Tyler Smith made a wise decision.
He paid attention to details throughout his pro basketball career.
He remembered the names and faces and places and conversations that sprung up in every corner of the globe while he earned a living, though often not always on time, as a big man with a set of skills that required him to wear sneakers and shorts to work.
The Penn State alumni truly appreciated the journeys that he experienced while suiting up for 12 teams in seven countries on four continents in 11 years before retiring. This included stints with the Hitachi Sunrockers and Link Tochigi Brex for several seasons during the JBL era. (He also recalled the real-time fear of the Great East Japan Earthquake from his hotel room in Tokyo, hours before a scheduled game against Aisin.)
These experiences form the backbone of his new book, “Called for Traveling: My Nomadic Life Playing Pro Basketball Around the World.”
It’s a delight to be along for the metaphorical ride as Smith tells the tales that cobbled together so many of his experiences as a player and as a young adult juggling the duties of being a newlywed and a new father, too.
Smith’s self-depreciating humor enriched the narrative with anecdotes from start to finish and kept the mood light-hearted on many occasions.
And when it was time to begin the next chapter of his life in 2013, he found a funny way to sum it all up.
Toward the end of his book, which was published last fall, Smith takes stock of his long run as a pro ballplayer.
“It was October 2013 and no teams were calling,” he wrote. “It looked like the end of the road. I’d fooled plenty of people into paying me to play basketball for eleven years. It was longer than anyone would have guessed. But it was time to move on. The market for slow 6-foot-8 white guys in their mid-thirties was dwindling. Who knew?”
Throughout the book, which checks in at just over 360 pages, but never feels like an exercise in pomposity, Smith delivers a revealing look at what it was really like to ply his craft in Holland, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, the Chinese Basketball Association pro draft camp in rural Oregon (Rick Barry was there to help run the show), the NBA Development League (he played for Anaheim under Reggie Geary, who later piloted the Yokohama B-Corsairs to a bj-league title), Japan and Thailand.
He takes us inside the Utah Jazz training camp where he had a small taste of the big time in the preseason.
“The NBA had no shortage of perks. Nearby BMW dealers tracked us down in the parking lot after practice and offered to open up the dealership after hours for us if we were interested,” Smith wrote. “I never did take them up on it, but I should have at least taken one out for a test drive.
“Nor did I buy a suit from the rep who knocked on my hotel door during training camp and did custom measurements on the spot. This way, we wouldn’t have to actually visit a store. How inconvenient that would have been.
“The trainers handed out our meal money of $106 per day. I’m a big eater, but I had never spent $106 on just myself at a restaurant. I even tried one day, but I got full and fell short.”
He dealt with shady agents and also with folks who practiced common decency. Early on, he discovered that scams are a part of the M.O. for some agents. A well-connected agent whom he trusted set him straight about another in the business before Smith ever played a pro game.
A fellow named Rick Smith warned Smith about committing to begin his career in England with a contract that appeared too good to be true.
“This guy is a con artist,” Rick Smith was quoted as saying about Terry Donahue. “He pretends to represent pro teams over in Europe and calls players who don’t know any better and offers them a contract. Then he will try and get them to pay for some paperwork or a work visa up front and promises he will reimburse them later. . . And once he has your money he’s gone.”
Smith signed his first pro contract on July 4, 2002, for $2,250 per month for a Dutch team. He played for Herman van den Belt as a rookie.
The Dutch coach left a favorable impression on Smith, who wrote: “He had a great heart, and I immediately got the impression that he cared deeply not only for the game of basketball but for his players.”
In his first pro game, Smith was forced to adjust to a less than ideal playing surface, a game in which he scored 15 points and “probably tallied just as many traveling calls.” He explained that international rules for traveling were quite different than what he was used to while at Penn State or before that growing up in Illinois. As for that unforgettable court, Smith described it this way: “The floor was made of some sort of multipurpose material better suited for beginning ice skaters. It was a cross between Styrofoam and cardboard with the slickness of a bowling alley. It was impossible to make a sharp cut.”
Let’s fast forward to Smith’s adventures (and misadventures) in Uruguay.
One day, he didn’t have toilet paper. Ninety minutes before a game, there was a real crisis.
“Johnny was our team manager and he dug in one of his equipment bags and handed me a fresh roll,” he wrote. “Am I the only one who found it strange that we carried our own toilet paper to away games?”
For Smith, one of the most memorable characters in Uruguay was a teammate nicknamed Bicho.
“Bicho is best translated as an annoying tick that clings onto a dog or some animal in warm climates,” Smith explained.
On the same page, he provided additional, vivid details, most notably these: “Bicho’s signature move was to shove a defender into one of our teammates who were shooting, drawing a foul on the other team and sending us to the free throw line. Most of those plays would never have resulted in free throws, as the defender was far enough away not to touch the shooter. But Bicho would nudge him back as hard as he needed, often with two hands to the defender’s back, to make sure that the defender collided with our player who had the ball. He was one of those players you hated to play against but loved when he was on your team. . . . There wasn’t a more appropriate nickname on the planet.”
Indeed, the space constraints of this column will not enable me to go on and on about most of the colorful characters who fill Smith’s book from all corners of the globe. They are there, though.
In August 2008, Tyler, his wife Cara and their two-month-old daughter Hannah began their journey to Japan. A 6 a.m. flight out of State College, Pennsylvania, was the start of an epic 24-hour trip.
A few months later, he was adjusting to life as a Sunrocker and to the other quirky team nicknames in the JBL.
“We had teams named the Diamond Dolphins, the Brave Thunders and the Seahorses,” he wrote. “Dolphins are loveable. I am unaware multiple thunder could be brave. And who was scared of a seahorse? Nike really needs to send some of their marketing and branding people our way.”
During his time with Hitachi, Smith expressed admiration for head coach Shuji Ono’s leadership and tactics. The veteran mentor, though, could also be unpredictable and a man of mystery.
“When I walked into the locker room for our pregame meeting, the entire white board was covered in English,” Smith recalled.
He asked assistant coach Shunsuke Todo who wrote it, knowing that the team’s bench boss always conversed in Japanese. Todo told him that Ono did it.
“I thought he couldn’t speak English,” Smith said to Todo.
“He can’t,” the assistant replied. “But he can read and write it.”
Less unpredictable was the overwhelming fan support that then-Sunrockers guard Kei Igarashi received. (He now stars for the Niigata Albirex BB.)
Smith described Igarashi as the “Justin Timberlake of our league, as the women loved him.”
He added: “Over 80 percent of our fans were female, thanks in large part to Kei’s popularity. After every game, they would line up to give him gifts. He would get on the team bus with grocery bags full of presents from the fans, everything from chocolates to lotions to boxers. Every gift was intricately wrapped and presented to him as if his fan were giving the most important offering of her life to the emperor.”
Yes, there are also numerous anecdotes about many more prominent players from yesteryear who are still ballin’ in Japan, including Yuta Tabuse, Joji Takeuchi, Takuya Kawamura, J.R. Sakuragi, Jawad Williams, among others.
Smith is an effective tour guide, taking us behind the scenes in Japan pro hoops, questioning the rigidity of how things are, while also marveling at the dedication and earnest work done by team trainers and managers day in and day out.
Page after page, the book’s journal-like structure is infused with little tales about the memories that Smith stored in his brain.
Such as daddy and daughter time with Hannah at a Japanese sports club.
“I loved taking Hannah to her swim and play classes on Tuesdays,” he wrote. “It was just me and the mommies. All the other dads were working because they had normal jobs, while I generally had the mornings free. The giant white American with his little crazy blonde tornado and all the tiny Japanese moms and their perfectly behaved kids. We blended in like a homeless person at a black-tie event.”
Or the time toward the end of his career when he went at an open-air restaurant in Thailand for a post-game meal.
“As I was being cultural and eating whatever was placed in front of me, including bony chicken feet, an elephant stuck his head inside the eatery,” wrote Smith, whose love of pizza appears throughout the book.
“I about knocked over our table as I jumped up and whipped out my phone to take a picture. . . . The elephant was with two trainers, and we bought some sugarcane from them so we could feed him.
“I glanced back to see if anyone else wanted to join in for a chance to rub its trunk. No one moved. The entire restaurant seemed unimpressed.”