Sam Smith honored by basketball’s Hall of Fame
-- Phil Jackson and Sam Smith's relationship dates back to coach's early CBA days
-- David Axelrod recalls Smith’s first years at the Tribune
-- 2012 Hall of Fame: Bulls congratulate Sam Smith (Curt Gowdy Media Award) and Chet Walker (HOF inductee)
By Adam Fluck | 09.06.2012
Ask Sam Smith about his proudest professional accomplishment and you might think he’d mention his first book, The Jordan Rules, which spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list, or perhaps a moment from when he covered the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s.
But for Smith, he remembers one morning years before he covered sports, when as a political reporter for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in the 1970s he saw his first byline.
“I imagine it’s like being drafted by an NBA team for so many kids,” said Smith. “You never think you'll get a chance to do something you considered special, and then to be part of that group or profession doing that work, to be part of the club with the special kids, it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
“Few ever feel like they are invited, and then to work your way in and be included is a sense of great pride. I always was the kid wishing I could get inside, and then you're there and you're still the same person. It's truly amazing.”
Some forty years later, Smith has worked his way into another elite group. On Thursday, Smith was recognized as a recipient of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2012 Curt Gowdy Media Award.
Though Smith, who was joined in Springfield by his wife of 36 years, Kathleen, and his children, Connor, 23, and Hannah-Li,12, has never been comfortable being the story—he’d rather tell the story—this was a time for him to be just that. And make no mistake about it; this latest accolade is one he deeply appreciates.
“It's a wonderful honor,” said Smith. “I'm so proud to be mentioned along with some of the great newspapers writers I followed growing up, like Leonard Koppett and Leonard Lewin, and to be mentioned along with writers who created modern NBA writing, like Peter Vecsey and Bob Ryan. There are so many talented and deserving writers. To be included in such a special group is beyond your dreams.”
A number of members from the Bulls front office, including Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, President and COO Michael Reinsdorf and General Manager Gar Forman were on hand when Smith received his award and delivered his speech. U.S. Senator Herb Kohl and former Tribune Chairman and CEO Dennis FitzSimons were also in attendance. One of Smith’s former colleagues at the Chicago Tribune, David Axelrod, had hoped to attend but a commitment in Charlotte didn’t allow that. Axelrod is an Obama for America senior advisor, and the President delivered his speech to formally accept his party’s nomination for another term at the Democratic National Convention on the same night.
There were many of course, who mentored and inspired Smith along the way. Melvin Mencher, a Columbia University journalism professor critiqued and encouraged Smith while he attended Pace University. The greatest influence, though, came from Ernie Williams, editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, where Smith got his start in journalism.
“Ernie was about old style journalism and also a romantic who read great literature,” recalled Smith. “He taught me the rules and responsibilities of journalism. He also believed that with the written word you can create your own music and art while also being informative.”
By the time Smith got into sports, he had already covered Congress, the White House and presidential campaigns. So he didn’t necessarily have sports writers as mentors, though he did pay close attention to the work of a few journalists when he was younger.
“Probably Larry Merchant, who wrote for the New York Post when I was in high school and college, was most inspirational,” said Smith. “The guys from the New York newspapers, like Dick Young, were influential. I was inspired by the authors like David Halberstam, Jim Brosnam, Dick Schaap and Jim Bouton, who wrote some of the early inside story sports books. I also learned a lot by watching my father work two jobs, 16 hours a day, six days a week, and I knew what I didn't want to do.”
Smith felt he was destined to write, and after receiving his master’s degree in journalism from Ball State, he did just that. After devoting his time on political and business stories for roughly the first decade of his professional career, he eventually shifted to sports a few years after he was hired by the Chicago Tribune in 1979. Smith began covering the Bulls full-time in 1987 as Michael Jordan entered his fourth professional season.
Three years later, Smith started to work on his first book, what would become The Jordan Rules. Jordan and the Bulls won their first world championship that season and Smith’s book, which provided a unique, behind the scenes look at the dynamic between the young superstar and his teammates, was a huge hit.
While Smith’s talent as a journalist is undisputed, he accepts that notion that writing about a global icon in Jordan, widely regarded as basketball’s greatest player of all-time, didn’t hurt his cause.
“Luck plays a big part in anyone's life if they have what society views as success,” said Smith. “I always felt I'd be successful, though I never knew how it would occur. I was fortunate the Tribune assigned me to cover Jordan and the Bulls at a time when they were about to make an historic run in American sports history. By crossing paths with Jordan, my stories became more enhanced in the public eye and enabled my work to be exposed to a larger audience, which all writers generally seek.”
Smith added, “I also think Michael's career might have gone well without me.”
Since 2008, Smith has written for the Bulls official site, Bulls.com. During the season, he files a Monday column on the Bulls and NBA in general, followed by a Friday “Ask Sam” mailbag in which he responds to his reader questions. After every Bulls game, he provides extensive analysis, enjoying the fact that he no longer has a deadline or word count in which to adhere.
As for how he’ll be remembered, well, Smith isn’t all that concerned about his legacy. He’s just thankful he was able to take something he enjoyed doing and turn it into a career.
“I don't know anyone who loves their work who thinks about what people will say about them. At least I hope I don't,” said Smith. “I'm extremely fortunate to continue to have a great career and a wonderful family life, though I still can't dunk…”