Sam Smith (Courtesy Bulls.com, and the Basketball Hall of Fame)
You're not supposed to make yourself the subject of a column ostensibly about someone else, the rule goes. You're not supposed to inform and entertain the reader with insight sent through the clouded prism of your own experience. Instead, we're taught, you're supposed to make a story out of the story before you. That's impossible with Sam Smith, though, because he got to tell his own stories. Some were stories, some were books, some were gamers, some were columns, and some were endless radio or TV interviews. Good god, Sam. Let someone else have a go. It's always something, Sam.
Smith, who will be part of the Basketball Hall of Fame's ceremonies this week as he's given the Curt Gowdy Media Award, got to tell these stories because he was charged with acting as the direct connection between the fan that needed to know, and the basketball team (in this case, the Chicago Bulls) he was charged with covering. And because in my lifetime I've been lucky enough to go from the fan that Sam represented, to hopeful acolyte, to uneasy (my uneasiness, 'natch) colleague, to being allowed to tell my own stories, this column runs on Nervous Time.
Because the guy was, and is, a killer. Just too smart and sharp and quick and funny and distant and involved to ever pin down, even if he was "just" covering one team, or answering a few questions on air. He made game recaps his own, something that is a lost art in a newspaper industry routinely and sadly devoid of chance-taking ("just write a 'blog' with your leftover notes," is apparently the executives' tone, "and we'll cut out 250 words and all the humanity of your gamer that has to be filed within minutes of you recording the pabulum the head coach just gave you on record") even if the current industry boasts the brightest and most dedicated minds the sportswriting realm has ever seen. Roll over, Paul Gallico; you've got Win Shares and Twitter followers to deal with.
Newspaper scribes are smarter and brighter and more engaged and more bleary-eyed (not from recreational pursuits, but the demands of the gig; but probably also recreational pursuits) than ever, and yet it's harder than ever to find a bond in their words. At least on actual newsprint. Outside of their personal Twitter accounts or newspaper blogs, the voices are being lost.
Sam, much to my blood pressure's dismay, was never lost on me.
I've told him as much, years ago. Smith's classic 'The Jordan Rules' had nothing to do with the frustration, because as a Chicagoan and Chicago Bulls fan I was predisposed to rant 42 times at my on-court heroes before I lauded that nice jab-step. Even in the height of a six-championship-in-eight-year run, nobody criticizes a champion like their most ardent, dyspeptic fans; and this teenager (and, probably, this adult) led the league in dyspepsia back then. I wasn't aggrieved at Sam revealing the wizard behind the curtain, even before The Wizard went to play with the bloody Wizards.
It was because he made me yell, and think, and love, and read again. The guy was, and is, brilliant at that. Disagree all you want, but he made me really wonder (a couple of states away) if the Minnesota Timberwolves brass was really upset with Kevin McHale drafting Kevin Garnett and hiring his college buddy in Flip Saunders. He made me think about sources, and who was getting what out of whatever — even if Sam Smith played that game less often than most. He made me consider the nuance in between the ideas that NBA GMs were either the biggest bums on the planet, or deities not to be dismissed.
And this was all before the internet hit. And when it did? Sam turned into something else.
He was the guy that helped, a dozen years ago.
He helped, 25 words after he read a line in an email (sent to an email address that I never really should have been given; by perhaps the most revered NBA scribe you can think of, someone who once not unkindly referred to Smith as a Midwestern version of Peter Vecsey; even if Sam is straight up NYC) I sent to him that referred to me spending half my teenage years hurling unspoken invective towards his columns, Smith helped this guy. He helped, via email time after time again, this kid. This punk. This moron that had just turned 20 and wanted to know if two and a half years of writing online was worth inclusion in the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
The "Professional" part was sort of a sticking point, Smith explained, though he was looking to include those who wrote on the web soon enough. And soon enough, after I had left college ("it's not the worst thing for writers or NBA players to leave college early in order to take on a paying job," Smith told me, "but it's probably better if they don't") and made the professional part of my daily life a technical thing to be counted upon, Sam let me in.
And then he did something that he probably didn't have to, and I'm certain that he's completely unaware of how much it meant.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but back in the 2000-01 NBA season, Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers were clashing. Kobe was shooting too much, Shaquille O'Neal was out of shape (though his petulant on-record barbs toward an in-shape Kobe were in MVP form), and the Lakers seemed in danger of failing to defend their championship. Frustrated with a player I thought should be effortlessly destroying the NBA within Jackson's triangle offense, and miffed that Jackson saw fit to needlessly (and, potentially, hurtfully) muse about Kobe's hero-ball instincts as a high school player, I took both on.
It was for a website that I earned a stipend from, while living in a basement apartment in downtown Chicago that I turned the heat off on most winter nights while bundling under two hoodies in order to save money. One turkey sandwich at 11 in the morning, one bowl of Ramen with an egg at 7 at night, and I wrote all day. Months later, the apartment flooded — twice in a month — taking a kitten and a laptop and a zip drive full of Everything I'd Ever Written with it. Suffice to say, I doubted the decision I made to chase this particular dragon. I may have redefined self-aggrandizement with that last paragraph, but I can hardly be bothered -- you probably didn't have to slog through that season.
Sam, out of nowhere, picked that rambling mess of a Lakers column for a Professional Basketball Writers Association award. Chortle all you want, but for a 20-year old trying to scrimp the buck-eighty for the bus ride to the 2000-01 Bulls game that he doesn't know if he'd be credentialed for, this tends to keep a guy going. Even if, no joke, the Association for Women in Sports Media got in touch with me soon after to see if I wanted to become a member.
Of course, this was early 2001, and the internet as we currently know it still had a lot of growing to do; even if this was technically at the height of the dot com boom. In the meantime between now and my current gig at Yahoo!, most Mondays were spent talking my father down about Sam's latest column.
"No, I don't know why the Timberwolves would do that."
"No, that's a little too one-sided; though I'd love it as a Bulls fan."
"No, you can't sign and trade players that become free agents in the first week of July on a draft night that is in late June."
"No, you can't trade him until mid-December."
"No, there's this thing called 'base-year compensation' that … forget it. Just … no. It's Sam."
It's Sam, and that's why I'll never stop reading him. It's why he's a Hall of Famer. He made you read twice, for whatever reason. He made you flip through to his byline. He made you click. In ways that other scribes just couldn't compete with.
Mainly because they weren't as engaged as Sam, even if his engagement drew him toward transaction pursuits I wasn't always engaged in. Maybe it was because they weren't having as much fun.
I'll leave the history to those, like Smith's colleague at Bulls.com Adam Fluck, who have already knocked it out of the park. I'll leave the frustration to other, younger, turn-the-heat-off types. Now, and then, Sam's bemusement won me over.
Sam Smith's work? His mix of doggedness and patience? That impossible balance between detailing things you care about while attempting to remain objective while then having to color the results with a voice you can be proud of while paying as strict adherence to a level of professionalism you've been taught?
The guy's a Hall of Famer. And, whether he knows it or not, he kept a guy going. He kept someone on board, ready to belabor some 11 and a half years later over another endless column that Sam might someday skim over. I hope he knows that.
I hope you know Sam Smith.
Enjoy him, Hall of Fame. You're a better place for his presence.
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