The Sportswriting Magicians

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Sometimes, I would think of them as magicians. This was when I was 21, when my job for The Charlotte Observer was to compile the hockey standings and take high school track and softball and tennis results and call some sort of secret phone number to get the lake levels I needed to print in the newspaper. I didn’t even know what lake levels meant. I only knew that people needed them for some fishing reason. I copied them down.

In the downtime of my job, I would think relentlessly about sportswriting. I would read all the columnists on the wire. I would write practice columns for no one else to see. And, perhaps most, I would think about two men, two magicians who wrote for Sports Illustrated at the time. The first went by the name William Nack. And the second was called Gary Smith. They read so different that they hardly seemed to be doing the same job. And, like more or less every sportswriter who grew up in that time, they were my sun and my moon.

Bill Nack was a close-up magician. He wrote so naturally that when he walked away you felt absolutely SURE that you could do the magic yourself. Everything in Bill’s writing was deceptively fluid and easy -- yes, he was so graceful that he offered the illusion of ease. When Carlos Beltran was young and fast and the best defensive center fielder in the game, nobody believed it because he did not appear to be running hard. He made every catch at the hip and in stride. That was Nack in print -- like the time he told the story of A.J. Foyt gently bumping Bobby Unser with three laps to go in a race at Michigan. Unser was about to go out of control. Foyt kept him from wrecking with this supernatural maneuver that nobody else on earth could have done.

“Climbing from his car,” Nack wrote, “Foyt spotted Unser.”

“Saved your ass, didn’t I?” said Foyt. Yes, that was Nack, the close-up magician, turning the three of diamonds into the ace of spades, turning the ace of spades into all four aces, turning all four aces into a deck without any aces and doing it all while pleasantly explaining exactly how he’s doing it. Here was his final plea to Joe Frazier to let go of his hate toward Muhammad Ali, because the hate was eating away at Frazier:

“(Trainer Eddie) Futch’s gentle voice still rings the clearest. His words in Manilla, after 14 savage rounds that left Frazier’s eyes nearly as blind as his heart is now, still echo faint but true. ‘The fight’s over, Joe ... The fight’s over, Joe ... The fight’s over, Joe.”

That’s a special kind of magic -- the ability to leave someone thunderstruck even after they know the trick.

Gary Smith, on the other hand, was a wizard. His magic did not look easy. It did not even look possible. The first story I remember reading from Gary Smith was that year I was 21, it was called “Ali and His Entourage” and I remember everything about it including the awe. I remember the way he used ellipses ... to ... slow ... down ... the ... rhythm. I remember the dreamy way he described an afternoon drive with Muhammad Ali -- “Ahead, trees smudged against sky and farmland; the glinting asphalt dipped and curved, a black ribbon of molasses” -- using words the way a director uses special effects. I remember the way he played Greek chorus as Ali drifted off into his memories.

“What happened to the circus?” I asked.

He was staring at the slowly swishing trees, listening to the breeze sift leaves and make a lulling sound like water running over the rocks of a distant stream. He didn’t seem to hear.

And I said again, ‘What happened to the circus.”

This wasn’t magic I could do. What I didn’t know then was that this was magic no one else could do. Gary somehow found his way into a room with a dying Bundini Brown, the oddly holy Ali sidekick whose singular role in the entourage seemed to be helping Ali feel. Gary somehow reached Luis Sarria, the masseur who after the most ferocious fights would rub life back into Ali through his shoulders. Everything about the story -- even the inspired idea of going back and finding the people who surrounded Ali in the time when he conquered the world -- was sorcery. Reading Bill Nack at least left you with the illusion that you could fly. Reading Gary Smith left you with the realization that you could not.

And he would do that to me again and again and again. I was older and a full-time sports columnist when I read the story Gary wrote about Richie Parker, a once talented high school basketball player convicted of sexual abuse. But there was the sorcery again ... the story was not about Richie Parker. It was instead about the efforts to come to grips with his crime -- not Parker’s efforts, so much, but the efforts of those around him, of those haunted by what he he had done, of those whose job it was to report about him, of those hoping to save him, of an element called “cesium,” which -- because it has only one electron on its outer shell -- will blow up when it comes into contact with elements outside its family.

Who else could write a story about a basketball player where the main character is cesium?

There is the story of a violinist who, upon hearing Jascha Heifetz play, threw down his instrument and declared himself unworthy of ever playing it again. That was the feeling Gary Smith inspired in sportswriter over and over, whether writing about Jim Valvano or Buster Douglas, Dick Vermeil or Mike Tyson, the shadow of a nation or the little ripples from Lake Nellie. Time and again, I would get a call from a sportswriting friend and the first line would be: “Oh man, did you read Gary Smith this week?” Over the years, we never stopped being amazed. It always felt like Gary was playing a different game from everyone else.

You probably heard: Gary Smith announced his retirement yesterday -- he was trending on Twitter and everything. It’s funny to think of Gary Smith trending on Twitter; Gary is a wonderful guy, generous with his time and wisdom, and he also has this zen-like quality. He told me the story of how he saw the Phillies World Series of 2009 -- Gary’s a ferocious Phillies fan. While the series was going on, he was away at some sort of retreat; I don’t know too much about it but do know that there were no phones, no televisions, no radios, nothing but nature and silence and meditation. There might have been bicycling involved too, I can’t remember. Anyway, there was no way whatsoever for him to know how the Phillies did.

So he had friends and family tape the World Series for him. But that wasn’t enough. He insisted that they had to give him SEVEN tapes. Why seven? Well, that way he would not know how long the series had gone and therefore would not know who had won based on how the early games went.

Point is, it’s obvious to me that nothing would impress Gary Smith less than trending on Twitter.

At the top here, I included a photo of my sportswriting bookshelf. I collect sportswriting collections. I keep meaning to organize them but I never get around to it so I just stack them on the shelf in whatever order is convenient. It was while walking by this morning, though, that I noticed that I have Gary’s book “Beyond The Game” and Bill’s book “My Turf” right next to each other at the center of my collection. That is exactly how it should be. Those two have undoubtedly shaped my sportswriting life, Bill by showing what’s possible and Gary by showing what’s impossible.