What I Learned From Gary Smith

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I can pinpoint the moment I realized I was never going to be Gary Smith. This was back in the spring of 2005, shortly before I graduated college. The campus paper had just published the best thing I thought I'd ever written. My profile of George Washington University basketball player J.R. Pinnock was a source of pride. It was also a cheap Gary Smith knockoff.

By that point, Smith's features in Sports Illustrated had become an addiction. "Crime and Punishment," "Damned Yankee," "The Rapture of the Deep"—the names alone suggested the weightiness of the material. If you've read even just one of those, you know how a Gary Smith story can get in your head. His best features were events. When an SI containing his byline arrived in the mail, I'd immediately flip to the back of the magazine, dive in and not come up for air until I'd finished. His narrative voice was an empathic, whispering lyricism, and he wrote with a dazzling omniscience that in his finest work was earned through many, many months of intensive reporting. It was impossible to imitate him. And it was impossible not to try.


In my story, I repeatedly referred to the basketball as an "orange globe." I wrote that the crowd "purrs like a Mustang," that GW "moved at the speed of light," and that Pinnock was "stuck swirling on fast-forward." I wrote as if from within my subject's head. Earned omniscience. Empathic lyricism. When my story went up, I found Smith's SI email address and sent him a link to the piece. When he actually responded, it nearly caused me to gasp.

My university account has long since expired, and the note is gone, but as I remember it, his message began with a compliment. He said he liked aspects of the story. But it needed work, he said. Then he proceeded to edit the thing, not quite line by line, but almost. He encouraged me to dig deeper, to explore relationships I'd mentioned but barely tapped into, to avoid clichés. So I wasn't Gary Smith. But maybe the real thing could teach me how to be a better version of what I was.


On Monday, word trickled out that Smith, after 32 years at Sports Illustrated, was retiring. He'd been quiet in recent years; the bylines weren't as frequent, and the stories when they came weren't quite the events they used to be. There were a lot of reasons for that, some of them having more to do with my changing tastes than with any diminution of Smith's abilities. He'd become, for one generation of sportswriters, something like what Dick Young had been for an earlier one. You either emulated his style—the aching, searching prose; the "you are there" scene-setting; the spelunking for psychological insights—or you ran as far away from it as you could. He influenced you, whether you liked his work or not.


And most people loved his work. "Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America," Slate's Ben Yagoda wrote in 2003, "he's the best magazine writer in America." (Smith has won an unprecedented four National Magazine Awards.) In 2010, Sarah Perry of Mayborn called Smith "the undisputed heavyweight champion of the magazine world's most celebrated writers."

In a tribute this week, SI's S.L. Price noted that every sportswriter "has had a Gary Smith moment," a realization that "you're never ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?" Ledes like this one, for example, from Smith's piece about Crow Indian basketball legend Jonathan Takes Enemy, have a way of inducing simultaneous feelings of admiration and envy:

Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day. How could you not call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon? How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?

It was March 24, 1983, a day of thin clouds and pale sun in southern Montana. A bus slowed as it reached the crest of a hill, and from there, for the first time, the boys inside it could see everything. Fender to fender stretched the caravan of cars behind them, seven miles, eight—they had made the asphalt go away! Through the sage and the buffalo grass they swept, over buttes and boulder-filled gullies, as in the long-ago days when their scouts had spotted buffalo and their village had packed up its lodge poles and tepee skins, lashed them to the dogs and migrated in pursuit of the herd.

But what they pursued now was a high school basketball team, 12 teenagers on their way to Billings to play in a state tournament. The boys stared through their windows at the caravan. There was bone quiet in the bus. It was as if, all at once, the boys had sensed the size of this moment … and what awaited each of them once this moment was done.


Esquire's Chris Jones, himself a two-time National Magazine Award winner, was so in awe of Smith's gift and so fearful of mimicking the master that, until a few years ago, he refused to read any of Smith's stories. If he did, "I would try to write like Gary Smith. I would try to be Gary Smith, and I would fail at it," Jones wrote on his blog, "I knew that if I were ever going to find my own voice, I was just one of those writers who would have to look for it alone."

I wasn't one of those writers. I didn't even have a job, let alone my own voice. One reason Smith's approach was so appealing to me, and still is to many, many young reporters, is that it seems so liberating. It takes a wrecking ball to everything you learned from your journalism teachers, from your tight-assed editors, from the guy on the copy desk who always nuked your soaring independent clauses.


"His sound is so utterly different from any sports writing you're likely to read, in say, a newspaper or something," Thomas Lake, one of SI's newest longform specialists and a Smith disciple, told me not long ago. "It's so authoritative. He sometimes reads like a novelist. There's a sense of really getting inside characters' heads. To this day, I don't know how exactly he does that."

But the trick of Smith's technique was that he made it seem possible for relatively inexperienced writers who'd yet to have a Gary Smith moment. His work seemed less like an exercise in high-velocity writing than it did a feat of sustained attention—to his sources, to their anecdotes, to the minute but revealing details that accumulate throughout a life. It was of course much more than that, but when you're 21 and the extra-inning, lightning-delayed American Legion baseball game you're covering has you questioning your career choices, it's nice knowing there are more ambitious and yet still doable varieties of sportswriting out there. Maybe with the right subject, you start to think ...


"The imitation of Gary Smith has been the cause of reams and reams of very bad writing," Lake said. "That is not his fault. People want to be like him. I say that as someone who's done it himself.

"You're playing with fire when you try to do what Gary does."

Even Smith himself occasionally got burned. When Pat Tillman died in April 2004, the writer set out to profile the fallen Army Ranger—on deadline. The resulting piece, which ran in early May, was long on vivid detail of all kinds ("The shadows twitched with treachery," Smith wrote), but short on truth. Among other things, it lacked the key fact that the NFL safety-turned-soldier had been killed by friendly fire. This error wasn't exclusively Smith's, obviously—all other early accounts of Tillman's death told the same Pentagon-friendly version, if less cinematically—but it pointed up the limits of Smith's empathic method: A writer who recreates the past based on his sources' memories is ultimately a prisoner of those sources. Even scrupulously honest people remember things in a way that serves their own interests. And most people tend not to be scrupulously honest. Earl Woods certainly wasn't. As a result Smith's credulous profile of Earl's famous golfing son seems as silly and dated now as an old ad for a since-discontinued product. And in the case of Tillman's death, Smith had let himself become the Pentagon's most literary press agent.


Two years after his initial feature, with time and access at his disposal, Smith got another crack at the Tillman story. Published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, "Remember His Name," was nothing like its predecessor. It was haunting and true. Writing it gave him a chance, he said in an editor's note, to cut through the fog of war, "or at least reduce it to a finer mist."

In June 2005, I accepted a job as a sports reporter at the Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Mass., and spent the next four years searching for soft-focus feature ideas. Something like Smith's "Someone To Lean On," the first story of his I ever read, a seven-page ode to a mentally disabled man named Radio that was full of warmth and pathos and never succumbed to the hideous manipulations and indulgences of so much feel-good longform writing.


When I actually found suitable material, I dug in, but never quite deep enough. In 2006, I wrote about Gwynette Proctor, a nun who coached a local high school basketball team. (The next day, Fox's Boston affiliate aired a segment on Proctor and called it "an exclusive." I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be angry or flattered.) My take was decent, I suppose, but it could've been better. Smith told me so in an email.

One critique today is an old song you're sick of. But your writing will take another jump if you are harder on yourself in regard to paragraphs like these: Sister Murphy calls Sister Proctor "a very outgoing, committed Sister of Notre Dame. She loves the mission; she loves what she's doing."

If you can't make the reader FEEL—in your descriptions of Sister Proctor in action, her intensity, her shouts to her team, her attention to detail—that this nun is "a very outgoing, committed sister" and that "she loves what she's doing"— without having to quote someone as saying it, well then…

Just keep asking yourself, every time you're tempted to run a weak-ass quote, who's the writer here? Who's getting paid to tell a powerful tale? You or Sister Murphy? If it's Sister Murphy, she's got to do better than that.


And so did I. In my first few years out of college, I was excited by the idea of narrative journalism. But I didn't quite understand how it worked. I assumed that a quirky subject was enough. I spent only three or four hours reporting the Sister Proctor story, so I was forced to use boring quotes to spackle over the cracks. The profile fell a little flat, never overcoming its inherent sappiness. Smith, who by all accounts would spend weeks, sometimes months, interviewing his subjects, knew this better than most.

Ask yourself hard questions: Why do I do that? I mean, REALLY why? Is it because it's faster to write a story that way, and you were on deadline, out of time? OK, maybe, under the gun, now and then, you let yourself off the hook for that. Is it out of guilt? Do you feel that when you interview someone, you owe it to them to run a quote and get their name in the story? Not a good reason. If that's it, it's time to address the root of your guilt. Is it because you don't trust your own writing ability to show those qualities in your main character, in action, rather than trotting someone else out to weakly say those things about her or him?


The man The New York Times once dubbed "The Sports Whisperer" had become my shrink.

Of course, Smith isn't really a psychiatrist. His wife is, though, and in print, he does a pretty convincing impression of one. Smith's hyper-probing method, in Lake's words, is based on "the relentless pursuit of better and better details." It's about not being afraid to revisit a source two, three, even four times, even if that means "putting aside the human instinct to say, 'I'm not going to bother him anymore.' That's what he does," Lake said. "I'm convinced it's really not easy or natural to do." The act of obstinately chipping away has yielded details like this, from a profile of a young Mike Tyson:

There, on the couch, his older brother slumbers. Mike takes a razor blade and makes an incision on his arm so fine that Rodney doesn't stir. "Nurse," he whispers to his sister, "alcohol." He pours it on the cut and dances away as Rodney jumps up howling.


The few quotes Smith used weren't the kind of weak-ass stuff littering my copy. I'd lop off several toes to get an interview subject to say something like LSU coach Dale Brown once said to Smith in 1985: "I feel like I'm in the rifle scope of an assassin. I just want to be with my friends. Where else does a 50-year-old man chase a 17-year-old athlete? That's called pimpin' and hookin'. I hate it. When I go see another basketball game and watch the coach yelling at the referee and the players, I think, 'That's me. I must look like an absolute moron.' God, I'd be so happy to be in a village in Yugoslavia, sipping wine and eating bread and cheese. Why do I beat myself to death."

Occasionally, I wrote about local celebrities. Some said semi-interesting things, or at least things that were sort of funny. One guy I interviewed, Charlie Moore, has hosted fishing shows on ESPN, NESN, and what was then Versus. When I pulled up to his mansion in southern New Hampshire in June 2006, Moore was already knee-deep in his Mad Fisherman shtick. He was wearing sunglasses like the pair Bono had in "The Fly" video and spent the entirety of our conversation puffing on a massive cigar. He liked to say "fuck" a lot. Moore provided plenty of material, but I was too chickenshit to mention that when he was off the air, he loved to work blue. (Check out this Boston Magazine profile; it's both entertaining and profane.) And as was my habit, I used too many weak-ass quotes. Smith rightfully mentioned that in his notes. "That was a comfortable read," he began, and notice right away how careful he was with his criticism, how gently he framed it. He went on:

Here's what I'd urge you to do: Push yourself harder. Don't settle for writing sentences that are half yours and half somebody else's quote. Such as:

As a kid, he says he had to "grab any attention at all," which in high school, made him the perfect class clown.

Think about trying to go back to the people you interview with follow-up questions that give you real examples of how someone "grabs any attention at all" or is a class clown, so then you can show that in a specific way rather than just saying it. That has much more power, giving people a specific image of a kid doing something crazy to grab attention. Then show it in YOUR words, not in THEIR words.


He never encouraged me to try to write like Gary Smith. I did it on my own, like many others. Lake has acknowledged that his first SI story, about a high school basketball team in Alabama that managed to win a game despite being down to only two players, was essentially an extended homage to Smith. When it was published, one of Lake's mentors even told him, "This sounds a little too much like Gary."

"Which actually was a coincidence," Lake said, "because Gary helped me write it." While working through a draft, the two spent six hours on the phone. Lake was blown away by the generosity of the man, even if he did say during the call, "This is a one-time thing."


"Ever since then," Lake said, "my goal has been to write a story by myself that's better than the one he helped me with."

My own improvement wasn't so swift. There were times, however, when Smith's advice did sink in. I once wrote about 19-year-old Paralympic skier Tyler Walker, a wiseass who liked to say that his legs were bitten off by sharks. (They weren't. At age 4, he had them amputated at the knees due to a spinal defect.) The story ran on the front page of the paper.


I sent it to Smith. He made a few micro suggestions and urged me to finish stronger. I remember tacking this quote at the bottom of the story: "We see ourselves as elite athletes," he says firmly. "We do the same things as able-bodied skiers. We shouldn't be handled any different."

First, a story that good needs a better ending. If you had the time, take the time and give us more pop at the finish line.


Smith also said this:

That was a REALLY nice piece. Stories like that make you glad to be a sportswriter, don't they?


I resisted the urge to print out the email on glossy paper, mat it, and put it in a frame.

Several of the tributes to Smith over the past week have mentioned his generosity. He did pro bono mentoring for other young writers, it turns out. Chico Harlan of the Washington Post said that when he was in college, he emailed a 1,600-word feature to Smith, who sent back 3,000 words of feedback. Smith went so far as to set up a meeting for me in New York with SI.com's then managing editor, Paul Fichtenbaum. We probably talked for 15 minutes. He wasn't dismissive, but during the conversation he looked slightly confused as to why a sweaty 23-year-old was sitting in his office. At one point, Fichtenbaum asked, "How do you know Gary?"


In truth, I didn't know Smith. We've never even met. We were barely pen pals. Why he chose to help a hack like me, I don't know. But his graciousness was at the center of everything he did. Why else would so many proud, media-savvy people completely unburden themselves to a reporter?

In 2010, I sent him a link to my story about the late sports anchor George Michael. Smith got back to me less than an hour later:

Hey, thanks Alan. And great job on that piece, really crackled from the git-go.

— Gary

It wasn't one of Smith's trademark major-chord endings, but it's stuck with me—a little pop at the finish line. After that, I stopped bombarding his inbox. It's not that I didn't need his assistance anymore (I did), or that I was no longer in awe of him (I was). But by the time I'd left The Eagle-Tribune, in 2009, I'd begun to discover that there were other ways to write well about sports, that I'd confined myself to a tiny box of influence. That's what a good teacher does. He makes you see that there are more teachers out there than you'd realized.


Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at asiegel05@gmail.com; follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc. Photo by Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated.