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The stories of sportswriter Gary Smith

I'm still a bit glum over the death of author and journalist David Foster Wallace, but because we like to talk about writing as much as possible here at The Life of Kings, I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss a writer who also had tremendous influence over me (and countless others) as I tried to find my own voice as a storyteller: Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith.

Wallace was a man who was tortured and driven by his psychological wounds, and Smith, perhaps more than any living writer, has succeeded at probing those kind of wounds in profile subjects and shaping them into art. A collection of Smith's work went on sale this week, and The New York Times paid a visit to Smith's South Carolina home to try to put what he's done throughout his career into perspective. Smith has won the National Magazine Award -- considered the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for magazines -- four times throughout his career and been nominated 10 times. And yet he remains one of the most anonymous people in the giant media universe.

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People often ask me why I became a sports writer. I get the question at dinner parties, in interviews, in classrooms and, prior to meeting my wife, I used to get it on the occasional date. The long version is, I wasn't a particularly good college football player; I harbored secret dreams of being an author; I thought Rick Reilly was funny and brilliant when I was 19; it was in my blood; I didn't think I was cut out for anything else.

The short, but more complicated answer, is: Gary Smith.

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There is a large fraternity of sports writers like me, ones who stood in awe, years ago, upon entering the Church of Gary Smith. We pledged our devotion with a ferocious intensity. For years, Smith has written around four or five stories a year for Sports Illustrated, many of them clocking in at 5,000 words, and for people like me, they felt more like short stories or non-fiction novellas than they did athlete profiles. Smith wrote heartbreaking, yet uplifting stories about Native American basketball players on reservations in Montana, and he wrote about the internal ghosts that haunted David Duval. He got Earl Woods to declare that his son, Tiger, would have a greater impact on the world than Gandhi.

It was all much weightier stuff than mulling who should start at left tackle on Sundays, or why certain hitters struggled against left-handers. I wanted to do those kind of stories. So did most of my friends. Having once camped out for three hours in the Orioles players' parking lot to ask Sammy Sosa about an abscess on his foot -- he declined to comment, and not politely -- only helped reaffirm my goals and ambitions for journalism. My non-sports friends, even the ones in journalism, didn't always understand. They thought his prose was hackneyed, his themes too often reminiscent of a bad Disney movie, and that his stories lacked the ironic detachment most good journalism demanded. And they weren't always wrong. It was just that Gary Smith wrote for believers. Cynics, bless their hearts, could never enjoy the ride.  

But in many respects, the landscape of journalism has changed so much in recent years, I fear the Gary Smiths of this business are a dying breed. For as long as writers have covered sports, (dating as far back as the Iliad and the Odyssey I suspect), there has been a tug-of-war going on to decide how information should be presented. Long and in-depth vs. fast and digestible. Each has its merits, and for every ruminative soul like me who might want to hear about how Brian Roberts' intense father drove him to become a major league baseball player, there are just as many people, if not more, who would rather read a shorter item about how he owns right-handed pitching.

Newspapers have always tried to present a bit of both, and be many things to many people, the Sun included. But as staffs are reduced and space shrinks to adjust to a troubled economy (even if Phil Gramm says it's all in my head), as people become more pressed for time and hungry to get their information RIGHT NOW, there seems to be a smaller appetite for the kind of stories Smith -- and others like him -- have done so well for so many years. Now, it's humor sites like Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber, I suspect, that are inspiring young writers. And I like those two web sites very much, so I can't complain.

But more often than not, I see comments at the end of long newspaper stories reduced to simple internet speak: TLDR.

Too long, didn't read. 

And I understand it. But it's no less disheartening.

On a more uplifting note, here is one of my favorite Gary Smith stories. It's fairly short, and it's about the 2000 Australian Open. I love the rhythm of the lead.

"For the ponytailed queen and the bald-headed king, that moment had come."

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