Along the back wall in small wooden booth sat Gary Smith. Dressed in a modest blue golf shirt and khaki shorts, Smith looked out of place amidst the buzz and clutter of caffeinated college students. Anyone over the age of 23 would appear misplaced at Kudu Coffee House, the oft-frequented college coffee shop.
He occasionally sipped from a cup of water and a cup of coffee, as we discussed writing, sports, the media and his space in the fast-paced world of sports media.
When I read your work, I don’t get the sense that I’m reading a sports story. They are stories about the human condition, of people who are coincidentally, athletes. Do you consider yourself a sports writer?
I really don’t. I’m a writer that happens to be writing about sports. 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. We’ve become so inter-connected with it. 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.
ESPN writer Scoop Jackson had this to say about you: Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated is sick! He’s like Michael Jordan. Ben Yagoda from Slate: Gary Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. You’re writing is revered. Are you comfortable with that?
I’m not comfortable or uncomfortable with it. It’s nice to hear. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with it (laughing). I don’t think that’s quite true. If you widen it out to who’s really out there writing, that wonderful compliment starts to fall apart. There are a lot of great writers all over the place, a lot of my favorite ones happen to be dead.
Richie Parker, George O’Leary stories. You’re very careful not to judge in your reporting. You use voices of those affected to provide perspective. Why don’t we see it more in today’s writing?
Usually reporters have a lot less time, so the way they cover two sides of a personality is, they say he’s this and he’s that and they leave it with some kind of bizarre contradiction. Or they use a quote, somebody praising him, somebody ripping him. To me, that’s losing something essential when you approach it that way. The reality is, we (people) – me, you, all of us – is a mixture and there’s all kinds of contradictions and paradoxes going on and the truer type of writing, if one has the time and space to do it, which most journalists don’t, so I understand it.
I try to find a way to point the reader to feel all that whole jumble, that whole credible ball of ambiguity that most of us are. So, I’m trying in my writing to take you on the journey through this person’s life and your starting to feel this whole mix, this whole ball of contradiction that human beings are. So, I guess that’s my philosophical approach to human people and to the writing, what’s the best way to bring that essential reality on to the page – or something closer to it – than what most journalism is able to do. It’s a challenge. Some people are going to understand what you’re trying to get at, where you’re doing here and I try to warn the person before I start, this is going to be very … this is a process. 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 it’s over (laughing). It’s like you’re 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. I’ve tried the patience, I’m sure, of the people I do stories about.
Again, I understand why daily journalism isn’t able to do it. If you are on a daily deadline and to understand someone enough to write with that kind of authority, that takes a lot of time to be with a person, a lot of time thinking about what they told you and going over those notes and going over the themes that are playing out in their life in your mind. That’s not something that somebody in one day, probably in one week turnaround is going to have the luxury.”
Do you enjoy doing this? Talking about the process?
I don’t like to hear myself repeat stuff. I’m a lot more interested in pieces of life where I’m learning and growing myself.
Who gave you that first opportunity of space and time to write in-depth?
When I was writing for the Philadelphia Daily News I was covering the Eagles and I would just start asking some of the players back stuff about their lives, and I asked the editor could I do a longer take-out piece on this guy and he would clear out a couple days and I would do that. That was the first footstep in that direction. Then, at Inside Sports Magazine, it was a literary sports magazine, the editor there John Walsh (he is a major person at ESPN, he was kind of the father of SportsCenter), he hired me. And, he had a great lieutenant editor Jay Lovinger, who opened up my mind to magazine writing.
After three years there, Newsweek pulled the financial plug on Inside Sports. Smith jumped to Sports Illustrated as a contributor with the understanding he would write four articles a year.
He started getting me think about opposites. You know, turn the rock over. If there’s extreme one place, look in the other direction. Don’t just take things on face value, which I was growing that way in things I was reading. It just made me try to go to that more fertile ground and that ambiguity I was talking about before, the paradox versus trying to have a clean answer for human motive.
Is it still exciting beginning a new story?
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.
I did an interview with an English professor and he said very few college-aged students are reading, They are writing shorthand in text messaging and email. He called it the “The Cult of the Thumb.” Will technology eventually replace print?
I cringe knowing that my stories are on the web. To me, something of depth, that makes you think … no matter how fast it is, especially for younger people, to function on the web I don’t anybody’s geared to go there with an approach of let me really think on this’ and take this into my heart. It’s where you go for information. You’re quick to hit that scroll down thing and you’re moving and it’s a great instrument for that, but it’s not something to really think and take it inside you, take it to heart and maybe change you and think about what it means about your life. That’s what writing is really aiming to do and that’s just not a vehicle for that. There’s just so much more of a chance that interaction will occur when you’re sitting with something in your hands and you’re letting the world drift away from you. When the computer is on, it’s so close to what you do for work, you’re checking your email, it’s a more trivial engine. That’s not where that interchange should occur. There are places for things in life, where interchanges occur at their best and that’s not it – for me. I understand if it’s easy, people at 25 are easier with it than I am, that’s fine. Still there are places where interactions work better for what they’re designed to really be. That’s what I think.
With the print industries struggling, where is the farm system for sports writers?
You can still get a job at a newspaper, I’m sure. You can then find somebody who’s thinking on that next level and drink them dry for what they might have to offer. It can still be done but it’s going to be a tough road. If that’s your dream to write something long, in-depth, provocative, if you’re talented enough and you’re hungry enough there’s still places to make it happen … but, you’re right, it’s a shrinking market and it’s gonna be harder to pull of than it used to be.
Do you read blogs? What is your opinion of blogs?
No. Whenever I have free time I’m not going to spend it online, I want to read something that’s really has some depth to it. I don’t want to say they (blogs) don’t, I don’t read them enough to know. It doesn’t interest me but it doesn’t mean that there’s not some very good writing there. I just think chances are lesser going there (Internet).
Sports, having somehow 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 more than a decade ago. Does that statement stand up today?
Yes. Probably even more so today. In a transient society it’s the one quick way to get in to the community, you know what the team’ did last night. You sit around and talk about that with they guys, you’re in. 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. You listen to sports radio and you hear should the guy have flung the ball when he got in the end zone,’ that opens up a whole ethical question about ego, about culture, your background, how you were raised, the values your raised with. It’s sets off an endless discussion, it’s interesting. 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, not just America, people. It’s a great lense. It’s a great laboratory for that stuff.
Regarding the journalistic process, how challenging is it, as a reporter, to mentally exhume these stories of deep pain, sorrow and tragedy?
It depends on the personality. Some people don’t think that way. They put a lid on, most, a lot of emotions or that whole side of them, they kind of wall off that and they have an aspect or affect that they meet the world with. That becomes more of a challenge to get to that stuff. Other people are more wide open. There’s a whole spectrum of personalities.
If you could start over again, what advice would you give yourself?
Approach each story as short stories as opposed to journalism. Be open to all the pathways that might show up if on the trail. That will show up in your stories. And that will show up in your writing. Keep trying to understand and learn about human nature. That is what fuels the best stories. The human creature and what makes him work. The more you think and learn about it, you get to the critical stuff to connect with readers and get them to look at their own lives. When a reader can connect a story to their own life, then you’ve got them hooked. There are stories everywhere. It’s a matter of digging in the right places.