NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Over the years, the one journalist I've most wanted to meet is Gary Smith, senior writer for Sports Illustrated.
I first noticed his byline in 1984, when he wrote an absorbing profile of George Foreman, exactly 10 years after the boxer was knocked out by Muhammad Ali in one of the sport's most startling upsets. What separates Smith, 54, from other writers is his rare ability to tell a story in a moving way without crossing the line to mawkishness.
Smith, who joined SI in 1982, treats everyone he writes about with dignity, and unlike so many writers who happily settle for easy, sensational hooks, he doesn't reduce his subjects to one-dimensional cartoon characters. He doesn't judge people or conveniently lump them into simplistic Good vs. Evil morality tales.
"Life for every human being is a problem that has to be solved," Smith recently told me over pizza at Lombardi's in New York.
Perhaps a secret to his success is that he maintains a distance from his peers. "I don't read that much sports journalism," he said. He prefers fiction and philosophy, which shouldn't surprise his fans because he's a master storyteller and amateur philosopher.
One sports book I'll be sure to read is the forthcoming "Going Deep," an anthology including Smith's SI stories.
Going beyond celebrity
It's said that the two qualities that make a story great are the contradiction and the conclusion. "It fascinates me, what makes a person tick," he said. "It's the contradiction, the paradox. In ambiguity, there is a goldmine. There is a lot of tension involved."
Smith's wife, Sally, who accompanied him when we talked, astutely added, "He is not satisfied with putting facts together. He wants to understand what is the core conflict that has driven that person. He hopes to tell a secret that a person might not be aware of."
Sure, Smith has excelled at tackling such subjects as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's championship in the twilight of his sports career and college basketball coach Jim Valvano's struggle with late-stage cancer. His profile of Tiger Woods in 1996, "The Chosen One," was included in "The Best Sports Writing of the Century" anthology.
But I believe his best stuff is when he gets inside the head of a person I've never heard of, someone way out on the fringe of organized sports. Smith's gallery of unforgettables ranges from basketball player Jonathan Takes Enemy, who was torn between staying on the Crow reservation with his people and leaving it to pursue an education and basketball career ("Shadow of a Nation"), to the high school hoops player and convicted sex offender who tried to play college ball ("Crime and Punishment").
Smith also seems to get more satisfaction from telling the story of an ordinary individual, partly for practical reasons. "Celebrities are often more into protecting their image," he said with a shrug. (When I told him that he should try writing about journalists, often the most image-conscious people on the planet, he laughed knowingly.) "Unknown people are more accessible for that kind of exploration."
When it comes to famous people, Smith sees less immediate appeal in profiling someone as well known as, say, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, a superstar and matinee idol since age 22.
Jeter safeguards his image at all times. "Derek Jeter at age 60 would be a hell of a story!" Smith said.
That's why Smith approached former tennis great John McEnroe to talk about how he has dealt with his fame since the cheering stopped. But McEnroe was one of the few athletes who turned down Smith's interview request. "I don't want to go there, at this point," Smith says McEnroe told him good-naturedly.
I'm certainly not the first to acknowledge Smith's expertise. In 2003, Ben Yagoda wrote in Slate: "Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he's the best magazine writer in America."
Terry McDonell, editor of the Sports Illustrated Group, also recognizes Smith's skill. "I always know that it will be a special issue when he is about to produce a story," McDonell said. "He understands the everyman tale of struggle and redemption and the classic values that we share as American people."
Smith has also won four National Magazine Awards -- the most in SI's 54-year history -- underscoring how much he's appreciated by his peers.
Smith is increasingly valuable to Sports Illustrated from a prestige point of view. Another SI superstar, columnist Rick Reilly, bolted to rival ESPN of Walt Disney not long ago. .
When I brought up Reilly's jump to "The Evil Empire," as SI regards ESPN, Smith smiled and said, "I had a few dances with them."
But Smith pointed out that writing about four stories a year, while getting the space to tell stories in blocks of thousands of words, gives him a privileged place in journalism circles. "It's hard to find a better job," he said.
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By Jon Friedman