WOFFORD’S TRIP to the NCAA tournament is as much about the one player who will not be in uniform as it is about the remaining team that will make its third tournament appearance in the past five years.
Senior Aerris Smith played the final game of his career on Monday in Wofford’s Southern Conference tournament championship victory in Asheville, N.C. Two days later, he had surgery to repair a badly damaged knee.
The week before the tournament, Smith sat down with Mike Young and broke the news to his coach.
“I’ve given you everything I’ve got for four years, but this is going to be it for me,” Young recalls Smith telling him. “I’m going to help as much as I can help in this tournament. But win, lose or draw, I’m shutting it down.”
Young then informed Smith that the surgery could knock him off the travel roster, especially if Wofford is shipped to the Midwest or further by the NCAA tournament committee.
“I’ve considered all those factors,” Young remembers Smith saying. “I’ve played in the NCAA tournament. I have a (Southern Conference) championship ring. But, coach, my leg’s really hurting me. I’m having a hard time sleeping.”
Smith injured his knee at the beginning of practice in mid-October. The injury slowed Smith, and he could not practice with the team throughout the regular season.
Smith, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Charlotte, worked his way into a starting role over his first three seasons at Wofford. He played sparingly in 11 games as a freshman, started 28 games as a sophomore and 19 as a junior.
The knee injury reduced his playing time greatly this season, and he averaged 9 minutes per game. Although he could muscle up on defense against opponents’ big men, Smith’s contributions were not many.
Off the court, Smith had become the team’s inspirational leader. To keep his cardiovascular conditioning at a high level, since he was not practicing, Smith trudged five days per week from October through March down North Pine Street to the Spartanburg YMCA. That is where he swam, often early in the morning before classes.
“I’m not sure how many college guys would do that,” Young says. “I’m not sure I would have done that. It was a testament to the type of human being he is and the character he possesses.”
Then came the meeting a week ago with Young, followed by the Southern Conference tournament, which Wofford won when Smith was a freshman in 2011.
Smith played 3 minutes in Wofford’s opening-round win against The Citadel, and 1 minute in the Terriers’ semifinal victory against Georgia Southern.
In the championship win against Western Carolina, Young went to Smith mostly to play defense. Smith played 10 minutes and grabbed four key rebounds in what proved to be a heroic performance.
Immediately afterward, with his team celebrating in the background, Smith was called to conduct an interview on radio with Wofford announcers Mark Hauser and Thom Henson. The interview found its way onto the Internet (listen to the interview on YouTube) and was declared “one of the best of the year,” by barstoolu.com.
In the interview, Smith said he talked to the team beforehand. He mentioned he had previously played on a Southern Conference championship team. As the only senior on the team, he said he was the lone player in the locker room with a championship ring.
“Everybody deserves one,” Smith says he told the team, “and they played their guts out. I love them. I love them to death.”
Smith then announced during the interview that he would not play in the NCAA tournament and was prepared for surgery two days later. The surgery, performed by Dr. Stephen Kana in Spartanburg, was to repair a micro-fracture in Smith’s right knee. Smith will be required to keep his knee in a straight leg immobilizer for six weeks, according to Wofford.
“You’re a true Terrier,” the announcer says to Smith during the interview. “That is unreal. Aerris, so you’re not going to the tournament?”
“I made the decision I was going to give my all in this tournament,” Smith says in the interview as he begins to cry, “and then they were going to dance without me. But, that’s OK because we came out on top.”
“You better be on the plane, though?”
“If I can. If I can, I will. I love this team. They gave it everything. Everything.”
Should you want to hear the interview with Smith on the Internet, make certain to have a couple of tissues nearby.