Tales From A Season Playing Pro Basketball In Uruguay

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Tyler Smith played professionally in seven different countries, but his time in Uruguay stood out. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)
Tyler Smith played professionally in seven different countries, but his time in Uruguay stood out. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)

A version of this story originally aired on Jan. 27, 2018.

Tyler Smith started at forward for the 2000–01 Penn State team that reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

But Tyler knew he wasn’t NBA material. He was slow. He was tall — but not NBA tall.
So Tyler knew he’d have to look elsewhere for a job playing basketball. And he’d heard good things about the leagues in Europe.

"You'd hear, ‘Oh, man, I hear so-and-so is making $200,000, $300,000,’ " Tyler recalls. "And I'm like, 'Just for playing basketball?' Like, 'I've been playing basketball for free my whole life. You're telling me I can make money now?' So I was ready."

One of Tyler's Penn State teammates was from Germany. He told Tyler that in Europe he'd probably make about $90,000 his first year.

"I'm like, 'Yeah. I'd be cool with 90,' " Tyler says with a laugh. "Live this great life in Europe and learn a new language and learn about wine. I didn't drink wine, but I thought maybe I could — who knows, you know?"

So after graduating, Tyler — just like all the other 22-year-olds hoping for an overseas gig — waited for offers to start rolling in.

London Calling

A couple months went by.

Tyler took a summer job delivering Gatorade to sports camps on the Penn State campus for six bucks an hour.

One day, Tyler was out on his route when a call came in from the Penn State basketball team's office assistant.

"And she says, 'Tyler' — and she's out of breath," Tyler recalls. "She's like, 'You gotta call this guy. He has an offer for $230,000 in England for two years. You gotta call him right now!' And I'm like, 'Wow. Now, this is what I've been waiting for.' "

The guy was staying at a hotel in Atlantic City. Tyler called him up.

"He introduces himself," Tyler recalls, "and he's like, 'Hey, I'm a general manager for this team in London, and we really want to get you over here, and we really want to get you signed. So can you do it?'

"And I was like, 'Oh, like, um ...' — and he's like, 'We need an answer. We need an answer right away. Because the market's moving.' So I was like, 'Let me just call you back tomorrow. I'm gonna think about it.' I don't know why I even said that. Inside I'm like, 'Yes, yes! I'm there! Let's do this!'

"But something feels a little bit off. He never really asked me about the way I played and didn't really talk about, like, had he seen me play?"

Tyler dunking during a game in Japan. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)
Tyler dunking during a game in Japan. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)

So Tyler put down the Gatorade and did some investigating.

"And so I call his hotel and I'm like, 'Hey, how much are the rooms that this guy's staying in?' " Tyler recalls. "And the front desk person was like, 'Oh, you know, they're $69 a night.' "

That didn't add up with the big money this guy was talking about. Tyler decided to run the whole thing by an agent.

"He says, 'Tyler, this guy's a scam artist. He's gonna ask you for a few hundred bucks or a thousand bucks for a work visa or some kind of crazy paperwork. And then he's going to be gone,' " Tyler recalls. "And I was so angry, 'cause I felt like, man, this is real. This is what I've been dreaming for. But that was my first offer — turned into a non-offer."

So Tyler was back to waiting.

Euro Tour

A few weeks later, a call came in from an agent in Germany.

"He said, 'I've got an offer for you from a team in Holland. It's 2,250 a month.' And I'm like, two thousand two hundred and fifty a month?' " Tyler says. "He's like, 'Yeah.' I'm trying to do quick math in my head. I'm like, 'I think that's like less than 20 grand for the season.' I'm like, 'Are you sure?' He's like, 'Listen, I'm gonna try and get it up to $2,500 a month.' And I was like, 'OK!' But he's selling me on all these other things. He's like, 'Their TV's in English!' "

That didn't exactly convince Tyler, but there weren't any better offers coming through.

“You'd hear, 'Oh, man, I hear so-and-so is making $200,000, $300,000. And I'm, like, 'Just for playing basketball?' Like, 'I've been playing basketball for free my whole life.' ”

Tyler Smith

So Tyler Smith spent his first pro season playing for the Landstede Hammers in Holland.

Tyler was one of three Americans on the team, and he played well enough that year to earn an offer for the next season from a team in Italy — one of the best basketball countries in Europe.

It seemed like things were finally coming together for Tyler. But then the season started.

"And I could not make a shot to save my life," Tyler says. "So a couple months into the season, Coach calls me into his office, and he's like, 'Hey, we gotta make a change. You're out of here.' "

So just to recap: One-and-a-half years into his pro career, Tyler Smith had been recruited by a fake general manager from London, paid peanuts by a team from Holland and cut from a team in Italy.

"I'm like, 'Man, was that it? Is my career over?' " Tyler recalls. "You just don't know."

Another Chance Abroad

Tyler returned to the U.S., hoping he'd get another chance to extend his basketball career.

Meanwhile, there was some good non-basketball news: he proposed to his girlfriend, Cara. She said yes.

And then, finally, an email showed up.

"It was like a one-sentence email," Tyler says. "And it's, 'Hello, Tyler, my name is Daniel. Do you want to come play in Uruguay?' And I was like, 'Uruguay? Where is Uruguay?' I look it up. I'm like, 'OK. I know it's South America. Way down there. Do they play pro basketball? Is this another scam?' But it wasn't a lot of money. So I'm like, 'All right, it's not a scam. This is real.' "

Two days later, Tyler said goodbye to his new fiancée and headed for the city of Salto, Uruguay.

Tyler didn’t know it yet, but the ups and downs that would come over the next few months would make that first season and a half seem like summer camp.

Welcome To Salto, Uruguay 

Tyler flew into Montevideo, the capital city, and embarked on the 500-kilometer drive to Salto. He’d have to get used to long rides — most away games were going to require six-hour bus rides each way.

When Tyler arrived in Salto, he noticed the cars: old with cracked windshields.

His new coach showed him to what was to be his home for the next eight months: a room on the second floor of a rundown hotel. Tyler says it was smaller than a college dorm room.

Then Tyler went to the team’s gym. There were no toilets, just holes in the floor. And no toilet paper.

And then there was the court itself.

"It was like this hard, tile, concrete floor. I'm like, 'This is what you guys play on?' " Tyler recalls. "He says, 'Oh, yes.' I'm like, 'Are all the other floors like this?' 'Oh, yes.' "

Wood floors have some give to them. Concrete ones do not. And when you're a big guy like Tyler, that matters.

"If there's no give, your joints take such a pounding," he explains.

Something started to dawn on Tyler.

"I had very few things going for me in Uruguay," he says.

"So when you're seeing all this, is any part of you like, 'I should just go home?' " I ask.

"Yeah. I mean the only problem was, I was so nervous about getting another job," he says. "And so part of me was like, 'Well, I'm here. I guess we'll just see how it goes.' "

Tyler was the only American on the team. There was no internet in his room, which made it tough to keep in touch with Cara and anyone else back home. He quickly discovered that his teammates didn’t speak much English.

But there was one who did.

"He was a young guy — he was probably about 17 at the time," Tyler recalls. "Maybe he saw that I was a little bit shell-shocked. And he says, 'Tyler, my name’s Diego. You will come to my house for lunch tomorrow.' I was like, 'Sounds great, man. You speak English and you want to feed me. I am there.' "

Tyler showed up at Diego’s house the next day. He says Diego’s mom gave him the biggest kisses he’d gotten since he’d seen his own grandmother — plus she spoke in extra slow Spanish so that Tyler could understand. Tyler ended up hitting it off with Diego’s entire family.

Tyler (right) with Diego's mom (second from right), Diego (second from left) and Bicho. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)
Tyler (right) with Diego's mom (second from right), Diego (second from left) and another teammate nicknamed Bicho. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)

And when he went to practice before the team’s first game, his good fortune continued.

"So Javier, the coach, comes up to me and he says, 'OK, Tyler. Listen. You are going to shoot 15 to 20 times a game,' " Tyler recalls with a laugh. "Just kind of looks at me, and I was like, 'That sounds awesome, Javier. I like the way this is headed.' "

In college, Tyler was rarely given the chance to shoot more than 10 times a game. (He decided not to mention that to Javier.) And when the season started, Tyler took full advantage of the green light.

"I mean I was shooting any time I touched it," he says. "I was scoring really well. I was averaging 20-something points a game."

And while the concrete floors did take a toll, Tyler managed to keep playing thanks to a sophisticated regimen of ice and Aleve.

And he started to find his place in town. He spent more time with Diego’s family. His Spanish improved. People stopped him on the streets to say hi.

"Which was really neat. You really kind of felt like part of this little community," Tyler says.

The local newspaper nicknamed him "La Torre Blanca" — "The White Tower."

He befriended some of the kids who frequented the internet cafe, often tossing them a little money so they could extend their video game sessions. And he got to know the owner of a restaurant who always tried to get him to try the cow’s tongue.

And there was one major perk that came with playing for the club in Salto: the team was sponsored by a giant fruit company.

"Man, I had all the fresh OJ I could handle," he says. "Everybody probably thought I was crazy. Like, 'Dude, what's up with this guy and orange juice? It's like all he drinks.' But I'm like, 'Dude, this is like eight bucks a glass back in the States.' "

Maybe not quite as good as all the wine he'd once envisioned, but Tyler had learned to take what he could get.

And a couple months into the season, Tyler's team was in first place.

"Man, I was feeling great," he says.

'I Had Never Felt So Much Pain'

But there was one issue: Tyler's Achilles tendon. Before coming to Uruguay, Tyler had never had any Achilles problems. But after a few weeks, no amount of ice or Aleve could ease the pain.

But Tyler kept playing. Next up was a game in Montevideo.

"Had a really good first quarter. Had about 10 points right away. And my Achilles — I kinda forgot about it, because the adrenaline was flowing," Tyler recalls. "And I pushed off to drive to the basket and I just fell to the ground. And I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. Somebody just tripped me.' And I look behind me and there's nobody there. And all of a sudden the pain kicks in. And I'm like, 'Oh. I just tore my Achilles.' And I feel it roll up my leg and I'd never felt so much pain."

Tyler knew his season was over. Maybe his career was over. For the next week, he holed up in a hotel in Montevideo to plan his next move.

"You know, I was very frustrated and a little bit angry," he says. "Because I felt, like, man, here I come to this country with these terrible floors. But I kind of found my rhythm here. Our team was doing well. I was playing well and really adapting. And now I'm like, 'Ah, I'm not going to be back in three weeks. This is gonna be a long time. I'm going to need surgery.' "

Tyler decided he would have the operation back in the U.S. (To add insult to aforementioned injury, it would cost more than all the money he'd earned so far playing in Uruguay.)

Before flying back home, Tyler had to make one last trip to Salto to gather his belongings. He said goodbye to his tiny hotel room and headed for the bus station.

"I walked in, and there's just this sea of people — a couple hundred people there," Tyler recalls. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh, man, maybe I'm not gonna be able to get a bus ticket.'

"And then everybody starts taking pictures. And people were, like, singing the team songs and stuff. And I'm like, 'What's going on?' And they said, 'Well, we wanted to say goodbye. We're so sad of your injury and so we wanted to say goodbye and wish you the best.' I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh. You guys are amazing.' "

Tyler says he may have ended up kissing half the town goodbye.

"They said, 'You must come back to Salto. You must come back to Uruguay,' " Tyler recalls. "I was like, 'I want to. Trust me.' And they're like, 'No, no, no. You must come back.' And I was like, 'I'll do my best. Let me get healthy first.' "

Moving Forward

Tyler Smith did make a full recovery, and he did play one more season in Uruguay. (This time, Cara went with him — and there were no major injuries.)

Tyler (second from right) with his team in Salto. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)
Tyler (second from right) with his team in Salto. (Courtesy Tyler Smith)

Tyler went on to play another seven years as a pro, in Argentina, Japan and elsewhere. And he eventually earned those six-figure salaries he'd dreamed about as a college senior.

But maybe what he realized on that day at the bus station in Salto — that he could make a connection with a city and people who once seemed so foreign — was even more valuable.

"It felt amazing," he says. "Because, you know, not a town or a people that had a lot materially. But just were wonderful people."

A lot of time has passed since Tyler Smith played in Uruguay. He’s retired from basketball now and living back near Penn State. He and Cara have three daughters. Diego — the bold 17-year-old who invited Tyler over for lunch — is now in his 30s. When he got married, he made sure Tyler was invited to the wedding.

But even though it’s been more than a decade since Tyler first landed in Uruguay, he says the memories are burned into his brain. Sometimes when he’s driving around central Pennsylvania — a place that couldn’t be more different than that small city with the fresh orange juice and old cars — he’ll have a flashback to the streets of Salto, Uruguay, a place he once called home.

Read more tales from Tyler's basketball career in his recent book "Called for Traveling: My Nomadic Life Playing Pro Basketball around the World."

This segment aired on March 23, 2019.


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Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



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