Remembering Sekou Smith

Honoring Sekou Smith, our own MVP

The beloved NBA journalist and ‘everyone’s best friend’ touched hundreds of lives during an illustrious career.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

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Sekou Smith never gave anyone a greeting whenever he saw or met them. He gave them a title.

“What’s up, boss?”

He genuinely meant every one of those three words, because he wanted to know the state of your life at that very moment (the good, not so good, whatever) and by assigning you the highest of designations, he purposely raised your status, spirit, and self-esteem in his presence.

Is there any better way to express your humanity than to take an interest in a friend or co-worker or even a stranger, and instantly make them feel … wanted?

Such was Sekou, in any environment, be it inside the NBA TV studios where he worked, among his fellow journalists at an event he covered as a reporter, or in a locker room where he carried uncommon clout among players and coaches. Russell Westbrook, who rarely says anything to anybody before a game, rose from his locker stool unprompted last season and walked across the room to shake Sekou’s hand and make small talk. To borrow a Sekou-ism, that’s a boss move that maybe only Sekou could create.

Every reporter is assigned a press credential that’s necessary and mandatory for games and other sporting events, although with regard to Sekou, it was worthless. With him, no identification was necessary.

“Working on the road with Sekou was an incredible experience because he knew everybody,” said Steve Quintana, executive producer at NBA.com. “Not only players and coaches, but security guards, parking attendants, equipment managers, doormen at the hotel. Everybody knew him and Sekou always stopped to talk to them.”

This personality, professionalism, and work ethic was rooted in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was born (and became a die-hard University of Michigan fan) . Those qualities were taken to Jackson State University, where he attended school and was bitten by the journalism bug. His talent was quickly evident, and before long, Sekou was in the major leagues of sports writing, starting at the The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., then covering the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star.

John Schuhmann with his colleague and friend Sekou Smith. ‘I’m going to miss him desperately.’

Job offers and promotions followed, and the chance to work for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and cover the Hawks was too strong to resist. In Atlanta, he doggedly broke stories on the Hawks’ beat mainly because players and coaches trusted him, not to get the story first, but to get it right.

Then, a wonderful development enhanced his career: Sekou was a natural on TV, displaying the same poise, news judgment and fairness that marked his print work. His easy personality — full of laughter, storytelling, clever reactions to news and just simple conversation — was an added plus, and that bundle was too strong for Turner Sports to resist. And so, late in 2009, he was hired as a senior analyst for NBA.com and NBA TV and later developed and hosted the popular Hang Time Podcast.

Sekou’s signature weekly column, the “The MVP Ladder” on NBA.com, was read by millions of NBA fans all over the world.

At NBA Digital, Sekou collected countless friends and admirers, all of whom were served well by someone who made everyone comfortable in his presence.

“He’s one of the writers who gets it,” said Dennis Scott, the former player and currently an analyst on NBA TV, “one who dug deeper for the story. Sekou got into who we were as athletes and as people.”

Steve Smith remembers Sekou Smith, who died Tuesday from COVID-19. He was 48.

There were numerous times when Scott walked into the TV studio, maybe feeling flat that particular day, and received an unsolicited pep talk. The voice and statement was always the same:

“C’mon boss, be on time! Let’s do this show,” Sekou would shout.

As a journalist, Sekou didn’t subscribe to gimmicks and shock to gain an audience and seek validation. In that sense, here in the age of social media where so much goes unchecked, he was very much and refreshingly old school. He never slandered a subject or spread half-truths and rumors, and any criticism he issued was balanced and fair and on-point.

NBA.com senior writer Steve Aschburner: ‘I don’t know anyone who moved more easily than Sekou through the many layers of the NBA.’The amount of friends and colleagues and casual acquaintances multiplied over time and cities and jobs … and that’s why the hurt and the shock and the sorrow run so deep and vast today. Sekou Smith died in Atlanta on Tuesday at 48. He left behind Heather, his wife; sons Gabriel and Cameron, and a daughter, Rielly.

It’s also a tough loss for the sports journalism community and his Turner and NBA families. This is just a sampling from those he touched and left an impression:

Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels: “To anyone who knew Sekou, he was the utmost professional and someone who was so dedicated to his craft. He was well connected throughout the industry and his passion and love for the game was unwavering … beyond his many professional accomplishments, Sekou will be remembered as being such a wonderful person. His closest friends describe him as “everyone’s best friend” for how much he genuinely cared for others at all times. He had such a warm, engaging personality and an ability to truly connect with people.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver: “The NBA mourns the passing of Sekou Smith, a beloved member of the NBA family. Sekou was one of the most affable and dedicated reporters in the NBA and a terrific friend to so many across the league. He covered the game for more than two decades, including the past 11 years with Turner Sports, where he showed his full range of skills as an engaging television analyst, podcast host and writer.  Sekou’s love of basketball was clear to everyone who knew him and it always shined through in his work.  Our heartfelt condolences go to his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriel, Rielly and Cameron.”

Steve Aschburner, senior writer for NBA.com: “I don’t know anyone who moved more easily than Sekou through the many layers of the NBA, from players to coaches to front-office executives to agents to billionaire owners to fans to fellow media folks, all the while maintaining his integrity as a reporter and his great upbeat nature as a man … he was a true life force.”

Marc Spears, senior writer for The Undefeated: “Sekou was truly a brother to me. We started covering the NBA around the same time and been close for as long as I can remember. He always showed me a brotherly friendship, humility, honesty and humor. We debated on hoop, but always respected each other’s opinion. He truly cared about how I was doing even during his tough days and rooted for your success and happiness. I’m so glad we got to spend some time together in the (Orlando) bubble. So glad we were able to tell each other we love each other two weeks ago. Sekou truly made the world a better place. I’m just stunned.”

John Schuhmann, senior writer, NBA.com: Sekou was my brother from another. We bonded from Day 1, mostly because he bonded with everybody from Day 1. I looked forward to every trip to The Finals or All-Star Weekend because I was going to spend extended time with my favorite person outside my own family … I will treasure every moment, even when I was talking to him and then turned to realize that he fell asleep. That dude had a remarkable ability to take naps anytime, anywhere, even when the BART train, with its hard plastic seats, was screeching along the path from San Francisco to Oakland. When something crazy happened in the NBA, it was Sekou whom I was immediately texting or calling. But our conversations went well beyond basketball and they helped me become the man, the husband and father that I am today. We were contemporaries, but I wanted to be like Sekou. I’m going to miss him desperately.”

 Tim Frank, senior vice president, NBA communications: “I think the word that you can’t stress enough with Sekou is kindness. This business has become so fast paced with deadlines, story breaking, the rush of everything and it’s easy to forget the human side, to go out of your way to just be nice to people. He never forgot that step. Ever. Always smiling, always laughing, always giving you that look when he thought you were BS’ing him. But never anything but kind. He was everything that was right about this business and the NBA.”

There’s so much more from so many others; their words and sentiment are aligned and shared. That’s why it’s so difficult to put these words together. It’s nothing but angst when suddenly writing and speaking in the past-tense about someone you knew and admired. But it does allow you to relive memories and emotions and absorb the mammoth of good from this particular person.

His wife and children and family need to know that, contrary to what Sekou Smith believed, it was he, not us, who was held in highest esteem in the company he kept. It was he who deserved the signature designation he freely gave to others. One boss. Our loss.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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