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Sekou Smith, Role Model

The last 24 hours have been tough. There is something that is so jarring about death. It is not unexpected. Death comes to us all. But that doesn't make it any less jarring when we lose someone we know, and more so someone we love. COVID-19 is real and it is dangerous. And I wish people would take it more seriously.

To many people, Sekou Smith is a name synonymous with the NBA. You know him as a face on NBA TV, a voice on the Hang Time Podcast. You might recognize his byline as one you've seen on, or before that in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering the Hawks, or in the Indianapolis Star covering the Indiana Pacers. But that is not this man's full legacy. I want people to know him as I did, in order to get a better understanding of who he was and why he was so important.

Before he was hobnobbing with NBA players and coaches at Turner Studios, Sekou Smith worked at the largest daily newspaper in Mississippi, The Clarion Ledger. That's where our paths crossed. He was working the beat at Mississippi State, covering football and basketball. I was a student journalist at MSU still finding my footing, finding my voice. I knew the name but it wasn't until I started covering Bulldog basketball games that I met and came to know Sekou. He was one of very few black faces I came into contact with covering games. Sekou had this way about him, a super rough exterior like he didn't want to be bothered. But beyond the thinness of that exterior was a heart of gold. I used to tell him back then that he was the world's "youngest grumpy old man." Sekou was funny, the best kind of funny. He had jokes...endless jokes. Observational jokes, jokes on you, jokes on himself. Self-deprecation at its finest. As I was being comforted in my grief after learning of his death, I was reminded jokes are my love language. And this man communicated as well as anyone through humor. I can hear his unique voice even now as I write this, whether it was complaining about Michigan's waywardness on the football field or him asking me about my latest "dips." He loved his family dearly. That voice sure did take a turn when he spoke about his family. He was so proud of his kids. But that's Sekou.

Marshall Harris and Sekou Smith
Sekou Smith (center) (credit: Marshall Harris)

I may as well have been his little brother. The impact he had on me and I'm so sure so many others is inimitable. He had this way of using his humor and that million-dollar smile to put anyone and everyone at ease. If you had a problem with Sekou, it was probably you who were the problem. The genuine authenticity and kindness wrapped in that humor was why everyone loved him and why he related to them so well. But then again, that's Sekou.

The greatest thing Sekou ever did for me was talk me into attending my first National Association of Black Journalists Convention back in 2000. I was in college and didn't have enough money to spring for a flight to Phoenix, registration and hotel. I couldn't afford it; I told him I couldn't make the trip and I'd try to save up for next year. But Sekou told me not going was not an option and that I could crash with him. So I went (READ: he dragged me), and that's where I met these guys Stuart Scott and Kevin Frazier, who I grew up watching on SportsCenter, who would become vital mentors in my career path. I've only missed one convention since, 2012 in New Orleans when I went to London to cover the Summer Olympics. Fitting that the last time I saw Sekou was at the 2017 NABJ Convention in New Orleans. I had lunch with Sekou and his wife Heather. I still can't believe that's the last time I'll spend time with him. And can you believe this man had the audacity to try to put up a fight when I picked up the check? But that's Sekou.

J. Cole in "No Role Modelz" talks about making it even though he had "no role models to speak of." I had plenty, starting with my own father. But professionally speaking, Sekou was more important than any other mentor I had. Here's why: I grew up watching iconic figures like Stu and Kevin, Ed Bradley, and so many others as a kid. In them, I saw myself. Others like Laura Okmin told me they believed in me and that I had what it took to make it. But it's one thing to romanticize about dreams of what you want to be when you grow up. It's another thing completely to grow up and start working toward and living that dream. Seeing Sekou in action, working his craft on an everyday basis as I was taking the first steps to a now 20+ year career helped give me confidence; he was a tangible role model in real time. Leaning on him while working my first full-time job in Mississippi and having him as a resource, a friend, a brother was invaluable. That is who Sekou was and is to me.

So, you see, Sekou Smith's legacy is about much more than simply being an NBA writer. The man touched so many lives, and I really can only hope he knew how impactful he was. We remind ourselves and each other to give people their flowers while they are still with us. I can only hope I expressed to him how much of a role he played in my life and others. My college roommate Ben Hart knew Sekou as well. He may have summed up Sekou's reach best. Sekou dragged me to NABJ where I got what I needed to jumpstart my career. I, in turn, convinced Ben he needed to attend and a couple of years later he did. Ben's now a general manager at a television station in Savannah, Georgia. Sekou, a self-described "adopted ATLien," made sure to check on him when he got to the state a couple of months ago. Sekou, always authentic, always welcoming.

We really do, in this and all industries, stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. So much effort goes in to keeping certain people down in this industry. Maybe that's why there's a sharper sting in knowing we've lost more than simply a great human. We've lost a pro's pro who effortlessly tried to pull the next generation up to his level. And even if those of us pulled don't get to his level of greatness on either count, we still need to recognize that Sekou was not just a role model for us, but a reminder that we all have a chance to play role model for someone else's journey. Sekou Smith, you are loved and you will be missed. You will never be forgotten.

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