Lasting impact
Wesleyan grad Smith grabs attention for more than play

ATLANTA - Tanner Smith and his father used to attend ACC games at Georgia Tech, their basketball dream a shared one.

"He always wanted to see me play here," the Clemson freshman said.

Thanks to his release from the hospital the day before, Craig Smith got to do just that on Sunday.

"To have him be able to come to the game was great," said the son. "I was afraid that he was going to have to miss it. So this was really cool."

When the former Wesleyan standout was just 3, his father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The disease is in remission, but Craig Smith developed graft-versus-host disease after his bone-marrow transplant. He has just 25 percent use of his lungs and it was pneumonia that landed him back in the hospital last week.

"I didn't think he'd be able to get out in time and I knew how much he wanted to see this game," Tanner Smith said. "He loves basketball and loves to see me play."

For one of the few times this season, the 6-foot-5 guard didn't score a point against Georgia Tech, where his father attended before going to Emory for dental school. But he did have three assists and three rebounds off the bench in Clemson's 81-73 victory.

Smith is a key part of a nine-player Clemson rotation that has carried the Tigers to a 22-4 record and a No. 12 national ranking. With his role on the court has come more attention to his life off it.

Touched by his father's battle with cancer, Smith early on had the dream of helping children fighting the disease. While still in elementary school, he began Tanner's Totes in which gift bags are delivered to children in hospitals.

The nonprofit effort has grown along with Smith. More than 1,200 bags have been delivered in Georgia and South Carolina.

Tanner's Totes were written about by the Gwinnett Daily Post and a few weekly newspapers while Smith was at Wesleyan, but now the effort is drawing national attention.

Last year, the Smith family was featured on HGTV's "Deserving Design" show with Vern Yip. Last week, a lengthy feature on ESPN.com told the story of Tanner's Totes.

"It's crazy the number of people who have e-mailed me after that story," Smith said. "The outpouring has been amazing. So many people have wanted to donate and help.

"We are in tough economic times right now. To have so many people willing to give money really touches my heart. It means so much."

Smith will major in business at Clemson and he will certainly be able to put that degree to good use with Tanner's Totes. Right now, however, is primary attention is on the court.

Despite his success at Wesleyan, where he was the title game MVP last season as the Wolves won the Class AA state championship, some questioned if Smith was athletic enough to play in the ACC or SEC.

Clemson coach Oliver Purnell felt that Smith could be the "ultimate glue guy" for his team. But even the veteran coach has seen Smith exceed his early expectations.

Instead of a defensive liability, Smith has been a defensive stopper for the Tigers.

"I thought it would take a while for him to adjust defensively," Purnell said. "But by our first game, we were putting him in as a defensive sub. He's really warmed to the role. He has such a high basketball IQ that it didn't take him long to figure out our press and other things we do. When we want a big defensive stop, we usually have him on the floor."

"It's weird," Smith said of his defensive transformation. "I'm not the fastest guy. I'm not the quickest guy. I'm not the most athletic. Basically, I'm just giving it a lot of effort. I bring as much energy as I can."

Smith sparked Clemson's first-half comeback against Georgia Tech, at least briefly slowing down Lewis Clinch and also getting the Tigers' offense going with a couple of nice assists. Smith hasn't scored in double figures since getting 11 points in the opener against Hofstra, but he gives Clemson a valuable 15 minutes per game.

He is averaging 3.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists.

The game at Georgia Tech was Smith's first trip back to Atlanta as a college player, but not his last this season. The ACC Tournament will be at the Georgia Dome on March 12-15.

"It's going to be really exciting," Smith said. "I remember going to the SEC Tournament at the Dome with my dad. I never thought that I'd by playing in such a big arena, on such a big stage.

"Coming back here and playing Georgia Tech was a good warm-up for that. I'm glad that my dad didn't miss it. He's gone through so much and handles everything so well. I know how much seeing me play means to him and how much it does for my mom, too. I know that I'll have a lot of people pulling for me at the ACC Tournament."

SideBar: The Smith File

· Who: Tanner Smith

· College: Clemson

· Year: Freshman

· High school: Wesleyan, where he helped lead the Wolves to the 2008 Class AA state basketball title

· Parents: Craig and Kathy Smith

· Little-known talent: Juggling

· Charitable work: Began Tanner's Totes to deliver gift bags to children in the hospital suffering from cancer and other long-term illnesses. Information is available at www.tannerstotes.com.