The cancer was winning. It was no longer a matter of if, but when. The tumors that invaded Jim Valvano’s body were growing and they were beginning to rob him of the things that defined him. The kinetic energy and enthusiasm were fading fast with each chemotherapy treatment.
And there he was, Gary Smith, on the sidelines of life and death. He watched as the life slowly leaked out of Valvano through a needle in his chest. As the chemo dripped in, the life spilled out.
Smith observed Valvano dying a little more day-by-day. Watch. That’s all he could do. Then, when Valvano had the energy, he would listen to the legendary college basketball coach spill his fear, his pain, his regrets, his entire heart, to leave one final message to the world.
“He wanted to make amends, or resolve some things with world, and I knew that I was his voice for that,” said Smith.
Maybe it was the urgency in which Valvano spoke, or the eerie frailty of a body that once hovered at the rim, cutting down the nylon net in celebration of a NCAA nation title at North Carolina State, either way Smith found himself confronted with his own emotions.
“You realize your own vulnerability and fragility,” said Smith. “There was no where specific to take it, but it was something you just walked around with, wrapped around you for those couple of months and beyond. It’s really like going ‘into the tunnel’ with somebody in that situation. There’s no way around it. If it’s not affecting you in someway, you’re not feeling it, it’s going to be hard for the reader to feel it or the writer to write it.”
It was a massive responsibility for a human being, let alone a transient reporter. This was foreign territory for Smith, who walked in to Valvano’s life during his final days and months.
“That was without a doubt the most-wrenching story I worked on,” said Smith. “Just the times in the middle of writing, feeling the emotions come up and well up. Having spent a lot of time with his daughters, his wife, knowing what all of them were facing and about to face, it was tough.”
Valvano’s story is one of 20 chronicled in Smith’s book titled, Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.
Smith, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, lives in Charleston. Forget the magazine format and the book title because Smith’s award-winning work is for everyone, not just the sports fan. Labels are deceiving.
“I’m a writer that happens to be writing about sports,” Smith confessed. “It just happens to be the stage, a stage that America cares maybe too much about, a little obsessed about. A lot of our moral tales play out on that stage. There’s a lot of paradox about that relationship. I’m trying to write about people and understand people that happen to be in sports.”
In 2001, George O’Leary stepped on the ethical line and buzzers went off all over the country. Five days after O’Leary was named head coach of the Notre Dame football program, he was fired for “padding his resume.” The allegations, and subsequent firing, set of a media firestorm and temporarily benched the coach.
Once again, Smith steered his way into the belly of the controversy, saddling up next to O’Leary, watching, observing the behavior of the polemic coach.
“His whole career was in question,” Smith remembers, “and what he was going to be able to do and how they world was going to see him. That gave him enough motive to take a chance with me coming into his world in hopes that, maybe, people would see that he is something more than those couple of sentences on that resume. Then they can make their decisions. But they won’t be hanging on the meat hook of two sentences on a resume.”
This is what Smith does, arguably better than any magazine writer today. He observes. He listens. He does not judge, he reports, and through his writing he allows you and I – the readers – to respond.
His subjects bear the brunt of the process. Smith describes the effort as a “challenge,” one which you have to develop an intimate relationship with a stranger’s thoughts. “It’s like your trying to get in there head at a certain moment and then have every little detail about what was going on, what they’re seeing, what they’re thinking,” he said.
“I try to warn the person before I start. I am going to take a lot of time, I am going to ask you a lot of details and you may hate me by the time its over,” he laughs. “I’ve tried the patience, I’m sure, of the people I do stories about.”
“Each person is a whole new treasure chest. Everybody, in their own way, is an extraordinary story. Even the ordinary is extraordinary. When you start to looking into it, the more you get into it and you’re aware of all the different things and you start asking the right questions what makes each person who they are is usually pretty fascinating. I kinda get caught up in that and it just carries me.”
The finished product is as close as you will ever get to bringing human emotion to a piece of paper.
In Damned Yankee, Smith chronicles the life of John Malangone, a catcher in the New York Yankees organization and supposed heir apparent to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. But this, as it plays out, is no boy wonder tale.
For years, decades, Malangone wrestled with the demons of a childhood episode that it controlled every aspect of his being through his formative years, his short baseball career and his adult life. Malangone and Smith met at that fork in the road, and the journey begins.
“He was anxious to get it off his chest but it was real scatter-shot, so getting it all, it took a real sheep dogging effort,” remembers Smith. “If I had come to him five years earlier before he told the secret he had to tell to his friend Lonn Weiss, who was in that story, than it would have been probably hopeless. I doubt he’d have spilled it to some reporter at that point in his life and it took the right circumstances to all come together for him to finally do it. So when I got to it, he was ready. He wasn’t quite sure how to get me there to the ultimate reality but he was flinging stuff out there all over the place. I’d rather have that, and I’ll sort this out.”
Sports, having some how become the realm in which Americans derive their strongest sense of community, has become the stage where all the great moral issues are played out, often rough and ugly, right alongside the games.
That was 12 years ago. Does that statement stand up today?
“In a transient society it’s the one quick way to get in to the community. It’s the quickest way to feel belonging in America and it’s also a place where we play out a lot of our great questions; a lot of ethics questions come into play … question about ego, culture, your background, how you were raised, values you’re raised with. It sets off an endless discussion. When you look at human behavior that way … that’s the stage we use – sports – a lot of our big, ethical questions that really signify a lot more about America and about people. It’s a great lense. It’s a great laboratory for that stuff.”