By In Stuff

The Sportswriting Magicians


Sometimes, I would think of them as magicians. This was when I was 21, when my job for The Charlotte Observer was to compile the hockey standings and take high school track and softball and tennis results and call some sort of secret phone number to get the lake levels I needed to print in the newspaper. I didn’t even know what lake levels meant. I only knew that people needed them for some fishing reason. I copied them down.

In the downtime of my job, I would think relentlessly about sportswriting. I would read all the columnists on the wire. I would write practice columns for no one else to see. And, perhaps most, I would think about two men, two magicians who wrote for Sports Illustrated at the time. The first went by the name William Nack. And the second was called Gary Smith. They read so different that they hardly seemed to be doing the same job. And, like more or less every sportswriter who grew up in that time, they were my sun and my moon.

Bill Nack was a close-up magician. He wrote so naturally that when he walked away you felt absolutely SURE that you could do the magic yourself. Everything in Bill’s writing was deceptively fluid and easy — yes, he was so graceful that he offered the illusion of ease. When Carlos Beltran was young and fast and the best defensive center fielder in the game, nobody believed it because he did not appear to be running hard. He made every catch at the hip and in stride. That was Nack in print — like the time he told the story of A.J. Foyt gently bumping Bobby Unser with three laps to go in a race at Michigan. Unser was about to go out of control. Foyt kept him from wrecking with this supernatural maneuver that nobody else on earth could have done.

“Climbing from his car,” Nack wrote, “Foyt spotted Unser.”

“Saved your ass, didn’t I?” said Foyt.

Yes, that was Nack, the close-up magician, turning the three of diamonds into the ace of spades, turning the ace of spades into all four aces, turning all four aces into a deck without any aces and doing it all while pleasantly explaining exactly how he’s doing it. Here was his final plea to Joe Frazier to let go of his hate toward Muhammad Ali, because the hate was eating away at Frazier:

“(Trainer Eddie) Futch’s gentle voice still rings the clearest. His words in Manilla, after 14 savage rounds that left Frazier’s eyes nearly as blind as his heart is now, still echo faint but true. ‘The fight’s over, Joe … The fight’s over, Joe … The fight’s over, Joe.”

That’s a special kind of magic — the ability to leave someone thunderstruck even after they know the trick.

Gary Smith, on the other hand, was a wizard. His magic did not look easy. It did not even look possible. The first story I remember reading from Gary Smith was that year I was 21, it was called “Ali and His Entourage” and I remember everything about it including the awe. I remember the way he used ellipses … to … slow … down … the … rhythm. I remember the dreamy way he described an afternoon drive with Muhammad Ali — “Ahead, trees smudged against sky and farmland; the glinting asphalt dipped and curved, a black ribbon of molasses” — using words the way a director uses special effects. I remember the way he played Greek chorus as Ali drifted off into his memories.

“What happened to the circus?” I asked.

He was staring at the slowly swishing trees, listening to the breeze sift leaves and make a lulling sound like water running over the rocks of a distant stream. He didn’t seem to hear.

And I said again, ‘What happened to the circus.”

This wasn’t magic I could do. What I didn’t know then was that this was magic no one else could do. Gary somehow found his way into a room with a dying Bundini Brown, the oddly holy Ali sidekick whose singular role in the entourage seemed to be helping Ali feel. Gary somehow reached Luis Sarria, the masseur who after the most ferocious fights would rub life back into Ali through his shoulders. Everything about the story — even the inspired idea of going back and finding the people who surrounded Ali in the time when he conquered the world — was sorcery. Reading Bill Nack at least left you with the illusion that you could fly. Reading Gary Smith left you with the realization that you could not.

And he would do that to me again and again and again. I was older and a full-time sports columnist when I read the story Gary wrote about Richie Parker, a once talented high school basketball player convicted of sexual abuse. But there was the sorcery again … the story was not about Richie Parker. It was instead about the efforts to come to grips with his crime — not Parker’s efforts, so much, but the efforts of those around him, of those haunted by what he he had done, of those whose job it was to report about him, of those hoping to save him, of an element called “cesium,” which — because it has only one electron on its outer shell — will blow up when it comes into contact with elements outside its family.

Who else could write a story about a basketball player where the main character is cesium?

There is the story of a violinist who, upon hearing Jascha Heifetz play, threw down his instrument and declared himself unworthy of ever playing it again. That was the feeling Gary Smith inspired in sportswriter over and over, whether writing about Jim Valvano or Buster Douglas, Dick Vermeil or Mike Tyson, the shadow of a nation or the little ripples from Lake Nellie. Time and again, I would get a call from a sportswriting friend and the first line would be: “Oh man, did you read Gary Smith this week?” Over the years, we never stopped being amazed. It always felt like Gary was playing a different game from everyone else.

You probably heard: Gary Smith announced his retirement yesterday — he was trending on Twitter and everything. It’s funny to think of Gary Smith trending on Twitter; Gary is a wonderful guy, generous with his time and wisdom, and he also has this zen-like quality. He told me the story of how he saw the Phillies World Series of 2009 — Gary’s a ferocious Phillies fan. While the series was going on, he was away at some sort of retreat; I don’t know too much about it but do know that there were no phones, no televisions, no radios, nothing but nature and silence and meditation. There might have been bicycling involved too, I can’t remember. Anyway, there was no way whatsoever for him to know how the Phillies did.

So he had friends and family tape the World Series for him. But that wasn’t enough. He insisted that they had to give him SEVEN tapes. Why seven? Well, that way he would not know how long the series had gone and therefore would not know who had won based on how the early games went.

Point is, it’s obvious to me that nothing would impress Gary Smith less than trending on Twitter.

At the top here, I included a photo of my sportswriting bookshelf. I collect sportswriting collections. I keep meaning to organize them but I never get around to it so I just stack them on the shelf in whatever order is convenient. It was while walking by this morning, though, that I noticed that I have Gary’s book “Beyond The Game” and Bill’s book “My Turf” right next to each other at the center of my collection. That is exactly how it should be. Those two have undoubtedly shaped my sportswriting life, Bill by showing what’s possible and Gary by showing what’s impossible.

28 Responses to The Sportswriting Magicians

  1. Kerry Waller says:

    If I were a sportswriter, you would be my Gary Smith, Joe. Fantastic stuff, as always

  2. Amen to all of this. Gary Smith has rarely written a meaningful story that didn’t get me teary-eyed. The one I remember best was about the Darling twins from Florida State.

  3. Jim Haas says:

    Well, it’s off to the library or bookstore this morning to find a copy of Gary Smith’s book. Thanks (again), Joe.

  4. Josh says:

    Same general feeling I had moving to Kansas City 16 years ago and discovering you and Whitlock at the Star.

  5. Mark Colone says:

    You are next in line as the writer who is impossible to catch. You and Tommy Tomlinson ought to “coach” a summer camp for guys like us who think, but can’t put pen to paper.

  6. Bob Davis says:

    There is a third writer, his prose is transparent, you forget you’re reading as you read him. Simple elegance and uncommon wisdom, respect for history while translating the present into a spellbinding narrative. The Soul of Baseball belongs front and center in any sportswriting collection. Thanks Joe

    • Bill Caffrey says:

      Sure. But it would not fit in Joe’s picture above. Joe’s collection is of collections. I.e., those books are all collections of sportswriting. They are not about any one person or topic.

  7. Chris Witt says:

    Joe – I read about 20-30 books a year, maybe 1/3-1/2 of which are sports-related. Many of my favorite reads from the past few years have come off your recommendations. Keep it coming. Quality sports-writing is still an important art form.

  8. PhilM says:

    Every week I have a Tuesday/Thursday workout class led by Gary’s sister, and I’ve just forwarded this to her. I’ve said before that my last wish would be to have Joe write my obituary: but maybe I’d prefer it to be my retirement tribute!

  9. TS says:

    A dynamite tribute Joe; I’m curious, what are your thoughts on Gay Talese? I know he’s an occasional writer on sports, but he paints pictures with words, his piece on Floyd Patterson resonates deeply for me (not to mention his legendary pieces on Sinatra and DiMaggio).

  10. Brent says:

    Smith’s story on Perry Reese, Jr., the African American coach of a nearly all Amish/Mennonite High School in Berlin, Ohio circa 2001 is about the best piece of sportswriting I have ever read.

  11. Mikey says:

    Thanks for giving me an excuse to re-read Bill Nack’s Secretariat book during Derby week. One of the most beautiful sports books I have come across.

  12. DjangoZ says:

    I stumbled upon Gary’s story on Mia Hamm yesterday…I couldn’t stop reading it and thinking “How in the hell did he find all of this out…and how did he have the guts to write this?”

    He is one of the very greats.

  13. Ron Warnick says:

    Before he passed, Roger Ebert wrote a marvelous column about Bill Nack. Apparently they were colleagues at the Daily Illini.

    • Graham Reeper says:

      It’s a good thing Ebert wrote that before he passed. Otherwise it would just have been a lot of CHHRrrrr’s and gggrrraaarRRR’s.

  14. Pat says:

    Oh, for the love of…—reading Joe Posnanski write about the sportswriters who made it all look effortless is like hearing a recording of Ty Cobb tell reporters that “that King Kelly really could hit the ball. He could play the outfield, too.”

    • Pat says:

      … which, I’m adding too late, and clumsily, isn’t to detract at all from Mr. Posnanski’s tribute to Messrs. Nack and Smith.

  15. […] become part of the story. He’s a storyteller, the best we’ve had in our business. Joe Posnanski called him a magician, and that’s a pretty apt […]

  16. Brian says:

    Funny, Joe, I’ve always considered you (and Nack, and Heinz, and Deford, and Richard Ben Cramer, etc., etc.) twice the sportswriter as Gary Smith. Smith had some phenomenal moments (I especially loved his profile of Andre Agassi from a few years back), but boy you had to shovel through a lot of faux-poetic blather to get to them.

    • Mark C says:

      I totally agree about the need for a shovel when reading Smith’s writing. I find his work to be forced, self-indulgent, and usually about twice as long as it needs to be. I have never understood why he gets such praise.

    • Andrew says:

      Smith gets a story that no one else gets, and it really isn’t about sports. So if you want red-meat sports writing, he’s not your guy. But he is the one writer on your list who really could have done something special with the Penn State scandal.

  17. Pat Hobby says:

    Never was really a big fan of Gary Smith, I thought much like Rick Reilly he over did the schmaltz a lot.

    However, I am a huge fan of Bill Nack. Whether you are a horse racing fan or not everyone should read his piece on the death of Secretariat.

    • PhilM says:

      Have to second this — “Pure Heart” was the lead story in the “Greatest American Sportswriting” (1995 or 1996 or thereabouts) collection, and it overwhelmed me. First time I realized sportswriting could be so meaningful.

  18. Chad says:

    Aren’t all Phillies fans ferocious? I mean, they booed Santa and Mike Schmidt …

  19. Mark says:

    In the mid-80s, growing up in upstate PA, my writing education would start before school: I’d hit the corner store before first period, grab a Philly Daily News and read Bill Conlin, Jayson Stark and Gary Smith. My teachers under that high school roof didn’t teach as well as those three did.

    And Chad…it was Eagles fans that booed Santa. Just the facts….

  20. Hitandrun says:

    Roger Angell writing on baseball ranks right up there with the best.

  21. Jeff Dodick says:

    Joe I always loved your writing since I first read you at Another writer of sports who is not a sports writer by profession is Ken Dryden (the former hockey goalie for the Montreal Canadiens). I recommend to one and all his book “The Game” which is one of the greatest sports books ever written. Dryden has not written allot on sports, as his career in the law and politics have made it difficult for him to focus on that one topic but this is a book worth seeking out.

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