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March 1, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Tanner Smith always thinks ahead.
On the basketball court for Clemson, he’s the player who sees what’s happening on offense and defense, understands how his team needs to respond and communicates that to his teammates.
Off the court, he’s the founder of a nonprofit called Tanner’s Totes, which provides tote bags filled with fun, colorful items to help seriously ill preteens and teenagers deal with long-term stays in the hospital. It has delivered more than 3,000 totes to hospitals across the country and Smith constantly looks for new marketing ideas and ways to expand, not only to more states but even internationally.
Then there’s a plan for his own career that entails playing professionally as long as possible in the NBA or overseas, followed by college coaching and eventually winding up as a head coach in the ACC.
That’s enough to fill three lives, let alone one, but Tanner Smith wouldn’t have it any other way.
To get a sense of this young man, you need to understand his relationship with his father. Craig Smith took him to see basketball games at Georgia Tech, where Tanner got the desire, scrawny as he was, to play in the ACC.
“My dad always talked about different ways you can affect a game besides just scoring the ball,” Smith said. “I think it has come out this year. It’s in my ability to get other guys good shots, I rebound the ball well, watch the passing lanes for steals and score a little bit. So I guess it came from my dad that you don’t always have to have a 20-point scoring night to affect a game and get your team a win.”
Smith is Clemson’s best all-around player, averaging 11.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists. The 6-foot-5 senior is playing the best basketball of his career, filling up a lot of columns on the stat sheet. Coach Brad Brownell also loves the way Smith does the intangible things, like in-bounding the ball against pressure and doing most of the talking when the team huddles at the foul line.
“He probably doesn’t do anything that’s eye-popping,” said Brownell, “but he’s a glue guy that coaches love to have on their team because he can do different things. He’s just a really solid player. He comes to work every day, he’s bright, he understands our system and what we’re trying to do with game-planning.”
Clemson has overcome a 3-6 start in ACC play to even its record at 7-7. The Tigers have won four of their last five heading into Thursday’s home game against Virginia Tech. Hokies’ coach Seth Greenberg appreciates the contributions made by the versatile Smith.
“He can defend, he puts it on the floor, he shoots it, he makes other people better, he’s an excellent passer, he’s a great teammate watching from the outside in,” Greenberg said. “He’s a winning player. If there’s a loose ball odds are he’s going to be on it. He’s just a very complete, good player that any and every coach in our league would want on their team.”
Being an all-around basketball player was just one inspiration Tanner Smith drew from his father. Another eventually led to the formation of Tanner’s Totes.
Craig Smith was a dentist in Alpharetta, Ga., when he was stricken with cancer nearly 20 years ago. One way he maintained a positive attitude during his stays in the hospital was by brightening his room with cards, flowers and other cheerful items, and that made an early impression on young Tanner.
A bone marrow transplant eliminated the cancer but led to a disease known as Graft vs. Host. It leaves Craig Smith prone to infections and has robbed him of his ability to make tears and saliva. He had to give up his dental practice and now has a job where he works out of his home.
“We’re so close because of something that happened to him that was so bad, so it’s tough to put into words,” Tanner said. “He’s always been there for me, he’s always been home when I got home from school, always there to talk to me whenever I needed some advice, always does his best to get to games. Just the other day, the NC State game on Saturday, he had a foot infection but he made it up to Clemson to see me play.
“There have been so many times when he could just throw the towel in, feel sorry for himself and have a bunch of people patting him on the back and saying ‘you deserve to have a little bit of a rest.’ But he’s always doing what he needs to do to take care of our family.
“The battles that I fight on a basketball court are nothing compared to the battles he fights every minute of every day. I’m honored to have him not only as a dad but as a role model and as a hero. He’s taught me a lot about perseverance and what it really means to be a man and I’ll always be indebted to him for that.”
When Tanner was in the fourth grade he wrote a class assignment paper called “My Three Wishes.” The first was to have a golden retriever. The second was to be a professional basketball player, a wish that can still materialize. And the third was to make kids with cancer laugh.
His parents read the paper and made sure he got his dog, which he named Griffey (after Ken Griffey Jr.), for Christmas. They didn’t really think anything about the last wish until he wrote about it again in the sixth grade. Then they talked to him about it in earnest.
“I just had to take the initiative to get it done,” Smith said.
A friend of his mother who works at a hospital suggested that preteens and teenagers were often overlooked when it came to long-term cancer care. A relative took care of screen printing some tote bags and Tanner helped fill them with items and delivered them to a local hospital.
He was all of 12 years old.
If the people at the hospital, while appreciative, thought that delivery was a one-time thing, they didn’t know Tanner Smith.
“Three thousand tote bags later, 45 hospitals, 20 different states, we’re still going,” he said. “It’s been a real blessing, I think, for my father as well, to see how his illness has helped to send 3,000 totes all across the country.”
Tanner’s Totes (tannerstotes.com) is certified as a nonprofit and operates out of his parents’ house. It buys all the items – everything has to be new to eliminate any risk of infection – and pays for all the shipping. Each tote costs between $60 and $70 to fill and is stuffed with items like drawing pads, colored pencils, playing cards, games and puzzles, small flashlights, foam sports balls and disposable cameras, things to help preteens and teenagers cope with the loneliness and fearfulness of a long-term hospital stay.
“It’s really hard to wrap my head around it sometimes,” Smith said. “We had a tournament this Christmas in Hawaii and when we landed I looked out the window and there’s one of the hospitals that we deliver totes to.
“That’s when it hit home to me that wow, this is as far as you can possibly get from Atlanta. It’s truly amazing to think about where it’s gone and the possibilities of where it can go in the future. It’s something I’ll continue for the rest of my life, I know, and I’m real excited to see where it goes from here.”
Tanner’s Totes has gotten exposure from a segment on ESPN plus local and national stories in the print media. NBA star Blake Griffin heard about it and made a donation and Smith, ever the forward thinker, would love to get him more involved in the off-season.
“It’s gotten so big now where I can never imagine just stopping it,” Smith said. “I’ve seen the effect that it has on these kids, I’ve seen their appreciation. The plan is to continue it even when I’m playing, whether I’m here in the states or overseas.
“Theoretically the next step is to get Tanner’s Totes internationally, in different countries. I’d love to go see what those hospitals are like and what the kids need because there might have to be a different international tote than there is a domestic tote. There are a lot of different things we’d have to consider, but I think that would be something that’s really cool for the kids, say, in France to get a Tanner’s Tote.”
There are just a few more games left in Smith’s college career – two in the regular season plus the ACC Tournament and possibly some post-season play. There’s a lot on his mind as he considers the possibilities in his future. But he never lets his passion for one thing interfere with his passion for another. He believes he owes it to the kids of Tanner’s Totes, who wish they had the health to do what he does, to play as well and as hard as he can.
“I do feel like there obviously are much more important things in life than a basketball game,” he said. “But at the same time this is something I’ve put a lot of my own time into, this is something I’ve been blessed with an opportunity and I feel like I’ve got to take full advantage of it.
“I’ve done my best to take advantage of every day, of every game, of every practice, and that’s my duty because I’ve been blessed with the talent that I get to enjoy every day. Basketball games aren’t life and death situations but they are important and something that I need to take as seriously as possible in order to honor myself, my family and God and the kids that wish they could be in this situation.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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