Smith sees bigger picture in subjects’ personal journeys

Gary Smith is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated known for the penetrating insights in his four annual long-form (8,000-word) personal profiles. He has earned numerous accolades, including four National Magazine Awards, and has been recognized 11 times in the Best American Sports Writing anthology. Smith’s work also has appeared in Esquire, Inside Sports, Rolling Stone and Time. His most recent collection, “Going Deep,” was published late in 2008 and contains 20 of his favorite stories. Smith spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

Favorite vacation spot: I try to mix them up. I loved living in Sydney for a year. I’ve been back there several times. I loved living in Bolivia and Spain and Paris.
Favorite piece of music: “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen is right up there.
Favorite authors: Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Milan Kundera
Favorite movies: “Ghandi,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Shawshank Redemption”
Last book read: “Psychotherapy Without the Self,” by Mark Epstein
Extravagances: As soon as I hear something about a book that sounds interesting or introduces new ideas, I jump on Amazon and buy it in a heartbeat, which means I’ll have about 30 books lined up in the on-deck circle when I should be knocking off the ones I’ve got.

The New York Times referred to you as the “Sports Whisperer.” Mike Veeck, about whom you wrote, said, “People warned me he’d get deep inside my head. … That piece could have saved me 20 years of psychoanalysis.” And Rick Reilly, in the introduction to “Going Deep,” wrote, “God, please don’t let this guy ever profile me.” I think he was kidding.
Smith: I’m really fascinated by what makes human beings tick and how they respond to circumstances in their lives, how they solve their problems. And hopefully the person that I’m writing about and spending so much time interviewing senses that there is a genuine interest to understand. With that maybe comes some trust in being able to get to terrain that you might not get in a typical interview — where there’s much more of a time limit for most journalists and they need a quick take on something. I have the luxury of getting down into some complexities and paradoxes and really trying to understand on a deeper level.

The profiles require that you spend a considerable amount of time with the subjects.
Smith: For sure. They’re probably sick of me by the time it’s done.

Is it ever awkward?
Smith: There are moments, sometimes at the beginning. I remember Mike Tyson. I put my hand out to introduce myself and he just walked away and left my hand hanging in the air. That was rather awkward. And sometimes you’ve got to ask them about things that are very sensitive, and that can be difficult. Hopefully that occurs at a point where they have enough trust to at least appreciate where the question is coming from. They may not be able to answer it completely frankly, but at least they won’t kick me out the door.

Smith’s profile subjects have included Jim Valvano,
record-setting free diver Pipin Ferreras and Tiger Woods.

About Jim Valvano you wrote, “He wanted to make amends, resolve some things with the world, and I knew I was his voice for that.” Any pressure or added responsibility in telling a story like that?
Smith: I always feel a deep sense of responsibility when I take somebody’s life, in a way, into my hands. There’s even more when a person’s facing the end and their family is about to lose them. Yeah, it definitely ups the ante. I’ve felt it.

You wrote, “Celebrities are often more into protecting their image. Derek Jeter at age 60 would be a hell of a story.” Why?
Smith: Well, perhaps at that age he might be able to drop some of the veneer that he’s so successfully created for what he’s dealing with in a very professional, but not very revealing, way. Who knows? Maybe more ossified? It’s hard to say. I would imagine he’d be a much more interesting story because there would be more turns and twists to his life. And the loss of something that gave him an identity, baseball, I would think would have a large effect in how he deals with it.

Al McGuire said, “Inside, I think, all the thoroughbred athletes have uncertainty, the fear of being unsuccessful.” Do you sense that?
Smith: Oh, yeah. Once you get deeper into a person — even the greatest athletes — the fear becomes so much more prominent. And it humanizes them because it seems like they’re in such control, and the fear … oftentimes you find it’s the centerpiece of who they’ve become. And how they’ve managed to deal with it is what’s made them great. But it doesn’t lessen one iota how much fear is in play in the whole process.

If you could switch places with any athlete, whom would you choose? Or would you even want to?
Smith: I probably wouldn’t. For the most part, they’ve had to whittle down their lives so much to excel at something that their possibility for personal growth is greatly compromised. There are a few who have gone beyond that and found a way, probably mostly so after they’ve retired. It’s like they die young, and if they haven’t figured out something before that death occurs, about where the water and the deeper life is, then pretty much it seems like a Sahara of an existence after that death of the end of their careers.

You wrote about Andre Agassi.
Smith: Agassi was a guy who really struck me because he was a seeker even while he was an athlete, which is so rare. Most of them just don’t have the time, or they’re afraid of tinkering with the equation and looking too far beyond the immediacy of the skill set they’re trying to perfect. It was a rather striking experience to spend a lot of time with him and see how hungry he was to learn and to understand himself, even while he was still playing. It intensified even more toward the end of his playing days, but he was on that kind of quest throughout his career, which is why he was so confusing to so many people.

What in sports would you not miss if it were eliminated?
Smith: Bats that break so easily. I have a real fear that somebody’s going to lose an eye before they get a grip on this. I wouldn’t miss PSLs. I wouldn’t miss baseball games starting at 8:30 and ending after midnight and days off in between tournaments and games and playoffs and World Series where they just stretch out forever. I wouldn’t miss boxing, you know, with the total way that it’s legislated and run.

Is there a sports story or sports business story you are watching closely?
Smith: It’s going to be interesting to see how the economy plays out on sports and see if we can kind of whittle back our mania or religion, or whatever you want to call it, and adjust. I’ve got to believe there’s going to be some pretty massive effects of it. But for the stories I write, something like that would need to play out in an individual or a small group for it to be compelling. That’s definitely a worthy story, and needs to be done, but it’s not where I make my most hay.

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