud he was.
The moment was bittersweet for Smith, booted from Tennessee in January after a disturbing off-court incident.
Never did he feel farther away from home or miss his buddies more.
“It is so hard man,” Smith said Saturday via email. “Words can’t explain. I am glad it happened for the Tennessee fans to get to see this historic run.
“But I didn’t want this to happen the way it did.”
The talented 6-foot-7 swingman is on the outside looking in at the finest hour in the school’s basketball history. He turned professional prematurely and headed overseas after an infamous New Year’s Day traffic stop that quashed his college career.
He and Tennessee teammates Goins, Brian Williams and Cameron Tatum were in a car that was pulled over in Knoxville for speeding that fateful afternoon. The officer smelled marijuana in the vehicle and after further investigation found two guns, a bag of pot and a container of alcohol.
The guns belonged to Smith.
Smith was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm and possessing a firearm with an altered serial number. Coach Bruce Pearl kicked him off the team Jan. 8. Williams pleaded guilty to drug charges and was suspended for nine games. Tatum, the driver, was popped for speeding and sat for four games. Goins had all charges dropped against him, but missed four games.
Williams, a junior center, is grateful that he got a second chance. But he feels terrible that Smith isn’t here to be a part of the program’s zenith. He misses the man who was in many ways his mentor.
“I talked to him the other day,” Williams said. “He was our leader in everything that we did. He was one of my best friends on the team. He got Tennessee basketball on the map. He was a great teammate and a great player and a great friend.”
When Smith was shown the door, many expected the Vols’ season to implode. Some blamed Smith, who would have been a senior, for the anticipated demise.
Instead Tennessee’s depleted roster shocked No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10 and took down second-ranked Kentucky in late February.
Those wins have served as a precursor to what has become an unexpected March surge that will continue to play out Sunday in the Midwest Regional final against Michigan State.
The beat goes on without Smith in St. Louis.
A continent away, Smith is again enjoying success on the court. He signed a two-month deal with Bornova on March 1. He is averaging 20.5 points for the Bid, which is battling for a playoff berth in the Turkish Basketball League. Smith is shooting 57.4 percent from the field, 57.1 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“I have been playing OK,” Smith said. “For being off for so long a lot of people didn’t know what to expect from me when I got here. But I have been working so hard to continue my career and move forward.
“The competition is great. My very first game I had to match up against former NBA player Ricky Davis. The European game is so different. You have to know how to use the pick and roll and know your spots.”
Smith is clearly learning his place.
He attended last summer’s NBA draft combine in Chicago, but failed to impress and was told he would not be selected in the first round. So he returned to Tennessee in June and told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that he was contemplating going to Europe so that he could start earning money. Smith has a young son and said he wanted to be able to better provide for him.
Shortly thereafter, Smith held a news conference to announce he was staying in school. With Smith, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism and Scotty Hopson, the Vols seemed poised for a special season.
Then came New Year’s Day and Smith’s world turned upside down.
“I had to start from ground zero again, but with my family, true friends and my true fans sticking with me, it’s been kind of easy to deal with,” he said. “I want to thank those people for being there for me.”
Starting over in Turkey has been an eye-opening experience. The biggest positive is he’s back playing ball. The biggest negative is the distance from his son.
“I think the hardest part is nobody speaks English,” he said. “It is a very big city. I’m in on the seaside and it is beautiful. I visited a high school the other day and it was amazing to see the kids know who I am.”
They haven’t forgotten about him in Knoxville either.
Smith said he plans to return to Tennessee to earn his degree in sports management. An NBA future remains part of his plan.
Shorter term, he’ll be wearing his Tennessee shorts Sunday while watching the Vols try to knock off the Spartans.
He offered some advice to his ex-teammates and fans as they prepare for the biggest game in school annals.
“Cherish the moment because you never know what tomorrow brings,” Smith said. “I never thought this would happen but I am grateful that I’m still able to play the game I love.
“To the fans, do the same because you have a special group of guys out there playing their hearts out for the Big Orange.”
Smith seems to understand better than most not to take things for granted.