A People with Passion series
December 24, 2011: Sam Smith
Bulls fans in Chicago have been reading Sam Smith’s work since the mid-1980s, but the famous sportswriter and basketball chronicler’s career did not begin in Chicago, nor in sports, nor even in journalism. Here, in the 21st installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism interview series, Smith reminisces about his childhood in Brooklyn, his love of playing sports, his time as a political reporter, and the career he once thought he would have: accounting.
PART I OF III
As far back as I could remember, I was a voracious reader of newspapers. We had seven daily newspapers in New York then. We were a big city, so we had five TV channels. But there wasn’t much TV on. There was obviously nothing on after 10 o’clock. Just news and test patterns. And in the morning TV wouldn’t start until 6 or 7, so you’d get up and be watching the test pattern early in the morning.
My father had two jobs and my mother worked too. My father was a big reader of newspapers. My mother was a big reader too. There were always newspapers around the house. We had every newspaper. It was the New York Daily News, the New York Mirror, the New York Post – Alexander Hamilton’s paper – the New York Times, the Herald-Tribune, the Journal American, and the World-Telegram.
Three of the papers were tabloids. We always had the tabloids in the house. The Mirror, the News, and the Post. I would always read from the back. My mother would yell at me, “Why don’t you read from the front of the paper?” And I would say, “Because I’m not interested in that.” I would read the sports, and I would mess around with the math. I would re-calculate all of the batting averages and all of the standings all the time just to see if they got the percentages right. That was pre-calculators. It’s probably why I ended up initially where I was, because the notion was that I knew math.
When I went to college, it was for accounting. I wasn’t a very good student because I was involved in other things. I was playing a lot of sports. I’d gotten into bowling when I was a kid. Bowling was really big in the late 50s and early 60s, and I was like a prodigy. When I was 10-years-old I was bowling in the 200s. Guys used to sponsor me, take me around New York to hustle. I was 13-years-old and averaging over 200, so they would bet on me. They would drive me around to other bowling alleys and say, “This little scrawny kid here, he can beat you.” I had no idea exactly what was going on. Everyone’s nice to me and treating me well, and I was making money for them. And so I was doing a lot of that.
Were your parents cool with that?
My father had two jobs. My mother worked all the time. They were never home. Parents in that era worked. That’s why I had to work when I was a kid. I always worked. Delivering newspapers, or summer jobs. I’d have to work in my sports leagues. They hated that I played sports because I should be working. They were old. My mother was born in Russia, they grew up in the Depression, that whole story. All they knew was getting a job. I’d say, “I want to go to college.” They’d say, “Why would you want to go to college? It’s a waste of time. You should be working.” It was a very different era.
I came to love the newspapers. I read newspapers all the time. When I delivered them, when the deliveries came in I would sit and read the paper first. They’d be yelling at me to get out there and do my route. But I wasn’t a good student. I didn’t do well in high school. In fact, I flunked English. It took me an extra year in school because I did so poorly in English. (Laughs.)
They had a journalism class. I really never tried because I thought it was way beyond me. Everybody told me that that’s something I couldn’t do, and I viewed journalists almost like athletes. This was a special profession and above my level. So then when I went to Pace University in New York, I majored in accounting. Had a business orientation. The school, one branch of it was down on Wall Street, so I went to school down there most of the time. Because of this alleged math background I had they would say, “You’ll be an accountant.”
I just didn’t want to go into the military. It was 1965 and things were starting to get bad. I was playing baseball in college, and I was on the bowling team. I was sitting around the athletic department one time in my junior year, and somebody from the student newspaper came in. It was the time of Vietnam, we had protests on campus, we had fights with construction workers because they were building a new dorm. Everyone in the newspaper was involved in all that. They said, “We have nobody who wants to write sports, and we need a sports editor. It’s a paying job.” I could use the money because I was doing student loans. And I said, “I’ll try that. I can do that.”
I had never written anything before as far as stories or anything. Never covered anything. But I’d been to the events as a player, as a participant. I thought, “I can describe this.” By that time, Larry Merchant was writing in New York. I really enjoyed his style and his writing, and some of those columnists in the Post, in the News. In my first year of college, I was commuting. I was living at home. So I was on the train for like two hours (laughs) reading the newspapers. So I said, “I’ll try that.”
We didn’t have a journalism department at school. The student newspaper hired this professor at Columbia to come down and critique the paper. He called me one day and said, “This stuff you’re doing is really good.” I’d never had anybody say anything positive to me about academics in my entire life. Here I was doing something that I liked, and here was somebody saying it was actually good. The guy’s name was Melvin Mencher. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.
But I was already so far down the line with my accounting and I needed a job, so I graduated and I went and got a job in accounting. After about a year, I decided journalism was what I wanted to do. I went up to Columbia and spent some time with him, and he said, “You have to go to graduate school. No one’s going to hire you on these college clippings.”
I applied just as a lark to four or five different colleges, just to see, and I got a call one day from Ball State. I wasn’t even sure where it was. But I’d remembered watching a football game and seeing a player from there one time. Timmy Brown from the Eagles had run back a couple of touchdowns in a row, kickoffs. So that stuck in my mind. The chairman of the department said they were interested in my background in accounting. They said if I came and did the books for the school publications, they would give me free room and board and tuition for my masters. That sounded good to me. My view was always that one school was the same as the next. It was what you did.
So I went to Ball State, and that’s really where I got into journalism. I got into the journalism program, wrote for the school paper. I did some freelance stuff for the local paper, won some awards, but by then I was done with sports. It was 1972. Watergate was very influential on me. I decided I wanted to be a political writer. I applied for like 100 newspapers, and I got two offers, one in Loveland, Colorado, and one in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I’d gone up to Loveland. It was like cowboy country. It was up near Wyoming, too foreign from Brooklyn. (Laughs.)
Right after that I got a letter from the editor in Fort Wayne, who said that because of my background in accounting – I did budgets and things like that – he was looking for an investigative reporter who could do investigations of city government. He said that because of my background I would be more comfortable in that. Most of his reporters weren’t. So I went there and I did that. I did a number of investigative stories. I got a mayor in big trouble and got beaten up for my trouble by one of his staff members who had been a former basketball player at Notre Dame.
Yeah. And the mayor got indicted. There were indictments. I don’t know if he was indicted or if it was just some other people who were indicted. It was sort of exciting. I felt like was sort of a miniature Watergate. I was enchanted by the investigative reporting going on in the nation. It was accepted. It was celebrated. Maybe you’ve seen the movies, the All The President’s Men movie.
I was still in Fort Wayne when Nixon resigned. I said, “I’ve got to get involved in this story.” So I went to the National Guard units and went to talk to the commander and said, “What’s the effect here?” because the commander-in-chief of the military just resigned. (Laughs.)
I got to feeling like, “I got to get into this story,” and the only way to do this was to be in Washington. When I left accounting, I was making 14,000 I think, and my first job in Fort Wayne I was making 6500. So I took like a 50% cut in pay to go from accounting with a masters to journalism. But my view, and I’ve always believed that and preached that, is to not chase money. If you do what you have a passion for, if you do what you’re really excited about doing, that’s the way to be successful. You’re never going to be successful just chasing money, or at least happy about it.
I said, “I have to work in Washington. That’s the place to be if I want to do what I’m doing.” So I applied everywhere. But I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And yeah, I’d done well, I’d won some awards and things, but you know, “Who cares?” if you’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana. But I kept up at it. There was a start-up news service called States News Service that covered congressional delegations in the New England states. They were looking for a reporter, and I wrote a persuasive enough letter that they invited me and hired me. This was the end of ’75.
This was 125 dollars a week. I’ve worked three and a half years and been celebrated, and now I took another 50% cut in pay (laughs) to get to Washington. Even though we were a small regional news service, the concept was a good concept and was popular at the time.
We started in Connecticut. It was the Connecticut News Service when I started. For instance, Hartford had a bureau. But all these other papers in Connecticut – New Haven, Waterbury, a number of them – they didn’t have a Washington bureau. So what we did, we would cover the delegation in Washington for all of these other papers. Even though we weren’t the big guys on the block, we were at the same story. I covered the Camp David Accords, I was there at the White House lawn for that stuff. I covered congress primarily but did White House stuff if something came up with our delegation. Was at presidential press conferences.
I really gained my confidence there. You’re kind of intimidated by all of the famous people and all of the people you see on TV, but you get there – at least I did – and I found out these are very ordinary people, including the people running the government. We think less of them now, but at that time I think there was a higher respect for government, other than what Nixon was doing and had done. But I found out that all of my colleagues – they didn’t know who I was – but Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather, these guys didn’t know any more than I did. I knew as much as they did. And so it was a great eye-opening experience for me.
It gave me a life view that these are mostly ordinary people that had a trick. My trick became writing. Their trick was studying history or whatever, and they could talk about it in depth, but they learned their trick, and they weren’t any brighter than me. And they didn’t know as much about what I knew than I did.
1979. I left the News Service and went out on a few interviews in St. Louis and Houston. I got offers in those places but didn’t really like the jobs. I went back to Washington, and one of the guys I’d been covering was Lowell Weicker, a senator in Connecticut. He was a republican senator, but a liberal republican. I’d grown up in New York with Rockefeller, and “liberal republican” was sort of a popular thing. That politics doesn’t exist anymore, but it was very popular at the time.
So I was talking to Weicker, and he was like, “I just fired my press secretary. How about being my press secretary for a while?” And I thought, Yeah, that’d be fun, to be on the inside. I was a little fearful, because once you go inside, they tell you you can never come back outside. But I thought, You know what? I can do that. I’d dealt with his previous press secretary who was a good friend of mine. He had left and got a job at the Philadelphia Bulletin I think. He’d been with Weicker a couple years, so I said, “If he can go get a newspaper job, I’m only going to do this for months, hopefully, or as soon as a job comes up.” It was great fun. Once you get on the inside, you realize how little the people on the outside really know about what’s going on. There would be a scoop here or there, they would find something, but they find one hundredth of what’s going on. And so it was fun to be involved.
Jack Anderson was one of the premier investigative reporters at the time. I would leak stuff to Jack from Weicker, and then Jack would write nice things about Weicker, because Weicker tried to run for the presidency about that time. And so it was great fun. I actually would have liked to have done it a little longer, but the Chicago Tribune contacted me and said there was a job opening, so I took it. That was in November of ’79.
I got hired by the Tribune. It was their national staff, sort of national slash local, but the national staff worked out of the Chicago office. Chicago was the dominant part. I worked off the city desk, but also covered national stories. I went with John Anderson in ’80 for his campaign. I covered that. And then disasters. There was some shipwreck in Alaska. I did that. When Vernon Jordan got shot, I went to that. The big MGM fire in Vegas. So I did a whole variety of things. And then local stories too, local politics. Local police beat and stuff.
I was doing well. I was having a great time. It was just fabulous. But editors can be erratic. We had this very erratic editor named Jim Squires and he called me into his office one day – this was late ’80, maybe early ’81 – and said, “You’re doing good work, and I’d like you to be the lead columnist in the business section.” I’ve got an accounting degree and all that. And I said, “I’m very flattered” – because I was just general assignment still. This would be a raise and everything – “but I don’t even read the business section.” And he said, “Even better. It will be a fresh perspective.” (Laughs.) It was pretty clear they were just assigning me there. They pretended it was a choice.
It was a disaster. I hated it. I was terrible at it. I wasn’t interested in it. It was exactly the opposite of everything I believed in as far as doing what you have a passion for. I ended up doing it for about a year, and then everybody agreed it wasn’t working. Back then, business had not yet violated the social contract with workers that it has today. Nobody ever got fired in any business anywhere. Now business just routinely lays off people in the name of profits. But back then, you just got assigned somewhere else.
So they said, “Well, why don’t you just go back to the city side? Go back, do your national stuff.” I’d kept an interest in sports. When I was in Washington with the News Service, I put together a little syndicate of my own of the papers who were our clients, and I covered two World Series because I wanted to go to the World Series and do some sportswriting. I also did some freelance magazine writing. I covered Magic Johnson’s McDonalds all-star game in Landover.
So when the Tribune said, “Go back,” I said, “That will look like a demotion. How about if I go to another section and just go someplace else?” The Tribune was very good back then, and said, “Yeah, sure. What do you want to do?” I said, “I’d like to try sports.” “Well we don’t have an opening there now, so just go to the Sunday magazine.” I think it turned out to be six or eight months. I went there and wrote mostly sports features for them, magazine-type stories. And that’s when I met Phil Jackson.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer
December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality
December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist
October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter
November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder
November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder
October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor
September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder
September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer
September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO
September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor
August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist