Interview With Sekou Smith - Part II

A Candid Interview With Sekou Smith
by Micah Hart

Sekou Smith has covered the Atlanta Hawks for the Atlanta Journal Constitution since midway through the 2004-05 season after covering the Indiana Pacers for the Indianapolis Star. Normally the one asking the questions, we thought it would be interesting to turn the tables for a change and talk to Smith about his job and what it's like covering a professional sports team. We sat down in the Hawks media lounge after practice one day at Philips Arena and covered a variety of topics, including the future of his industry, whether it's better to cover a good team or a bad team, and if, as a sportswriter, its still possible to be a fan.

This is the second half of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part One.

MH: Is it hard to write about a team like the Hawks?

SS:
No, and that's a question people always ask me because I used to cover the Pacers and they won ridiculously. For me, it was harder covering a team that won all the time than it is now covering a team that's in the building stages. The great thing about covering a team in this stage of the game is they have no inhibitions. They're all torn away and they are not walking paranoid. They're not so worried about keeping that winning thing going and keeping the chemistry this way or that way. Everything is up for debate and everything can be tinkered with, which makes people a little more open. It also makes my job easy and much more fun because you are dealing with people that are speaking from the heart as opposed to people trying to protect themselves at all times.

MH: I bet you saw some interesting stuff when you were in Indy.

SS:
We had Ron Artest. We had the brawl. I covered two of the better-known figures in the league the last 30 years. We had Isiah Thomas as a head coach, then Larry Bird came in and fired him when he took over as team president. I was there for the end of Reggie Miller's career, although I left before he retired last year. That's stuff you never forget. It's funny - I can even tell you the names of high school coaches that I covered ten years ago, but I can't remember what I ate for dinner last Thursday. It's weird what sticks with you over the years.

MH: What would you say is the best part of your job?

SS:
It's changed over the years, but the best part initially was being able to see all the stuff from the inside-out and behind the scenes.

MH: Does it wear off after awhile?

SS:
The shine of that wears rather quickly. It's just like when a police reporter becomes desensitized when they see a dead body at an accident scene. Eventually you just get used to it. And when you see somebody famous you stay unaffected because you deal with these people all the time and it's not a big deal. To my family and friends it's different because they're in awe of the people I run into. It's like I hate to shatter their image, but these are just regular folks. The greatest part for me has always been the adventure and the travel. I saw every inch of the state of Mississippi before I even graduated from college because I use to work 6 days a week covering the teams. And after that, I've gotten to do some pretty amazing things. I covered the Olympic cycling trials, which was totally out of my realm.

The travel is great. I've been to almost all of the 50 states, most of it through work. And I've gotten the chance to see stuff that I never imagined I'd see because of my job.

MH: Is it hard sustaining a relationship with the people you have to cover?

SS:
Well you have to establish relationships, and that's one of my strong suits as a reporter. People realize exactly what the job is - if you stink, I have to write about it. I am the historian for whatever team I'm covering, and I get to point out if you stunk this day or if you did that wrong. We have to take people to task when it's warranted. But at the same time we get to be here for the nights like when the Hawks beat the Pistons. So you get to be here for all sides of it. As for relationships, if you establish them the right way up front, people realize that this is a business first and foremost. I have a job to do and so do they. We step on each other toes occasionally in the process, but if you don't take it home you don't make it personal.

MH: How do you get players to open up to you?

SS:
That's the one thing I didn't like when I first got in the business. It varied between the journalists and the reporters. They (the athletes) looked at us or perceived us all a certain way and after awhile we all looked at them in the same way. My thing was always to make it all about individual relationships. You deal with each player a certain way. Certain players I have different relationships with than others, it just all depends on the guy and the situation.

MH: How do you get athletes to give you something juicy and not cliched?

SS:
I think they've been trained. Over the years you get trained to respond a certain way and react to the media a certain way. I always want them to just be honest and speak from the heart. You don't have to tell all your secrets, but just be honest. Let the inhibitions go and that's when you say the best things, and the best things come out of it. That's when the reporter does his best job conveying it. I think a lot of times athletes are led to believe there is a grand conspiracy, that people in the media are always trying to take them down. We are there on good days and bad days, but the bad days are the ones that unfortunately stick out.

MH: Have you had any incidents where guys called you out about something you wrote?

SS:
Oh yeah. When you cover a team and are around them everyday, the feedback is quite interesting. They will tell you about it if they feel you screwed something up, which I like. I don't want there to be some hidden animosity. Last year I wrote a story on Josh Smith that I didn't think was critical, but I think he thought it was. There were some frayed edges, but I pulled him to the side because I knew he was upset about the story. I told him that this would not be the first or last story I'd write that he wouldn't like. That's part of the burden of their job. When you're in the limelight and doing great everybody wants to celebrate, like we all did when Josh won the dunk contest. But in the week after that when things got out of hand in the eyes of a lot of people, I wrote about that too. I told him, if you want to be mad at me, I understand. We'll work around it and move on. But he was a bigger person than you'd imagine and he understood why I did it. And we have a marvelous relationship now.

I've covered a lot of different sports and there are always one or two individuals that don't like the media, and cannot be convinced otherwise. But I can honestly say I haven't run into a single player, coach, or person in the organization that isn't willing to listen to what's going on.

MH: There is a trend out there, where sportswriters are going from print and moving on to television with shows like PTI. Do you see that as something you'd be involved in?

SS:
No, not interested.

MH: But you do Hawk Talk Online and you're good at it! (laughing)

SS:
I like the Internet. I love listening to talk radio and I love doing radio, but there is something about TV I just don't like. I certainly have the face for radio (laughs).

I've done plenty of TV. When I was Indiana I was on ESPN's Cold Pizza. After the brawl, I was like a regular. Maybe it's something about the medium, and the fact that I didn't cut my teeth in that area. I prefer the printed media. Radio is fun, but television isn't sexy to me. I don't like the idea of it being here one second, and the next it disappears. I like the idea of a newspaper. The weird thing is, long before I got in the business, like my high school years and younger, I use to collect newspapers. I still have folders full of newspapers clippings about Michigan that I collected in my hometown over the span of an entire year. Just to go back and read them five or six years later...it's like history, and I am a history nut. To me, this is like the history of sports.

Hopefully 100 years from now, if people want to look back and read about the 2006 Hawks, they can revert back to my articles. You like to think that people will go back and say, "What did the AJC say about the Hawks?" I'll be the guy who was there to highlight it.

MH: How do you foresee the Internet having an effect on the nature of your business and your job?

SS:
The changes just in the past couple of years have been dramatic. In my freshman year of college, I was reading newspaper websites. At the time, there were so few of them that I could read them all in an hour. I used to wonder why everybody didn't have their newspaper online? I just think if the industry was to catch up with technology then it could be beautiful. It would be nice if you could combine both the print and electronic worlds and make them work together hand-in-hand.

MH: Do you think it's the death of newspaper?

SS:
No, because I still think there is a level of credibility that comes with the printed word that doesn't go away. The best-seller lists are chock full of books. Everybody assumed when TV came around that people would all stop reading, but they didn't. There's something about your mind and the fascination with reading that never goes away. I think newspapers have that same effect. For example, when I'm in New York I feel like everybody has read the newspaper. I know that's not technically right, but it just feels like a newspaper kind of town.

That's no shot at the broadcast part of our industry because I have lots of friends that are in television and radio, and I see how serious they are and how hard they work at their craft. But it seems like the newspaper is where it all starts. For example, one morning I was listening to the radio and I heard that they were talking about a Michael Vick story, one that was written by Steve Wyche and run exclusively in that day's AJC. But there was no mention of our paper or the article! That part of radio and TV will always ruffle some feathers with newspaper people, and I think it should. It's one thing to do your own work and reporting, but it's another to piggyback off someone else and run with it. I think ESPN does that now. I've been pretty vocal to friends of mine and friends in the business about how wild I think it's gotten with ESPN. ESPN has married TV and the Internet together and they now have a magazine too. I don't have faith in the idea of letting someone else doing my reporting for me and then me talking about it. I like the idea of a newspaper, where you are getting the information firsthand as opposed to second or third hand.

Click here to read Part One.

Micah Hart is the Assistant Web Editor for the Atlanta Hawks