Loose Ball Life

by January 14, 2010

by Chris Deaton

Guns, pot, booze—crime. Stereotypes of our athletes, right? Javaris and Max, Gilbert and Jax, this is an era when discipline’s lax.

Or so the comment sections sing from Tennessee.

“Had I been driving that car I would still be behind bars, minus a job and likely a future.” It’s the special treatment thing—that because Tyler Smith is somewhat a celebrity, possession of a firearm with an altered serial number is a fixable mark by way of fame and a PR’s polish. Some in Dixie, they ain’t buying, but hating.

“A thug is a thug is a thug,” types one. “I don’t wish [Tyler] well … I don’t think he dTyler Smith & Bruce Pearleserves it,” submits another. Cold.

Cold because he was an otherwise good kid: the one who walked with tattooed tears in remembrance of his dad; the young father who lit up “like a Christmas tree” at the mention of his son; the amateur who began donning cardigans for the NBA suits to see, “Because Coach Pearl said, if they’re going to invest millions in you, they want to see you look the part: nice and professional.”

Smith said and did the right things—he unremarkably went about his growth, which is a compliment and not a sleight. But crime can be an eraser, and a fine personality, a feel-good story that swung personal misfortune into triumph, has been wiped away. A biting headline told him to get lost. A surrogate father, Pearl, said that he shares in Smith’s failure. And scouts forecast that Tyler Smith, once an All-SEC name, will have a rainy draft day.

“Unless you are a high lottery pick, you’ve got to be substantially better than your problems,” wrote Dave Telep, national recruiting director for Scout.com, in an email. “If there’s not a huge gap between your issues and your ability, then you’re at risk to falling in the Draft. Given the timing of the Arenas deal and [Smith’s], you’ve got to figure it’s going to have a big impact.”

How big of an impact? Perhaps something irrevocably damaging. “There will likely be some pressure from the League to stay Tyler Smithaway from him based on his history,” said Aran Smith, president of NBADraft.net. “I would be surprised if he gets drafted.” What a precipitous fall that would be for Tennessee’s Smith, whom Aran’s service ranked 25th on its 2010 big board (updated November 23)—precipitous, but unsurprising.

This is, after all, the reality of the merger between guns and sports: guns are malignant tumors, a third rail of an athlete’s makeup. If you mess with them, you get burned, almost without exception. Is that just? Probably. Alcohol can be a weapon if it sits behind a wheel, but people otherwise sober up. Highs come down, too, and weed is hardly a wrecking ball—worst case scenario: the philosophizing nomad that is Ricky Williams. Kids can grow up from that.

But guns are associated with nasty connotations: violence and wayward lives. Given the recent history of the League and the NFL (Marvin Harrison, Tank Johnson, Steve McNair), that’s understandable. What’s lost among the contempt toward Tyler Smith, though, is that redemption is still in the cards.

Telfair did it. He was slapped with a three-game suspension, but he emerged. Delonte is doing it as we speak. Though his circumstances are ongoing, his organization has provided to him a blanket while he tries to better himself. “No matter what any of our guys are going through, if we can protect them then we’ll try to do that,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown.

Is Smith a Telfair or West kind of talent? No. But surely the high praise he drew fromTyler Smith former coach Steve Alford was for something. “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.”

It’s rather extraordinary that human nature inclines us to lower the axe on the branches, not the roots, of a problem. Tyler Smith’s situation is certainly serious. But his case, the case of a fatherless 23-year-old who finds himself among a subculture in which violence is oftentimes just a part of life, is hardly unique, and it’s sad. He deserves punishment, yes—unconditional scorn, no.

His can be a path of contrition—he can saddle up again and turn away from trouble, not just hide it under a passenger’s seat. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have the chance.