Tattoos and tears: A Volunteer is driven by his father's memory
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tyler Smith's body art is worth a thousand words.
Tattooed teardrops trickle from his left eye for his father, who died in September of cancer. The word "sacrifice" rings Smith's neck for his baby son, whose first steps he did not see and whose first words he did not hear.
"I got those to really remember," the Tennessee forward said. "I look at them every day. I know he's up there right now watching me. I just know he's watching me. It's going to help me a lot."
They remind Smith of the long path he's traveled since he graduated from Giles County High School in Pulaski, a road marked by a year at military prep school and another in Iowa as well as his son's birth and father's death.
The 21-year-old sophomore dedicated this season to his father, Billy Smith. And with the way his season's going, his father would be very proud.
Smith is a starter for the No. 12 Vols (9-1), who play UNC Asheville on Wednesday night. He leads the team in rebounds (5.2), steals (2.3) and assists (3.6), and his 13.3 scoring average is third best.
He's also filling the spot vacated by fan favorite Dane Bradshaw, who graduated at the end of last season. Bradshaw wasn't as talented as Smith is, but coach Bruce Pearl celebrated him as the "glue" that held the team together.
"If there's a guy out there that could replace a Dane Bradshaw, Tyler would have that ability," Pearl said.
Smith, the 2005 Tennessee Mr. Basketball, was recruited by former Vols coach Buzz Peterson. But when Peterson was fired in spring of 2005, Smith asked to be released from his scholarship. Pearl declined.
As it turned out, Smith was academically ineligible for the 2005-06 season and headed to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. Before he left for school, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer after becoming short of breath one day.
"When he first got diagnosed with cancer he told me, 'Don't worry about anything, I'll be all right,' even though I knew he was hurting real bad," Smith said.
Smith starred at prep school, averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and just over five assists while leading Hargrave to a 28-2 record. He also got his grades in shape for NCAA eligibility.
Smith was recruited by then-Iowa coach Steve Alford, and Billy Smith's cancer appeared in remission. Smith led the Hawkeyes in rebounding and steals while averaging 14.9 points.
Meanwhile, his son, Amare -- named for Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire -- was born, though he remained with his mother in Tennessee. Midway through Smith's freshman season at Iowa, his father's cancer became more aggressive.
"That was really what got my decision to come back home," he said.
The NCAA granted Smith a hardship waiver, allowing him to play immediately rather than sit out a season.
Pearl and Smith said there have been no hard feelings about Smith's desire to return to Tennessee, even though he had asked for a release two years ago.
"He wants to be here. He's so happy to be home," Pearl said. "If the kids are happy, if they like it here ... most of the time that makes coming to practice a really good thing. That really jumps out at me for Tyler Smith."
Smith got to see Amare nearly every weekend, and there was the prospect of playing college ball in front of his father. Billy Smith was a college player himself at Martin Methodist in Pulaski and had seen his son play at that level only two or three times.
Smith went to work with his new team during the summer and started classes in August. Then September came and he got the call he'd been dreading.
"We were in study hall," said teammate and roommate Ramar Smith, no relation. "He came in and said he had to go. He said, 'It's Pops.' I already knew what it was."
Tyler Smith said he saw his father at a Nashville hospital just before he died Sept. 19. He had the teardrops tattooed on his face the day after Billy Smith was buried.
"He was under so much medication that he couldn't respond to what I was saying," Smith said. "But I just told him that I love him, and this season is dedicated to him."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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