Lenoir City girls basketball coach Tim Smith uses basketball to get through tough times
Tim Smith hears it from his friends all the time.
"Everybody says I should buy a lottery ticket," said Smith, in his first year as Lenoir City High School girls basketball coach.
"They say I'm due a good break."
The 53-year-old Smith, a diabetic, had an ultra-successful run at Stone Memorial before stepping down in 2012 due to health reasons.
After taking three seasons off from coaching, he was hired in March, 2015 to take over a Lenoir City program that has been a revolving door for coaches in recent years.
Since longtime coach Joe Lee stepped down in 2010 after 29 years at the helm, the Lady Panthers have had six coaches in the last seven seasons.
Smith's problems started shortly after he was hired by Lenoir City.
"Just after I took the job we had a big winter storm," he said.
"I was out in my yard raking and picking up sticks when I hurt my back."
Steroids did little to alleviate the excruciating pain, and Smith began losing muscle mass in his legs.
He had surgery to repair his herniated disc in July, and "everything went fine."
But not for long.
"We came back to school and I was sitting in my computer class," said Smith.
"I was not feeling well, and started getting chills. The back of my T-shirt was stained where I had back surgery. They put me in the hospital and found out I had a staph infection in my back. I had surgery the next day."
Smith missed the first two weeks of school as he recovered, but the next round of bad news was just around the corner.
His dad, Bob Smith, died after having a heart attack and falling off the roof of his house on Sept. 16.
"It was a tough period for me because my dad and I were real close," said Smith.
It wasn't long before another health issue cropped up.
"Right before fall break I woke up and had a huge knot on my cheek," said Smith.
"They think it was a brown recluse spider bite, but they're not sure."
Given all that he had been through, Smith found refuge on the basketball court as the season finally got underway.
The Lady Panthers (12-12, 4-7 District 4-AAA), led by the sister tandem of Amberlee and Ashlyn Zeller, have already surpassed last season's win total.
Lenoir City earlier defeated Farragut for the first time in five years for its signature win of the season.
Smith said the uncanny sequence of obstacles he encountered leading up to the season has just galvanized his resolve to stay at Lenoir City for the long haul.
Given the coaching turnover, he said the Lenoir City players deserve better.
"It has been really difficult for these kids to go through all of these changes," said Smith.
"These seniors have had three coaches in four years. In any sport, it's all about relationships. Kids need that stability, not only in basketball but in everyday life. They want to know, 'I know you care about me.'"
Smith said the program's instability shows up on the court.
In the last six seasons, the Lady Panthers have won more than 14 games just once in a season.
The 2012-13 team finished 18-12.
"Lenoir City has been kind of a doormat, and it's hard to get out of it," said Smith.
"As far as our team this year, we're kind of hot and cold. It's a reflection of the program. We're good for two or three quarters, and then we're not so good for a quarter or two.
"We've struggled with adversity at times, but I think a lot of that is just about learning to win. Maybe our record doesn't show it, but our kids have progressed."
Smith said he hopes his own personal struggles have been an example for the team to persevere through tough times.
"The kids and the school have been really good to me through all of this," said Smith.
"It has been a hard year, but a rewarding year. Maybe our record doesn't show it, but our kids have progressed. I tell my kids 'you have no reason to quit. We're still here and still fighting.'"