Glory Days with Lake Forest Basketball Player Tyler Smith

Now playing professionally in Uruguay, Smith's basketball career has taken him all over the world.

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad plan after all.

Mundelein was the 14th seed in the Waukegan Sectional in the winter of 1997. The Mustangs wouldn’t have much of a shot of knocking off third-seeded Lake Forest, especially since Tyler Smith and the Scouts had handled them twice earlier in the campaign.

So the Mustangs decided to hang onto the ball.

“We had a much bigger and stronger team overall,” Smith said. “So they came out and tried to stall. I had never played in a game like that before. They would literally hold the ball for five or six minutes at a time. At halftime, we were up 15-9. And that was only because I hit a shot before heading into the locker room.”

At the halftime meeting, Smith got another surprise. His coach at the time was Bill Donlan.

“It was comical,” Smith said. “This was supposed to be the playoffs where both teams fight to the bitter end in an all-or-nothing battle. And no one had broken a sweat. What in the world were we supposed to do? They just kept running away from us. Coach Donlan said, ‘We have the ball to start the second half. And we are going to hold the ball.’

The game turned stranger by the moment.

“It was so weird,” Smith recalled. “All 10 guys just standing there. The clock ticking away. We held the ball for eight straight minutes before taking a shot to finish the third quarter.”

Smith estimated the game took all of 45 minutes and the Scouts won the game, 30-15.

Most players give up on basketball when they depart high school, but not Smith. He’s officially more than 5,000 miles from home — his latest stop on the basketball express is Uruguay.

“Basketball has taken me literally all over the world,” Smith said. “I’ve played in Holland twice, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay three times, Japan four times, and even China, where I played against Yao Ming and all 7-foot-5 of his largeness. Talk about a big dude. I’m 6-8. I looked at him in his stomach. I’ve never felt so small in my life.”

All that traveling followed his college basketball scholarship to Penn State.

“Tyler was a beast,” said former Libertyville two-sport star Tim Beshel. “He had very strong lower-body strength especially. He had a great career at Penn State. I followed him while he was there.”

Lake Forest athletics director Tim Burkhalter won’t soon forget the basketball career of this traveling giant.

“Tyler was an outstanding basketball player,” Burkhalter said. “He always gave maximum effort, whether it was a drill in practice, an assignment for attacking/preparing for a particular opponent, or working in the offseason to improve on his game. Tyler had an unparalleled work ethic, combined with a true passion for the game of basketball that served him well on and off the basketball court.”

Head to Sectional

Smith’s team won 23 games that winter of 1997 and advanced to the state sectional in Waukegan. More than a decade later, he still recalls his teammates and what they brought to that winning squad.

“Mark Gustavson and Adam Galloway were our team leaders and brought a lot of toughness to our team,” Smith said. “They were competitors and very smart players. Andy Serafine was our point guard and did a great job distributing the ball and knocking down threes. Mike Pitt was a good three-point shooter also. And Jake Karstens and Phil Irvine played key roles as well.”

Behind it all was Donlan, whose raspy voice could be heard throughout the gym.

“Things really came together that year and we won a lot of big games,” he said. “Coach Donlan kept yelling. And we kept winning. By halftime of every one of our games, the man could only muster a whisper. He would down these throat drops like an 8-year-old eating candy with no parents around.”

Smith nearly had a triple double in a sectional win over Warren.

“I played very well that game and had about 16 points and 11 blocks,” he said. “In all my years of playing, it was my only shot at a triple double. I only needed to get 10 rebounds, which should have been very doable. Somehow I only got seven or eight, and it still haunts me. No!”

The sectional title game matched up Deerfield and its star, Ryan Hogan, against Smith and company.

“We did all we could, but they were just the better team that night,” Smith said. “It was a great run, and I was very proud to be a part of one of the best basketball teams in Lake Forest history.”

Tall Order

Even growing up in Lake Bluff, he was always tall.

“I was always just a tall kid and never truly had a growth spurt,” Smith said. “I was always bigger than everyone my age and even a couple years older. I can remember being in junior high and in seventh grade, I was taller than every person in the building including the teachers and administrators.”

Tall didn’t mean he was able to dunk the basketball whenever the mood struck. Smith took some time to play football when he was a sophomore at Lake Forest.

“Mike Munda was our sophomore football coach and he was fantastic,” Smith said. “I had played basketball for him the previous year and missed a couple opportunities for a dunk. I was 6-6 at the time, but suffering greatly from white man’s disease. I inherited my dad’s height, but also his less than stellar leaping ability.”

The plot thickened.

“The day before we played Zion, coach Munda came up to me during practice. ‘Smith, you never dunked for me during basketball season. So, tomorrow when you score a touchdown, you’re going to dunk it through the goalpost’.”

Smith did not waste much time thinking about this proposition. After all, this was an option team that did not throw the ball. Plus, Smith had not even come close to scoring a touchdown during the season.

“And that would be a penalty,” he added. “And coaches hate penalties — almost as much as they hate refs.”

Of course, Smith caught a short pass from quarterback Phil Irvine and was off to the races.

“I’m thinking I can’t go down. Munda might kill me.” Smith said. “I stayed on my feet and was all alone to run the final 20 yards into the end zone. Here goes nothing. I’d like to say there was a 360 in there and I swung from the goal post with two hands. In reality, it was more of a rub-dunk/layup.”

In addition, the referee clearly witnessed this nutty act.

“It was good enough that the ref threw his flag as high as he could,” Smith said. “And Munda seemed to be pretty pleased.”

How Do You Spell Smith?

Smith had a strange introduction to Penn State.

“The first letter I received from Penn State, they spelled my name wrong,” he said. “I don’t know how you mess up ‘Smith’. But they did. It wasn’t exactly my dream school. I liked their colors. I knew they had a good football team, and I think some famous coach or something. But I couldn’t tell you much more than that.”

A visit to the State College campus changed his mind.

“When I went on my visit to Penn State, everything just clicked,” Smith said. “The players were great. The campus was incredible. And their arena was amazing. It seated 16,000 and was less than 2 years old. They played in the Big Ten — one of the best conferences in the country.”

In March 2001, Smith hit a short jumper to give his Penn State team a lead. The Nittany Lions pulled off the big upset by beating Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and North Carolina, 82-74.

“I enjoyed four terrific years at Penn State,” Smith said. “That included a third-place finish in the NIT and an incredible run to the Big Dance where we knocked off North Carolina and made it to the Sweet 16 in 2001.”

Going Pro

While touring the world of basketball, there was a stop with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

“I had a cup of coffee, maybe more like espresso, with the Utah Jazz,” he said. “My locker was next to Derek Fisher and Andrei Kirilenko. Carlos Boozer was a beast and left me with a few scars that I will forever remember him by. Deron Williams was (and still is) as good as they get at point guard, and his competitiveness is unique.”

His tryout with the Jazz brings back good memories.

“The funny thing was, I was 26 years old,” he said. “I was older than half the team. Yet, I was the rookie. I had to remind myself of that sometimes because I didn’t have time to be intimidated.”

Now his mission is to find a cool spot to hang out with wife, Cora, and daughter Hannah. Again, he is in South America.

“On the East Coast right next to Argentina,” Smith said. “Just look for where the sun looks might it burn a hole right through you and you’ll find it. It’s so stinking hot down here and we don’t have air conditioning. The gyms don’t have air conditioning, either. I guess they are just used to it. I’m working on it. I go through two different jerseys per game because I sweat buckets. I might need to upgrade to three or four. Pray for my wife who is six months pregnant and can’t get cool to save her life.”

Never mind that there are a dozen riot police at every one of his home games.

“Right now it’s summer down here and the beach is about five minutes away,” he said. “So life isn’t all bad. I enjoy it here and am thankful to the good Lord that I am still playing. This is my 10th year playing professionally and it has been quite a ride.”

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