Tyler Smith made the three-hour drive from his home in Pulaski to Knoxville Thursday afternoon wondering what type of reception he would get at Bearden High School.
"I thought maybe it would be mixed,'' said Smith, who hadn't played in front of Tennessee fans since leading the Vols to a 66-59 upset at Memphis on New Year's Eve. "But I knew however it was going to be, I needed to come back for all the fans that stayed behind me.
"I made a mistake, and you don't run from your mistakes in life.''
Smith, a former first-team All-SEC pick, was dismissed from the UT men's basketball team on Jan. 8 after facing misdemeanor weapons charges as a result of a well-documented Jan. 1 arrest after a traffic stop.
But Smith, who played in Turkey after pleading guilty to possession of a firearm with an altered serial number and receiving two years probation, was greeted with nothing but applause when he was introduced prior to tipoff of his Pilot Rocky Top League game.
There were even more cheers when Choice Spine coach Rick Campbell took Smith out in the final minute of his team's 119-104 victory over the News Sentinel.
"I wanted Tyler to have that moment, because he has always been a respectful, first-class guy,'' Campell said. "I knew the fans would be appreciative of him, because the ones that come to these games have always been very supportive of the players.''
Smith wasn't originally expected to play in the PRTL until next week, as he has workouts with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks coming up this weekend.
"But Cameron (Tatum) called me and told me our (summer) team lost our first game by 16 or 18 points,'' Smith said. "He asked me to come, and I wanted to be here for the team.''
Smith scored 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds, playing the entire 40 minutes.
"Tyler showed again tonight he has a big-time game,'' UT fan Earl Brown said. "You couldn't help but notice the great reception he got. The fans were happy to see him play again, and I think he was happy to be back.''
Smith said when he returned to the United States his original plan was to return to Europe and play another season over there, perhaps jumping to the same league in Spain that former UT player Chris Lofton starred in last spring.
"I wasn't going to go through any (NBA) workouts,'' Smith said. "I felt that (Jan. 1) incident was still to close, just five months ago. But I really miss my family, so I'll workout for some (NBA) teams and see if I can stay over here.
"Coming back to Knoxville tonight was special for me. I appreciate all the support.''
UT junior Scotty Hopson said Smith needed the boost from the fans.
"Tyler has been through a lot,'' Hopson said. "We're all real happy for him, and it was good to hear the fans cheering for him again.''