For America's best sportswriter, sports make up the stage of human drama and folly 

Mr. Smith Goes Deep

Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories [Buy Now]
By Gary Smith
Sports Illustrated, 416 pages, $27

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: energy, passion, hope.

And there was Gary Smith on the sidelines. He watched as the life slowly leaked out of Valvano through a needle in his chest. With every drip of chemo, Smith watched as another piece of Jimmy Vee died each day.

Watch. That's all he could do. It was surreal. Then, when Valvano had the energy, Smith listened to the legendary college basketball coach spill his fear, pain, and regret — to leave one final message to the world.

"He wanted to make amends, resolve some things with the world, and I knew I was his voice for that," says Smith, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who lives in Charleston.

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," Smith says. "Just the times in the middle of writing, feeling the emotions come 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 in Valvano's voice. Or the eerie frailty of a body that once hovered at the rim, cutting down the nylon net in celebration of an NCAA national 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," Smith says. "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 some way, 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 Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.

But forget the title. Labels are deceiving. Smith is not a sportswriter. He's a storyteller, a translator of human emotions.

"I'm a writer who happens to be writing about sports," Smith says. "It just happens to be the stage. A lot of our moral tales play out on that stage. There's a lot of paradox in that relationship. I'm trying to write about people and understand people who 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 polarizing coach.

"His whole career was in question," Smith remembers, "and what he was going 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.

Through his writing he allows you and me — the readers — to respond.

"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 says.

That can be a tedious and painstaking mental process for his subjects.

"I try to warn the person," he says. "I'm going to take a lot of time, I'm going to ask 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 that's republished 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 says. "Everybody, in their own way, is an extraordinary story. Even the ordinary is extraordinary. When you start to look 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."

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 and confesses he'd rather be interviewing than interviewed.

"I'm more interested in learning and growing myself," he says.

Well, most of the time.

The setting for his next Sports Illustrated story (it came out Monday) is Chicago. Not just anywhere in the Windy City. No. Just when you think you understand 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 says. "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's 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.

Dramatic? Maybe.

Educational? Not so much.

What could you possibly "learn and grow" from in that setting?

"Sometimes it's good not to learn," Smith says. "It's good just to have fun."


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