Sports Nut

Going Deep

How Gary Smith became America’s best sportswriter.

Gary Smith: modern nonfiction master

Last month, Gary Smith received the National Magazine Award for his Sports Illustrated article about George O’Leary, who was hired as Notre Dame football coach only to have to resign when it emerged that his résumé was studded with lies. This was not an upset. Smith, a longtime SI staffer, had already won the award—the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the magazine world—an unprecedented three times.

Nor was the honor unmerited. Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset of Sports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SI colleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

Let’s take them one at a time. Sure, Smith has written about celebrities, including Mike Tyson, Carl Lewis, Jimmy Valvano, and Magic Johnson. But most of his best work is about athletes or people whose names you can’t quite place, or have never heard in the first place. His most memorable stories include his first National Magazine Award winner, the saga of Jonathan Takes Enemy, a young Crow basketball player struggling to escape the reservation; the riveting tale of John Malangone, who was on his way to becoming Yogi Berra’s successor as New York Yankees catcher in the late 1950s, until a terrible secret unraveled his career; and his piece in the June 16 issue of Sports Illustrated, about a deep-sea diver with an Ahab-like obsession to break depth records.

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

There is one nonfiction subgenre that still uses point of view: the clunky political and business-world tick-tocks of the school of Bob Woodward. (“Rove could see their point, but at the same time, politics was a continuing element of the presidency even during war, not to be ignored.”) That wouldn’t pass muster for Smith. Maybe his most remarkable ability is to be both inside and outside his subjects: completely understanding where they’re coming from, in all senses of the phrase, yet at the same time casting a critical eye on their actions and rationalizations. From the O’Leary piece, here’s the decisive moment when the coach, upon taking an assistant’s job at Syracuse University, first practiced to deceive:

George spat a stream of brown juice into a Styrofoam cup. A new habit. One more thing, besides the college football letters, he now had in common with the Syracuse defensive coaches. He began filling out a second document, entitled Personal Data Sheet, in which he was asked to spell out his academic credentials. He began to list the graduate schools he’d attended and the credits he’d earned. He had 31. It wasn’t enough. Presently have B.S. +48, George wrote, adding 17 credits. Hell, it was no big deal, just another coach’s ploy, wasn’t it? Like thrusting his badly scarred left hand with its permanently bent pinkie—the result of a tumble at age five, when he landed on a broken bottle at the bottom of a sump—into the face of a player who seemed always to complain of injuries and screaming, “See that? That’s college football!” Just a way of creating more authority, more aura, more men who made more victories. Just, like raw honesty, another tool. Right?

Not every Smith article is a masterpiece. He can sometimes edge into sentimentality. And he does tend to overuse a few devices, like rhetorical questions, deliberatively repetitive phrasing, and direct address. (He deploys all three in the lead paragraph of his Crow basketball player story: “Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day. How could you call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon? How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?”)

Never mind. Remember, Hemingway was too fond of the word “and.” Plus, he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees. Gary Smith is a modern nonfiction master, and it’s about time everyone else got the memo.