Tyler Smith, whose pro basketball career included stints with the Hitachi Sunrockers and Link Tochigi Brex in the now-disbanded JBL, has published his first book, “Called for Traveling: My Nomadic Life Playing Pro Basketball around the World.”
The entertaining 384-page tome, the subject of an upcoming Hoop Scoop column, was published in the fall.
Smith played 11 seasons of pro basketball in several far-flung locales, including Uruguay, the Netherlands and Thailand, before retiring in 2013.
In a recent email exchange, The Japan Times caught up with Smith, who resides in Pennsylvania with his wife and three daughters. A former Penn State forward and three-year starter for the Nittany Lions, Smith provided an in-depth look at how the book transpired, what the challenges of writing it were and how he views the project now that it’s completed, among other topics.
Broadcaster Kenny Albert summed up the book this way in a concise review: “Tyler Smith’s globetrotting tale is an entertaining look at life as an athlete on the fringe of his sport. Called for Traveling is a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to keep the dream alive. It is replete with colorful characters and legends of basketball, which play an integral part in why, for some, those dreams never go away.”
Hoop Scoop: How instrumental was editor Rick Wolff, the son of legendary broadcaster Bob Wolff, who passed away last year at age 96, in helping get the project from start to finish? Can you offer a few anecdotes about that?
Tyler Smith: A friend of mine connected me with Rick as they played baseball together in college and still stay in touch. I sent Rick a few chapters of the book and he really enjoyed it. He shared it with another friend of his who is a senior editor at Skyhorse Publishing in NYC. Sure enough, Skyhorse really liked it and that led to me getting a publishing deal. Often times, it just takes one person to like it in the right situation and Rick was a significant part of connecting me with the right people. Without Rick, I’m probably feeding paper through a printing press as we speak and watching “Bind Your Own Books” videos on YouTube.
Have you made several book tour stops and/or speaking engagements locally or regionally to help promote the book?
Yes, I’m on ESPN radio weekly for a 15-minute gig talking about the book and my journey with the host of a regional sports talk show. I did an interview with NPR which will air on over 300 stations nationally coming up soon. I have done five different book signings and another five or so are upcoming. The timing worked out really well with the book being released in the fall and then hitting the shelves right before basketball season is underway. I’m always open to more speaking engagements as I love that stuff. So if you know of any ladies knitting or book clubs that would like a guest speaker, I’m your guy.
Can you give a basic rundown of how you’ve done that?
I reached out to a few different outlets that I thought may be interested in the book. Some of them are sports related and others have a Penn State connection. The PSU community is a great way to share the book as the alumni are typically very involved and loyal to the university. Other places like NPR, I literally looked them up and cold called them. I didn’t have anything to lose other than, “Hey, your book stinks.” So, why not?
What are some of the memorable and, perhaps to you, surprising reactions to the book by those who’ve read it? Has it been mostly positive?
The very first review on Amazon was a four-star review and being the competitive person I am, I was like, “Shoot! Why not a 5-star? What didn’t they like?” But, then I actually read what they wrote and it was all positive.
In fact, the reaction has been 100 percent positive which has really blown me away. No hate mail yet. I hoped that people would like it, but you never really know for sure. One of my favorite reactions to the book was by a man who is about 70 years old and said that he hadn’t read more than five books since graduating college. He said that he couldn’t put it down and absolutely loved it. That really put a smile on my face. I get such a kick out of people’s reaction to it.
What’s the feeling like to have the project completed and to be able to now look back at as a published document about your life’s journey and your family’s?
It is extremely gratifying. The process of writing a book for me was so long and it looked like this: writing everything down into a first draft, editing it over and over again with multiple editors so that it doesn’t stink, hunting down possible agents and publishers and trying to convince them that this is the next “Lord of the Rings” best seller, negotiating the book deal, then waiting and waiting for it to be published into a physical copy, and then marketing it so that people know that it’s out there and will change their life. In a nutshell, it’s a LONG process. So, when the UPS guy came to my door with the first copies in October 2017, I practically tackled him and giggled like a schoolgirl.
Playing and living overseas for 11 years was such a unique journey and there are just so many crazy stories from that time. I just wanted to have it recorded and thought that others may enjoy a look into a different lifestyle that involved basketball, travel, family, and faith.
Your sense of humor shines through in the book. I see it, in a way, as an extension of some of those journal entry-like emails from your playing days. Do you think you are more humorous in spoken language or written? Or about the same?
I think I’m more humorous on paper. I can refine it a little more before it goes out. I am always trying to make my wife and kids laugh. I get a ton of eye rolls like all good dads. So I play the percentages . . . if I throw enough goofy stuff out there, at some point something will stick and their stomachs will hurt from laughing.
I actually used the mass emails that I sent out to people over the years to jog my brain and provide a bit of a framework for many of the chapters. In such an unstable world of overseas basketball where you often don’t get paid and could get cut at any moment from a team that doesn’t speak your language, you HAVE to have a sense of humor to deal with all the chaos. If you don’t take yourself too seriously and step back to look at everything, it really is pretty funny in so many ways.
From start to finish, how long did this book project take? What prompted you to decide to devote your time and energy to it?
It started with my mass emails that I would send to friends and family. People couldn’t believe some of the things that would happen overseas like playing on concrete floors, driving 30 hours on a bus one-way for a game, and teams not paying players. Their reaction was so fun and encouraging that it made me wonder if I could ever turn it into a book. Many people suggested that I should. Like anything else in life, it’s easy to say, but hard to do.
I started in January 2013 and my New Year’s resolution was to finally write this thing. I wrote one chapter per month for 12 months. At the end of the year I had my first draft and I was pumped. I used three different editors to really fine tune it and worked on it off and on. If nothing else, I’d have it for my collection and my kids could read it someday and my mom’s book club would buy like four copies. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in my last year as a pro player at 33 years old. I usually wrote at night between 10 p.m.-2 a.m. with some candy by my side to keep my brain sharp and everyone was sleeping.
Was there a particular section of the book that was hardest to write? Hardest to recall enough details to fill in the blanks from the opening of a chapter to the end of it?
The first Holland chapter was hard to write because I thought it was too long and wasn’t as interesting. I wanted people to get pulled in right away and be attached to the book. But, I didn’t see where I could cut anything because I felt like it was all part of my story and my time there. I ended up making it multiple chapters and trimming it enough that I was happy about it.
In a nutshell, what do you think the book accomplished as a window into the life of what it’s really like for overseas pro basketball players?
I think it gives the reader a more realistic view into the lifestyle of players who go overseas. There are more uncertainties, challenges, and stressful situations than you might imagine. It’s not always a glamorous “isn’t it great to live in Europe!” fairy tale. Yes, some guys make very good money. But the majority of players won’t be able to retire completely and play golf every day when their careers are over. It’s a terrific season of life, full of challenges, but full of some very exciting times as well. I would not have had the opportunity to see the world and be immersed in so many cultures without basketball. I joke a lot about some of the craziness in every country, but I truly did enjoy each place that I played.
Sure, it’s now the B. League era after pro basketball’s major overhaul here and the merging of the bj-league, NBL and NBDL. That said, do you think that someone who didn’t get to see those teams and the unique dynamics of those leagues and how they were run can vividly understand what it was like when you suited up for the Sunrockers and the Brex?
I think it’s good that the league has consolidated and moved forward toward the pro model. It was interesting how most of my team with Hitachi would put a suit on and go to work in the office for the first half of the day before coming to practice. I had so much respect for those guys because they worked so hard. All I had to do was play basketball, but those guys had to do both year round.