Axelrod recalls Smith’s first years at the Tribune

Years before columnist Sam Smith wrote about basketball, he covered politics. One of his colleagues from the Chicago Tribune, David Axelrod, recalls Smith’s early tenure at the paper and discusses how he’s been able to make his mark as one of th

-- The life and times of Sam Smith
-- Phil Jackson and Sam Smith's relationship dates back to coach's early CBA days
-- Smith named recipient of Hall of Fame’s Gowdy Media Award

By Adam Fluck | 09.04.2012

It hasn’t always been all about basketball for Sam Smith.

Sure, he was an avid sports fan growing up in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t until Smith attended Pace University that it occurred to him he might be able to make a living as a journalist. Before that would happen, though, he worked for two years at an accounting firm. When Smith did get an opportunity to write professionally, it was covering politics for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

David Axelrod and Sam Smith
Smith and Axelrod first connected when they worked together at the Tribune in 1979. "When you talked to Sam then, and now, he was kind of a colloquial guy who doesn’t always speak in the King’s English," recalled Axelrod. "But he was a beautiful writer and reporter even then.”

Smith remained on the political beat when he moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970s, spending three and a half years working for States News Service and enjoying a brief stint as press secretary for Sen. Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from Connecticut.

In 1979, he was hired by the Chicago Tribune where he would continue to report on local politics and business. At the age of 31, Smith had virtually no experience writing about sports aside from work he did for his college newspaper.

Eventually, of course, he would get his chance. But what if that opportunity never came about? Would Smith have enjoyed the same success in politics as he has writing about the Chicago Bulls and NBA basketball?

David Axelrod, former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and currently an Obama for America Senior Advisor, is uniquely qualified to answer that question.

“I don’t think so, because Sam is too outspoken,” said Axelrod in a recent interview. “He found the right outlet for his talents. He doesn’t sugarcoat his view. I think he would have found it trying to deal with the demands of being politically correct. That’s not his thing.”

Furthermore, as Axelrod explained, though Smith upgraded his wardrobe when he was named the Tribune’s lead business columnist in 1981, a move Axelrod calls “one of the most unlikely decisions in American journalism,” his role in that position didn’t last long. Neither did his need for fancy clothing.

“I think he sold all the new suits he bought as soon as he was off the business beat, probably trading them in for a hundred year supply of saddle shoes and sweater vests,” said Axelrod of Smith’s trademark look. “Those things are a statement for him: ‘I’m going to do things my way.’ And he has.”

Axelrod is right. And, aside from Smith’s wife Kathleen, he is probably as familiar with Smith and his career as anyone.

“What I admire about Sam as a journalist is that on deadline, he can write incredibly readable funny and sometimes poignant stuff,” said Axelrod. “As a former journalist, the colleagues you admire are the people who can do that. They put a wonderful phrase out there and you say, ‘I wish I could have written that.’ Sam does it more than a few nights a week.”

David Axelrod with Vice President Joe Biden and John Paxson
Axelrod, who has long shared Bulls season tickets, was on hand in 2008 when Vice President Joe Biden took in a game with Bulls EVP-Basketball Operations John Paxson.

Axelrod, 57, was one of the Tribune’s younger political writers when Smith arrived. He caught a break when he was assigned to cover the expected loser in the 1979 Chicago mayoral race. But when his candidate, Jane Byrne, won and became the city’s first and only female mayor, it helped him make a name for himself and advanced his career.

Axelrod and Smith had a lot in common between their interest in politics and sports, so they hit it off immediately. They regularly attended sporting events, ranging from DePaul basketball games during the Mark Aguirre days, Cubs and White Sox games—particularly on opening days—and, of course, Bulls games at the old Chicago Stadium. They played sports as well, often getting together for basketball games in Axelrod’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Axelrod remembers being impressed by the pitching abilities of Smith, who played baseball collegiately.

“We used to go to a schoolyard on the North Side and play stickball,” recalled Axelrod. “Sam was always mowing people down. For a little guy, he could really bring it.”

Yes, Smith could play, but where he really made his mark was in the newsroom.

“The Tribune at the time was a real writer’s newspaper,” said Axelrod. “They had assembled great reporters and writers from all over the country. When you talked to Sam then, and now, he was kind of a colloquial guy who doesn’t always speak in the King’s English. But he was a beautiful writer and reporter even then.”

Following Smith’s failed attempt at business reporting, he got his opportunity to write about sports. He started out working on features for the Tribune’s Sunday magazine—along the way he crossed paths with Phil Jackson of the CBA’s Albany Patroons and Bulls rookie sensation Michael Jordan—and began covering the Bulls full-time in 1987.

Three years later, as Jordan and his teammates inched closer to the Bulls’ first NBA championship, Smith decided to work on what would become his first book, The Jordan Rules. It was a storybook season for the Bulls, a run that culminated with a dominating postseason and victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. All of those things helped Smith’s cause, but what made the book an enormous success was his behind the scenes narrative of the dynamic that existed between the Jordan and his so-called supporting cast.

Axelrod remembers reading the New York Times bestselling book as soon as it came out—Smith said he would have given his friend an advance copy but not even he received one—and to this day is impressed with the work Smith did in such a short amount of time. He also understands why it brought with it such controversy when it was released just several months after winning that first title.

“It wasn’t universally embraced around the Bulls because it was a fairly candid story about a guy who was clearly a great athlete, but also a human being with strengths and weaknesses,” said Axelrod of The Jordan Rules. “Sam captured all of that. And it wasn’t hagiography; it was reality. It was a courageous book for him to write.

Sam Smith
“I think he sold all the new suits he bought as soon as he was off the business beat, probably trading them in for a hundred year supply of saddle shoes and sweater vests,” said Axelrod of Smith’s trademark look. “Those things are a statement for him: ‘I’m going to do things my way.’ And he has.”

“Everyone had written nothing but flattering stuff about Michael and this was a more balanced view—still admiring, but truthful,” Axelrod continued. “To be the beat man for the Bulls and write that book reflected what I know about Sam, which is he’s a guy with extraordinary integrity. That’s one of the salient qualities of Sam Smith. He’s not going to write what he doesn’t believe. As a reporter, his work is unfailingly honest.”

It’s clear that both Smith and Axelrod have enjoyed extremely successful careers in their own right. But at the same time, while Smith prospered by covering Jordan, Axelrod getting to know Obama in the early 1990s ultimately took his professional life to another level. To wit, Axelrod points out an interesting parallel.

“We’ve both had the good fortune of working with singular personalities, people who really excel at what they do,” said Axelrod. “I’ve had a chance to be a part of the Obama story as it unfolds and watch the man at the center of it all. I also watched Michael Jordan for 13 seasons and the thing that distinguished him wasn’t merely his physical talent.

“A lot of people in the NBA have physical talent, perhaps some even greater than his,” Axelrod continued. “But Jordan had an extraordinary ability to excel at the most important moments. He wanted the ball when the game was on the line, which is a quality I see in the President. And that’s what you need to be President of the United States. You have to want to have the ball in your hands when the game is on the line. I’ve had fun watching that, just as I’m sure Sam had fun writing about Michael all those years.”

Axelrod and Smith enjoy seeing each other when their schedules permit. It’s a little easier in the winter, as Axelrod, who has split Bulls season tickets for many years, is a regular at Smith’s home away from home, the United Center.

They attended a White Sox game together a couple weeks ago and make a point to meet for lunch at Manny’s occasionally. Their wives have grown close over the years, making dinner dates enjoyable and easy. Due to the upcoming presidential election, time has been tougher to find for Axelrod, who said he has kept in touch with Smith via text messaging for the most part as of late.

Still, when he heard Smith will be honored by basketball’s Hall of Fame with the 2012 Curt Gowdy Media Award, he had every intention to be in attendance for the ceremony. That is, until, he realized it is the same night President Obama will give his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Axelrod understands Smith won’t be all that comfortable with his night of recognition in Springfield. After all, journalists want to write the story, not be the story. However, the significance of Smith’s latest accolade is not lost on him.

Hall of Fame

“Any time you’re essentially included among the greatest writers and also in the same place as the greatest players, it’s a reflection of his place in the game,” said Axelrod. “And Sam has such a deep appreciation for the game. So for people to say he’s one of the best who has written about the sport is an incredible honor and a well-deserved one. I get teary eyed just thinking about it. As a friend, it’s such a wonderful recognition of his work.”

Axelrod believes one of Smith’s biggest strengths aside from his writing ability is the number of contacts he has established throughout his career, constantly working his way around the league and getting to know players, coaches and other team personnel.

“He has developed sources he trusts, so his information is usually very good,” said Axelrod. “When you think about a great journalist, you want someone who is a great writer, particularly on deadline, and you want a good reporter with great sources. The other quality you want is someone with integrity who will tell it like it is.”

As his longtime readers know, that description fits Sam Smith.

As the interview came to a close, Axelrod expressed his desire to make one last point about his friend and former colleague.

“One other aspect of Sam that is not well-known—and it’s not well-known because he would never draw attention to it—is something that always impressed me,” he said of Smith, who established a journalism scholarship at Ball State following the success of The Jordan Rules. “He routinely has gone to children’s hospitals and brought NBA paraphernalia to the kids. He’s got a great heart and he really cares about people, particularly those who need help. He’s tried to use his own success in such a way as to help others in some small way and I admire him for that. It’s something he never, ever would publicize or say and he’ll probably be mad at me for saying it. But it’s important to note. He’s not just a great journalist, he’s a great person.”