When the news came that legendary sportswriter Gary Smith was retiring from Sports Illustrated, I did what any writer would do: I called my dad.
Before I was born, my father worked as the Eagles beat writer for the Bucks County Courier Times. He covered the team during the Dick Vermeil era, the team’s first taste of success since 1960. So did Smith. I asked my father about him on Monday, and he told me two stories:
- Once, Smith apologized a year later for being unable to attend a party my parents threw.
- In the late 1970s, at an Eagles banquet at the Union League, Gary Smith arrived late — wearing flip flops. “I can still hear them flapping on the spit-shined floors as Smith arrived late amid gasps from the double-breasted,” my dad wrote decades later in the Daily News.
My dad also told me about what a great reporter Smith was — always carrying around a yellow legal pad. He didn’t settle for canned answers, even from football players. My dad said the late-apology story was a silly one to tell me, but I disagree! The year-late apology to my dad sounds like a good reporter, a guy whose brain was constantly churning information about everything. He couldn’t continue until he’d apologized to my dad. He once told my college journalist colleague Dave Zeitlin, now a freelance writer in town — that he didn’t even start thinking about writing a piece until he’d interviewed 50 people. Fifty! (SI puts it at 100, but calls it “legendary.”) He told Zeitlin this when Dave figured out his email address — we got our hands on one SI guy’s email address, and realized the format was simple — and sent him an email. Zeitlin got a long reply. He’s not the only one with that experience.
Of all the influences on my career, my father — who's now assistant sports editor at the Daily News — is, obviously, the most important. When I was born, my dad left his job to stay home with me; those formative years with him put me on a path to journalism, however unintentional it was. I am forever indebted. He helped me develop a natural curiosity for things; eventually, I began devouring newspapers and magazines like Sports Illustrated.
By then, Gary Smith had moved on to SI. My father would point out his stories as ones I should read. (The other author my parents directed me to was, naturally, Dave Barry.) One I remember very well came out when I was 8. It was about Jonathan Takes Enemy, a basketball player on a Crow reservation, and I thought it was just about the best sports article I'd ever read.
And there were more great stories from Smith. They weren't so much about sports as they were about life. Whether writing about a basketball coach in Amish country or a then-unbeatable Mike Tyson, the stories got more at the human condition than simply reporting the results of a sporting event.
And then there was Smith's incredible 2011 series on the 102-win Phillies. It's a shame the Phillies choked in the playoffs, because there was an incredible book in this. (Actually, an ending where the Phillies disappoint the entire city is the perfect climax to a book about a Philadelphia sports team.) While the first two pieces in the series were good, the third was one of the best things ever written on Philadelphia. It opens by following Cliff Lee out of 1706 Rittenhouse as he heads to work:
That's not the guy. That's his 10-year-old son, Jaxon, trying to trash-talk him into playing another video game, which the guy would love to do because he loves video games and trash talk and every moment with a boy given a 30% chance of surviving leukemia in his first year of life. But nope, the guy's out the door of their condo in jeans and a T-shirt, catching an elevator and jumping into his black BMW. It's nearly 3 p.m. Cliff Lee's going to work.
He merges into the traffic on Rittenhouse Square. Squint and you're in Paris: fountain and sculptures and iron railings and pigeons and lap dogs and sidewalk tables with rattan bistro chairs and waiters in white carrying cafés au lait. And people, every kind of 'em: corporate executives and shuffling down-and-outers and baby-strolling moms and dog-walking college girls and sunbathing fat men and... .
Cliff blinks. Is he at work already? Scores of them are dressed like his workmates, down to the very names on the backs of their shirts — why, there's HALLADAY and ROLLINS and HOWARD and UTLEY and look, even two of him, two Lees. There's a young woman from Russia entering Barnes & Noble with his company's logo tattooed on her neck ... and a white-haired lawyer hurrying his briefcase and deposition back to an office whose desk, shelves and walls have vanished under Phillies keepsakes ... and that old man in a Phillies hat with a Phillies key-chain necklace who comes here every afternoon to feed the birds on his way to whisper his prayers at St. Patrick's ... and that beefy guy in a Phillies cap who sets up his chessboard behind the Lion Crushing a Serpent sculpture every day and challenges passersby to play for cash, which Cliff would love to do because he loves playing anything for cash and playing chess till his opponents whimper — but he can't. Cliff Lee's going to work.
It's really worth a read. Look how much information is in those three paragraphs — about Cliff Lee, about the city, about the look and feel of Philadelphia. A friend from high school who moved away says when his son is old enough he's going to show him this article to tell him what growing up in Philadelphia was like. I will miss Gary Smith's work when he retires. Let's hope he has more stories about Philadelphia in him before he does.
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