When you discuss journalists who have impacted the sport of basketball, Sam Smith jumps to mind. Author of the New York Times best selling book 'The Jordan Rules', and writer for the Chicago Tribune who in recent times can be found on the official Bulls website, Bulls.com. To be able to interview this man was a pleasure for me, I wanted to find out more about the man behind one of the most interesting and controversial sporting books in history. But it was about more than basketball. I wanted to find out about the man, Sam Smith.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Smith dreamed of playing professional baseball for the New York Yankees. Sam recalls his excitement of winning a city championship as a pitcher, it would be followed by an invitation to try out for his beloved Yankees at the age of sixteen. That dream was not to be, he didn't make the team. While he was always impressed by the sports writing of the New York tabloids, his parents would often condemn him for reading them from the back to the front – at that time the sports section was always in the back of the paper. Smith confesses that even though he was always a better baseball player than writer, journalism was his dream job, unfortunately his parents weren't very supportive of this.
Way before LeBron 'took his talents' to South Beach, Sam took his baseball talents to Pace University in New York playing division two. It was there at Pace that Sam tried his hand at writing for the school newspaper. Encouraged by a journalism professor, Sam knew he had to start making some money, and his degree earned in accounting certainly wasn't going to open any doors in journalism. It was at this time that Sam opted to pursue his masters degree in journalism at Ball State University. The story goes that Sam was once let go from a position for writing positive comments about the Black Panthers in the 70's, a story he refutes somewhat regretfully, “I know it sounds good, but someone must have put it in there as a joke. It isn’t true”.
Later during the early 90's while covering the Chicago Bulls, Sam became the center of attention due to his best selling book “The Jordan Rules”. I asked Sam why he chose to write about Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the controversial way that he did?
“I had been travelling with the team and knew there was another story, a side to the Bulls and Jordan which you couldn’t get across in a newspaper. I wanted to try to see if I could write a book. I was always influenced by David Halberstam’s work, and wanted to see if I could do something like that. I got lucky as the Bulls went on to win the title that season. You always love your first time. For me it was the 91 championship team, which I covered from pretty much their birth and saw them succeed. They had a young and powerful Jordan, Pippen and Grant and veteran All Star center in Cartwright and at the end of that season were to me the best Bulls team”.
Once quoted as calling Kevin Garnett a punk, Sam was quick to acknowledge his mistake and if he would take KG now by saying “I have long admired his game. I would still take Garnett and apologise if I gave a wrong impression”.
Although a native a New Yorker by birth Smith has settled into life as a Chicagoan after so many years there. He lists his favourite places to eat in Chicago as Manny's Deli, Malnati's Pizza and Joe's Stone Crab Seafood. When asked about what he listens to musically he said “I’m not that much into music. I primarily listen to rock and roll from the 50’s and 60’s still”.
I was interested in knowing more about the man named Sam Smith on a personal level and he gladly obliged. “I’m a family man with two children, a son 21 in college and a daughter, 10, adopted from China. My wife and I felt we wanted to do something to help someone and adopted a girl who’d been abandoned at birth and had a cleft palate which wouldn’t be repaired. She is doing wonderfully as is my son. I mostly spend time with them when I am not working. My son and I take annual trips in the summer for a week or two to watch baseball games at different stadiums around the U.S. and then go to historical sites. He’s away at school and in the winter I spend time with my daughter playing with her as much as my energy and job allows”.
Sam lends himself, and his email inbox, to the fans these days through his work with the Chicago Bulls organisation. His weekly mailbag “Ask Sam” encourages fans do just that, and so I had to ask Sam what's the most frequently asked question? “It’s usually the latest trade, and now Carmelo Anthony. I’ve always felt everyone’s opinion is important in that it’s worth hearing. I long have felt too many journalists look down on their audience. I feel everyone’s question deserves an answer, and I read every email and try to answer as many as I can. I get maybe 50 a day and many more when there is something going on like free agency”.
In that case he must have an opinion on David Stern's crusade to stamp out emotion in the NBA? “I like it as I feel the players, especially the stars, got into too much overreacting and reacting. It carried over to the fans who began to look more at the referee calls for the outcome of the game, than the game. It’s all about the game and players should understand that best”.
In closing I asked Sam two more questions. What do the Bulls need to do to be considered a legitimate championship contender again?, and, I'm intrigued as to what would be his ultimate starting five from todays NBA ?
“ The Bulls need another high level scorer from the perimeter, and some more experience for Rose and Noah”.
What about his ideal starting five? He answers just as quickly as Derrick Rose can get to the rim, “Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose”.
As always you can find me on Twitter @AUBullsFan and through my writing at bleacherreport.com and starting5.com.au.