Tyler Smith's Sad Story

January 14th, 2010
It shouldn't have ended like this.

The happy ending was all that was missing from Tyler Smith's tale. A versatile forward who came to Knoxville three years ago to be closer to his ailing father, Smith had the perfect script. A transfer loaded with ability who seemed destined for an NBA future. A kid who returns to his roots and makes good on his immense potential to honor the memory of his father. It was all right there for him.

Now? Smith is in basketball purgatory, thanks to his dismissal from the Tennessee program following his arrest for gun possession. Smith returned to Knoxville for his senior year to improve his NBA stock and lead Tennessee on a deep tournament run. Instead, he's now hoping just to avoid a jail sentence.

The details have been released, analyzed, picked apart and rehashed all over sports radio for the past week. Smith, along with three teammates, were pulled over in Knoxville. A search of their vehicle turned up drugs, as well as two guns. Smith was first suspended, then dismissed by Coach Bruce Pearl, and now awaits possible weapons charges. A once-promising future is now very cloudy.

And that's what is sad. We should be talking about Smith's NBA stock climbing as he shows a consistent jumps hot and more leadership skills this year. We could be talking about whether Tennessee can be a legitimate threat to Kentucky in the SEC East. We could even be talking about who is the better prospect for Tennessee, Smith or SG Scotty Hopson. But we definitely should not be talking about whether Smith will spend the next phase of his life in a jail cell.

For his part, Smith has owned up to the mistake, offering no excuses. In a released statement, Smith apologized for his actions, and thanked the university for their support during his time there.

“I'm truly sorry for my actions,” he said. “My recent actions do not  reflect who I am, and I can only hope that what I do in the future can make everyone believe in me again.”

But even with the apology, basketball fans have to feel cheated. Here was a guy with enormous talent, a guy who was certain to turn his talent into a large paycheck somewhere, a guy who was the face of a prominent basketball team in one of the biggest conferences in the country...and he threw all of that away.  

See, there are millions of kids across the country who dream of one day playing big-time college basketball. The vast majority of them never get to realize that dream, instead having to resort to following their favorite athletes and teams and living vicariously through them. For many, the closest they'll get to a Division I basketball court is buying a ticket and plopping down in the stands. No matter how hard they work, they just simply don't have the ability.

But Smith did. Blessed with great size, he was a walking mismatch with the ball skills of a guard but the height to play in the post. He had great court version, often playing as a point forward for Pearl, and he had an enormous reserve of energy and passion that was evident every time he took the court. He had an inconsistent but improving jump shot, good athleticism and a penchant for being a tough defender. In short, he had the type of skills that many young kids all over would kill for. And now, it all appears to be wasted.

Now Smith may still find his way into the NBA. The investigation of the case is still underway, and it's very possible he could avoid any real punishment outside of some community service. But the damage may be done. Smith was a borderline first-round pick entering the season, needing to show some progress on the court to creep comfortably into the first round. Now, not only does he not get the chance to do that, but he also will face questions about his character and maturity. NBA general managers don't always make wise decisions, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one who will get excited about a small forward with a shaky jumper and a criminal record.

It didn't have to be this way. Smith was supposed to come back as a senior and be the unquestioned leader of a team that is on the way up. He was supposed to honor the memory of his father by fulfilling his potential and blossoming into a professional.

Instead, he was forced to watch Tennessee's upset over #1 Kansas on Sunday as a fan, watching his former teammates play better without him than they had at times with him. It had to hurt, and it should have. Smith threw away a golden opportunity, and he has no one to blame but himself.

It was supposed to be a different story this year for Smith. We were waiting for a happy ending. Instead, the story, like his career, ends all too abruptly.

A sad story indeed.