I think of it as a rite of passage.
When I turned 13 years old, I achieved a religious milestone: my bar-mitzvah, in which a Jewish boy, upon that pivotal birthday, becomes a man. And I cherished it.
But unbeknownst to most of my loved ones – and, to be sure, my rabbi – I had experienced, earlier that year, another giant leap forward that represented, to me, a sign of growth and maturity.
I subscribed to Sports Illustrated.
And, in the process, I cancelled my subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids.
(Technically, my parents paid for these subscriptions, but let’s not worry about that.)
I could not contain my excitement. An aspiring sportscaster and avid sports fan, I could not wait to start reading a grown-up sports magazine. Like any teenager, grasping at adulthood before reaching it, I wanted to spread my wings in every avenue possible, even in the seemingly frivolous category of magazine readership.
My enthusiasm for the sports themselves, however, was still childlike. When I opened Sports Illustrated each week, I zoomed to the quick hits, short articles, and entertaining pieces that focused on the games and players, as opposed than the stories that surrounded them.
Then I found Gary Smith.
And I read the article that altered my view on sports, sports journalism, and writing – permanently.
I remember lying on my parents’ bed, flipping through SI while watching TV, and nearing the end of the issue when I came across the headline:
“Crime and Punishment”
I read the sub-headline:
“After high school star Richie Parker was convicted of sexual abuse, those who tried to salvage – and savage – his basketball career were scarred by their experience.”
Normally, when I sensed a 20-page article in front of me, I would simply close the issue – especially when the article focused on topics like these. I did not want to read about crime, sexual abuse, and scars. I wanted to read about sports.
But, this time, I noticed something different.
The first letter of the article was not the start of a word, but a Roman numeral:
The first sentence was not a straightforward news bulletin, but an absorbing, monolithic statement:
“Here is a man.”
And the first section was not a by-the-numbers recap, but a vignette about a teenager diving into a pool, intertwined with recent newspaper headlines about that teenager’s controversial past.
I kept reading.
All the way to the end.
In the 20 pages between, Smith examined New York schoolyard legend Richie Parker, whose conviction for sexually molesting a classmate led universities to deny him scholarships to play basketball. At the time of the article, Parker was a lightning rod of controversy, generating headlines and protests for any school that approached him with an offer.
But 14-year-old me had little interest in Parker or his story … until Smith told it.
In his hands, a seemingly cut-and-dry, good-vs.-evil tale became a complex portrayal of urban poverty, the impact of the media, and overall ethics. It did not lead me to sympathize or side with Parker, but I suddenly thought so much differently about his story.
Thanks to Smith, I saw many sides to it.
Gary Smith announced his retirement last week to a shocking lack of fanfare. The news sort of dribbled out via a few Tweets from his Sports Illustrated colleagues. It came at the height of the Donald Sterling fiasco in Los Angeles, which meant it barely registered on the radar of many sports fans.
Then again, Smith never garnered much mainstream attention anyway, and especially not recently. He often seemed like an anachronism in a frenetic media landscape, dutifully presenting rich, layered, complex, and thorough treatises while the news cycle whizzed by.
But to a certain type of storyteller, Smith was a beacon.
Many journalists crave the thrill of the deadline, the immediacy of breaking news, or the access of being at the center of a giant story. Others, such as myself, feed off of something else.
We feed off of depth.
We feed off of the desire to tell as full a story as possible and to examine a person or issue from as many viewpoints as we can find. We want to tell the whole truth, educating and informing while bringing our world a little closer.
Any journalist who fits that description, and who knew about Smith, had no choice but to envy him.
Smith wrote just four stories a year for Sports Illustrated. But those stories were always powerhouses because Smith, by the time he wrote them, had become such an expert on their subjects. Rick Reilly once wrote that Smith “has a rule. He’s not done researching a subject until he’s interviewed at least fifty people. That’s why [his stories] are often the most unforgettable of the year. They are meticulous in their depth of reporting, nearly preposterous.”
For most journalists, “preposterous” seems accurate. They would love to interview 50 people for a story, but they don’t get the time. They also don’t get the space to unpack the knowledge such expertise would bring. Smith wrote stories that filled 20 pages; most TV reporters get 90 seconds.
Thankfully, given that kind of real estate, Smith never wasted an opportunity.
He told stories through his own voice, but that voice shifted every time to suit the subject. And like so many great storytellers, Smith shied away from his own attention and promotion.
I own his anthology, Beyond The Game. His introduction fills just five paragraphs.
Five paragraphs about himself. Five hundred in his stories.
Midway through last week, after Smith announced his retirement but before I learned of it, I joked with a co-worker about the clutter on the modern-day TV screen.
Watch any newscast, and you will be bombarded by information – anything to hold your attention.
I pointed my co-worker to a clip from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart gleefully pokes fun at CNN’s muddled new look, mocking its desire to pepper the news with tickers, forecasts, and scores at the bottom of the screen.
That clip is from 2001.
And today it seems enormously outdated.
Viewers and readers are constantly inundated and interrupted, and we bring it on ourselves. Research shows many people watch TV while using their laptops, tablets, or phones. The busiest among us know how difficult it can be to find a minute of solitude, let alone a solid chunk of time.
Where does that leave depth and complexity in reaching an audience?
Where does that leave a writer like Smith?
He, I guess, will not have to worry about that anymore.
But I hope he remains a beacon. Even if most storytellers never get the time to interview 50 people per story, we should all aspire to Smith’s standards – his desire to make every story unique, his ability to steer clear of shortcuts and easy answers, and his demand to become a full-fledged expert on a subject before presenting it to the public.
When I heard about Gary Smith’s retirement, six days after the fact, I found my copy of his anthology and flipped to “Crime and Punishment”. I re-read it and became as captivated as I was nearly two decades ago.
And I marveled at how, long before I filed my first story as a journalist, one of the finest writers of our time planted a seed in my mind.
Rite of passage, indeed.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at email@example.com.