CLEMSON -- Tanner Smith searched for a face in the corridor leading from the locker room to the court as he prepared for his final pregame entrance at Littlejohn Coliseum last week. As Smith moved toward the court, he spotted the person he was seeking, slowed and slapped hands with his father Craig, seated in a wheelchair.
Craig Smith offered only a few words of encouragement as his son trotted past with his teammates.
The father is never quite done teaching. A former walk-on at Tennessee Tech, he had taught his son the game of basketball. Craig's health issues also taught his son empathy, urgency and courage.
Clemson's first-round ACC tournament game against Virginia Tech today in Tanner's hometown of Atlanta could be the last in his college career.
Tanner won't be a first-round draft pick and his name won't be found in the school's record book. But few Clemson players have had such perspective, few have done as much good and few have learned as much from their father.
Craig Smith was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when Tanner was 3. The cancer is in remission, but a bone marrow transplant from Craig's sister led to graft-versus-host disease, a condition that causes white blood cells to attack one's own body.
The disease prevents Craig from producing saliva or tears. He has become susceptible to infection and has a foot ailment that requires him to take intravenous medication twice a day. He can only walk short distances.
Craig had to give up his dental practice long ago. He has been in and out of hospitals for 18 years. Tanner and his mother Kathy have been there every step of the way, waiting and praying.
"Tanner was thrown in at a young age to some major issues," Craig said. "He's always been around people who have been in hospitals. I think he saw there's always a need to cheer people up. I don't know why a 9-year-old would want to do that but he did.
"He's got empathy for people."
At age 9, Tanner had to make a list of three wishes for a school assignment. His list read: to have a golden retriever, to play pro basketball and to make children with cancer smile. After seeing the list, his parents made sure Tanner received a golden retriever puppy. He is working toward a pro career overseas. And three years after writing that list, Tanner began making sick children smile by delivering bags of goodies to them in the hospital.
Ten years later, Tanner's Totes has become a non-profit charity providing care packages to critically ill children. More than 3,000 of the $70 care packages have been delivered to 45 hospitals in 25 states. The organization has been featured on ESPN.
"I just have a different perspective," Tanner said. "I have a really good feel on what life's really about … what people are going through."
Craig said his son's empathy, his selflessness, can be seen on the court, too. Smith leads Clemson with 4.1 assists per game.
"He's always tried to make his teammates better," Craig said. "I think he's kind of been unselfish to a fault."
Craig Smith's illness brought him and Tanner closer.
When Tanner was in high school, he witnessed his father struggle through a daily regimen that included wrapping new bandages around sores on his feet and taking a constant diet of antibiotics. During that time, the two of them talked and watched car chase shows on television.
"I think very few fathers and sons have that. My dad was always home when I got home because he had to work out of the house," Tanner Smith said. "Any time I had a problem or something good to tell him, he was there."
As his Tanner's Totes program expanded, Smith saw more and more critically ill children as he visited hospitals to deliver care packages. The experiences stuck with him.
"It comes from seeing my dad, from little kids struggling," Smith said. "It's the most cliche thing, but you don't realize how great it is, you don't appreciate things until they are gone."
Tanner vowed to take nothing for granted.
He kept working on his ball-handling and jump shot. As a ninth grader, he earned playing time on the varsity team. As his height reached 6-5, colleges began to call.
"I still remember the day William & Mary called and offered a scholarship," Craig said. "We were jumping up and down around the house and (the offers) kept coming."
Tanner's drive was always present. It's what intrigued former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, who signed Smith in 2008.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a meeting with Smith at the end of last season. Brownell told Smith to take 1,000 jump shots a day last summer. He had to improve his agility and strength. They both knew Smith must become a better player if Clemson was going to be competitive this season. They knew the urgency.
The result is a player who is on the cusp of becoming the first in program history to average 10 points (11.1), five rebounds (5.0) and four assists (4.1) in a season, helping Clemson to beat expectations with an 8-8 mark in the ACC.
But Tanner isn't ready for it to end.
"I think the best lesson my dad ever taught me was one he never meant," Tanner said. "That was perseverance."