Smiling through the tears

The smile on Tyler Smith's face during Tennessee's preseason basketball media day was temporary. The tears beneath his left eye are permanent.

He had the tears applied by a tattoo artist three weeks ago, shortly after his father died following a lingering bout with cancer. They symbolize the real tears he shed during a grieving process that continues to this day.

"The tears are for my father," Tyler Smith said. "I got those to remember him every day, just let him know that I'm really thinking of him."

Billy Smith attended virtually every game his son played at Giles County High School of Pulaski in 2002-03, 2003-04 and 2004-05. He backed Tyler when he went away to attend Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy in 2005-06 and again while he played for the University of Iowa in 2006-07. He backed him when he decided to transfer to Tennessee for 2007-08. In short, he backed his son until the end of his life.

"He showed me so much support in everything I went through – from going to Hargrave to going away to Iowa," Tyler said. "I just wanted to show how much I really respect this man for doing so much for me."

In addition to the symbolic tears, Tyler has the word SACRIFICE tattooed across his throat.

"That's from when I went to Iowa," he explained. "I sacrificed a lot by going up there and being away from my father when he had cancer. Then my little son (Amare) was born and I wasn't there for his first steps or his first words, things like that."

By transferring to Tennessee over the summer, Tyler managed to be nearby during his father's last few months. Tyler also managed to spend more time with his own son, now 16 months old and living with his mother in Pulaski.

"I see him every weekend ... at least try to," Tyler said. "Coach (Bruce Pearl) lets me go home to see my son."

Tyler visited Billy in a Nashville hospital the night before the elder Smith died. Knowing his dad's life was slipping away, the son poured out his heart.

"He was under so much medication he really couldn't respond to what I was saying," Tyler recalled, "but I told him I love him and this season is dedicated to him."

When asked if he's disappointed that his father couldn't live long enough to see him play for the Vols, Tyler shook his head softly.

"Nah, because I know he's up there right now watching me," he replied, nodding toward the heavens. "He's ready for that first game. I just know he's watching me and he's ready for me to play."

Tyler's life has been incredibly hectic since he signed with Tennessee in November of 2004. When Vol head coach Buzz Peterson was fired the following March, Tyler opted to renege on his pledge to UT and attend Hargrave. His father was diagnosed with cancer a few months later, during the summer of '05.

As Tyler recalled: "When he first got diagnosed with cancer, he told me 'Don't worry about anything. It'll be all right.' Even though I knew he was hurting real bad, he never would let me know he was hurting."

After performing surgery, doctors assured Tyler they had removed all of the cancer from Billy Smith's body. They were wrong. Last January the deadly disease returned.

"It came right back real hard last year at midseason while I was at Iowa," Tyler recalled. "That's when I really made my decision to come back home."

Given his father's declining health, Tyler petitioned the NCAA for immediate eligibility at UT, so he could continue playing basketball while attending to his dad. The petition was little more than an after-thought, however.

"Really, I don't think basketball was on my mind at all when I decided to come back home," he said. "I just wanted to be around my father and my family."

The NCAA gave a favorable ruling on his petition, so Tyler Smith will be playing for Tennessee this season. The gifted 6-7, 220-pounder could elevate the 2007-08 Vols from SEC contender to national contender. He's that good.

"Tyler is a great competitor," Pearl said. "Tyler's a terrific athlete. He plays hard. He's got a high basketball IQ. He wants to be here. He's so happy to be home.... That jumps out at me with Tyler Smith. I don't think he's ever felt more comfortable, and he's only been here for a semester."

Tennessee returns four starters from 2006-07. The only missing piece is Dane Bradshaw. He played power forward, the spot Smith will fill this season.

"Tyler's a glue guy," Pearl said. "And if there's a guy out there that could replace a Dane Bradshaw, Tyler Smith would have the ability."

Although he averaged 14.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game as a freshman at Iowa, Smith considers himself a complementary player, not a star.

Noting that the Vols made a nice NCAA Tournament run last year, he added: "I'm just trying to come in and add a little bit more to that."

With Smith and Arizona transfer J.P. Prince joining eight returning lettermen from last year, Tennessee is being projected as a possible Final Four team. The obvious question: Do those expectations put added pressure on the Vols?

"I don't think so," Tyler said. "The players know we have high expectations but we know we can be beat. Coach keeps it in our heads ... 'Don't believe all the hype.' He's going to keep us motivated."

It won't take much effort to keep Tyler Smith motivated. He likes what he has seen of his new coaching staff, his new teammates and his new system.

"I love this style," he said. "Coach emphasizes defense and intensity. I love this style."


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