For the 21st installment of my Chicago journalism People With Passion series, I sat down with legendary Bulls basketball writer Sam Smith for a Skype conversation that lasted more than two hours. We covered Smith’s entire career — his childhood in Brooklyn, his introduction to journalism, his political writing in Fort Wayne and then D.C., his arrival at the Tribune, the writing of The Jordan Rules, his departure from the Tribune, and his tenure at Bulls.com.
Since this is such a long, rich interview, I have split it into three parts, running Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this week, all at our Eye On Chi blog on ChicagoNow. Here, now, are excerpts from all three parts:
Part I, now published at Eye On Chi
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.
Part II, now published at Eye On Chi
I’d been traveling with the team for a couple years, and I wouldn’t say I was getting bored, but I felt like I wanted more to do. My ambition was still not satisfied. People would ask me about the team, and I would say, “Well, this is what happened, but this is really what happened.” And people would be shocked.
Michael was really sold well. He was in commercials. He was doing McDonalds, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola. There was the famous one where he delivered Cokes to a tree house, he jumped up into the tree house. He has a beautiful smile and is depicted as this perfect guy. I’d been around the team and knew he wasn’t quite that way. He could be very difficult. And players would complain to me about it. He would humiliate them at times.
I would tell people these stories, and people would say, “How come you don’t write – ” and I would explain, “The team’s winning, and you can’t write that in an 800 word newspaper story every day.” It just didn’t seem to fit. I remember one time I was having a conversation with Bob Greene, who later wrote some books about Jordan, very different than mine, but I remember him saying, “Do you realize what a figure you’re with?”
When the book came out everyone was pulling quotes out of context here and there. I was under siege. I was trying to avoid a lot of it because I was shocked on some level. I’d become so inert to the story that I just didn’t think it would be that big a deal. I’d been living it for three or four years. So it was shocking to me, and I was getting heavily criticized and threatened and people were blasting me on radio shows and TV shows. Mike Ditka called me names. Nobody was reading the book. The book had hardly been out. None of those guys had read it. Just, “Michael would never do this.”
I went to him that first day and said, “Look, I just want to let you know, you have any problems with anything I wrote, I’m here, and I’ll be glad to talk to you about it.” And he kept his head down, never said a word. He was always a lot bigger than me and a lot more important. He could have really made things difficult for me. He could have attacked me. And he never did.
I had a good relationship with him. I played golf with him. And I’d been out to dinner with him. But that was over with. No more. I used to joke around with him in the locker room. Pick on him. He liked that. “I see you missed your first ten shots today. Nice going.” I’d still ask him questions in media sessions, and he’d answer them professionally, so he maintained a very professional view of it. I know a lot of his friends were telling him, “Blast this guy. Go after this guy.” He would never do that for whatever reason. And I was always personally grateful he didn’t. I didn’t have to apologize for the book because I knew it was accurate, but he could have made life a lot more difficult for me at the time. (Laughs.)
Part III, now published at Eye On Chi
I had gotten into October and the NBA was starting up again, and I’m not a part of anything. I’m still doing a little freelance, one or two a week for 150 bucks or 200 bucks or something. It wasn’t about the money so much, It was about being a part of an ongoing story. That’s what I liked. As a lark, I wrote a little email to Steve Schanwald with the Bulls and said, “You know what? Newspapers are cutting way back. They’re not covering basketball anymore. I think it’s going to get worse. Why don’t you hire me to do what I did for the Tribune, and just do it for you?” He contacted me right away, and said, “I like the idea.”
I flew up to Chicago, and we were talking and I said, “I guess I’m done trading players,” because that was one of my little gimmicks. I would come up with trades and suggestions. And he said, “No, no, I really like that. We want you to do that.” They set it up more journalistically than I wanted to. It was interesting. I was confident enough in my own journalistic history and independence that I would have credibility even on the team’s site. And the Bulls were confident enough in me over the years that I didn’t embarrass anybody. I didn’t write stories to hurt anybody. I think they were comfortable enough with me, where a lot of teams wouldn’t do that.
We talked about parameters. I said I would like to cover some road games, and they said “Yeah,” and I said, “I would like to go on the team plane, because I don’t like traveling in airports anymore.” (Laughs.) And they said, “No. We want to set you up as a journalist. We’re going to give you the same access that everybody else has. We’re going to put a disclaimer on whatever you write, and we’re going to keep you at arm’s length. You can write what you want.” And they’ve held to that. They have never edited anything I’ve written. They’ve never asked me to write anything. And they’ve never asked me to change anything.
It used to be the notion in newspapers where we would say to the teams, “We’re giving you all of this free advertising every day. Don’t mess with us.” Well, that’s over with. Now the newspapers need the teams. You can’t boycott the team anymore. You’re out of business. So at some point, the teams are going to all hire people like me. When they have Derrick Rose’s contract they’re going to announce it – they’re not going to let a newspaper break the story, because they knew about it. They did it two or three days before. They can scoop everything – every trade, every signing. Eventually teams will be doing that.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)