Wiedmer: Wayne Chism won't soon be forgotten by Tennessee fans

ST. LOUIS -- The questioned was posed to Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday, long before anyone was sure the Vols' best basketball season ever would end within 24 hours.

The sports writer wanted Pearl to discuss senior forward Wayne Chism, arguably the most charming of Pearl recruit ever.

"The biggest thing I wanted Wayne to do over four years was not really change," Pearl said. "I wanted him to stay Wayne, and that's a sweet, wonderful young man."

Opponents might question that assessment, beginning with Michigan State, which watched the 6-9 Chism swish three 3-pointers, score a team-high 13 points and nearly lead the Vols to their first Final Four before succumbing 70-69 to Sparty in Sunday's Midwest Regional final.

Or as State coach Tom Izzo said on Saturday of Chism, "He's got great versatility. He can score inside, he can score outside, he can put the ball on the floor, and his length creates some problems for us."

Now the problem is how to replace him. Not just on the court, but off. And in the interview room, where "Wheezy," as Chism's known to teammates due to his occasional asthma problems, was almost always the most entertaining fellow in the place.

"Wayne's a character," said junior center Brian Williams inside a somber UT locker room. "He's always been a funny guy to be around -- the life of the party. We're going to miss him on the court and off the court. And on the court he's probably the best defensive big man I've ever gone against."

The best defensive post player in the SEC, if not the whole country, was how Pearl has often referred to Chism and it has often been hard to argue that assessment. After all, as a callow freshman he held LSU's Glen "Big Baby" Davis to his lowest scoring output in 72 games by limiting to five points on 2-of-10 shooting. He could shut down guards, forwards and post players with equal skill. Beyond that, he could score from all points on the floor, as witness his three 3s against the Spartans, which were a season high.

Chism wraps up his Big Orange career as the Vols' all-time NCAA tourney scoring leader with 136 points, six more than Chris Lofton. He is also UT's all-time NCAA tourney rebound leader with 157 and the program's 12th career scoring leader with 1,608 points. Beyond that, the 142 games he played in are a UT career high.

But those are mere numbers, which may keep Chism historically significant for years to come but hardly do justice to his impact on a program that had done next to nothing nationally before Pearl arrived and made Chism his first meaningful recruit.

"I've got a real affection for the way Wayne has grown, the way he has tolerated me as a coach who is always expecting a great deal from him. I'm just very appreciative of having had the chance to coach him," said Pearl.

The affection is mutual. Chism knows that Pearl could have handled him far differently, especially after an argument at Vanderbilt during his freshman year when Chism left the bench. An asthma issue was later said to be the reason for Chism's disappearance, but it didn't look that way at the time.

Yet Pearl always looked beyond the occasional childishness to the sweet, wonderful young man from Bolivar Central High and Jackson, Tenn. which Chism proudly declared on Saturday, "Now has six (interstate) exits. We're growing."

He grew to become a member of the SEC's Community Service team, grew to major in Africana studies and minor in Consumer health. He'll graduate this semester despite being, in Pearl's words, "Not prepared for success in college academically."

So how did he go from academic risk to graduating on time?

"He spent ten times as much time on his classwork as any other student who was sitting next to him," said Pearl. "Wayne absolutely rolled up his sleeves and understood that he was challenged in the classroom early on and was so accepting of the help and the tutoring and the assistance.

"It's an absolutely great story, and it's a story that's important because so many of the rules profile student-athletes into this group that can make it and this group that can't. And Wayne was profiled into the group that couldn't. But Wayne proved them wrong. He broke down all the stereotypes."

On Sunday evening, his career over, Chism slumped in his locker cubicle and tried to sum up the last four years.

"It was great playing on this team," he said. "All I can say about making history at this school ... it was great taking this school to places it had never been. I was in a great position when I got here, thrown into the mix as a freshman. And Coach Pearl really helped me and everybody on this team helped me. And this team really helped Coach Pearl in Knoxville get to a place it had never been."

But for a break here or there it could have gone to a really big place, to the Final Four, where Chism's athletic talent and his coach's X and O talent just might have also brought the school its first national championship. But that will now fall to someone else, perhaps super recruit Tobias Harris, whose huge job it will be to fill Chism's void, both on the court and off.

Said Pearl, ""I guess the reason why I get so emotional sometimes over Wayne is because I have so much respect for how far he's come."

And how far he's taken the program along the way.