The cancer was winning. It was no longer a matter of if, but when. The tumors that had assailed Jim Valvano’s body were multiplying and beginning to rob him of the very things that defined him as a human being: energy, passion, hope.
And there he was, Gary Smith, on the sidelines of life and death. He watched as the life slowly leaked out of Valvano through a needle in his chest. As the chemo dripped in, life spilled out. Smith watched as another piece of Jimmy Vee died each day.
Watch. That’s all he could do. It was a surreal experience. Then, when Valvano had the energy, he would listen to the legendary college basketball coach spill his fear, his pain, his regrets, his entire heart, to leave one final message to the world.
“He wanted to make amends, resolve some things with the world, and I knew that I was his voice for that,” said Smith, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who now calls Charleston home.
It was a heavy burden for any human being, let alone a transient reporter. All of this was foreign territory for Smith, who was thrust into the life of a man on the brink of death.
“That was without a doubt the most wrenching story I worked on,” said Smith. “Just the times in the middle of writing, feeling the emotions come up and well up. Having spent a lot of time with his daughters, his wife, knowing what all of them were facing and about to face, it was tough.”
Maybe it was the urgency with which Valvano spoke, or the eerie frailty of a body that once hovered at the rim, cutting down the nylon net in celebration of an NCAA nation title at North Carolina State, either way the reporting led Smith into a head-on confrontation with his own mortality.
“You realize your own vulnerability and fragility,” said Smith. “There was nowhere specific to take it, but it was something you just walked around with, wrapped around you for those couple of months and beyond.
“It’s really like going ‘into the tunnel’ with somebody in that situation. There’s no way around it. If it’s not affecting you in someway, you’re not feeling it, it’s going to be hard for the reader to feel it or the writer to write it.”
Valvano’s story, As Time Runs Out, is one of 20 chronicled in Smith’s new book titled Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.
But, forget the title. Labels are deceiving. Smith is not a sportswriter, but a storyteller, a translator of human emotions.
“I’m a writer that happens to be writing about sports,” Smith confessed. “It just happens to be the stage. A lot of our moral tales play out on that stage (sports). There’s a lot of paradox about that relationship. I’m trying to write about people and understand people that happen to be in sports.”
His subjects often lack the marquee qualities of Tom Brady, Derek Jeter or LeBron James, not by coincidence but by design. It’s one of the qualities that’s made Smith a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, the magazine writing equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2001, George O’Leary stepped on the ethical foul line, setting off buzzers all over the country. Five days after O’Leary was named head coach of Notre Dame’s football program, he was fired for “padding his resume.” The allegations, and subsequent firing, set off a media firestorm and temporarily benched the coach.
Smith steered his way into the belly of the controversy, saddling up next to O’Leary, watching, listening and observing the polemic coach.
“His whole career was in question,” Smith remembers, “and what he was going to be able to do and how the world was going to see him. That gave him enough motive to take a chance with me coming into his world in hopes that, maybe, people would see that he is something more than those couple of sentences on that resume. Then they can make their decisions. But they won’t be hanging on the meat hook of two sentences on a resume.”
This is what Smith does, arguably better than any magazine writer today. He observes. He listens. He does not judge, he reports, and through his writing he allows you and I – the readers – to respond.
Smith described the O’Leary story as a “challenge,” one which you have to develop an intimate relationship with a stranger’s mind. “It’s like you’re trying to get in their head at a certain moment and then have every little detail about what was going on, what they’re seeing, what they’re thinking,” he said.
The means to that end can be a tedious and sometimes painstaking mental process for his subjects.
“I try to warn the person before I start,” he said. ”I am going to take a lot of time, I am going to ask you a lot of details and you may hate me by the time it’s over.
“I’ve tried the patience I’m sure, of the people I do stories about.”
The result: Lying in Wait, another one of Smith’s critically-acclaimed short stories has re-published in Going Deep.
The finished product is as close as you will ever get to bringing human emotion to a piece of paper.
“Each person is a whole new treasure chest,” Smith explains. “Everybody, in their own way, is an extraordinary story. Even the ordinary is extraordinary. When you start to looking into it … what makes each person who they are is usually pretty fascinating. I kinda get caught up in that and it just carries me.”
Sports, having some how become the realm in which Americans derive their strongest sense of community, has become the stage where all the great moral issues are played out, often rough and ugly, right alongside the games.
Those are Smith’s words, not mine. He authored that statement 12 years ago, a commentary he believes stands up today.
“It’s the quickest way to feel belonging in America and it’s also a place where we play out a lot of our great questions; a lot of ethics questions come into play … questions about ego, culture, your background, how you were raised, values you’re raised with,” he said.
“It sets off an endless discussion. When you look at human behavior that way … that’s the stage we use – sports – a lot of our big, ethical questions that really signify a lot more about America and about people. It’s a great lense. It’s a great laboratory for that stuff.”
In Damned Yankee, a 1997 featured article in SI, Smith chronicles the life of John Malangone, a catcher in the New York Yankees organization and supposed heir apparent to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.
But this, as it plays out, is no boy wonder tale.
For years, decades, Malangone wrestled with the demons of a childhood episode that controlled every aspect of his being through his formative years, his short baseball career and his adult life. Malangone and Smith met at that fork in the road, and the journey begins.
“He was anxious to get it off his chest but it was real scatter-shot, so getting it all, it took a real sheep dogging effort,” remembers Smith. “If I had come to him five years earlier before he told the secret then it would have been probably hopeless. I doubt he’d have spilled it to some reporter at that point in his life and it took the right circumstances to all come together for him to finally do it. He wasn’t quite sure how to get me there to the ultimate reality but he was flinging stuff out there all over the place.”
Smith is relaxed, but seemingly ready to move on. With the release of Going Deep he has been the interview subject more than he’d like recently and confesses he’d rather be interviewing than being interviewed, reading Milan Kundera or researching his next story idea. “I’m more interested in pieces of life where I’m learning and growing myself,” he adds.
Well, most of the time.
The setting for his next Sports Illustrated story is Chicago. Not just Anywhere, Chicago. No. Just when you think you’ve got a beat on this SI writer, he surprises all sports fans with a change up.
“I just spent four days in the bleachers at Wrigley and watched the Cubs and the Phillies play,” Smith said. “I just hung out with some crazy people and it’s just wild and different. It was a lot of fun.”
Four days in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, reporting? It is the equivalent of covering a frat house keg party, a 180-degree turn from his work featured in the new book.
The Northside of Chicago is full of emotional highs and lows. The Cubs are the pride of the National League in 2008. It’s the 100-year anniversary of the Cubs last championship. Cubbies fans aren’t sure whether to laugh or cheer or celebrate … or brace for another huge disappointment.
Not so much.
What could you possibly “learn and grow” from in that setting?
“Sometimes it’s good not to learn,” Smith replied. “It’s good just to have fun.”
as published in the Charleston City Paper