School of Hardwood Knocks #9 - Sekou Smith
The cream of the crop show their best crossover moves as roles are reversed and interviewer becomes interviewee.
In this edition of School of Hardwood Knocks, I had the privilege of interviewing well known NBA.com writer Sekou Smith. Sekou has worked in the field of sports journalism for the last 20 years, covering the Indiana Pacers and then the Atlanta Hawks as a beat reporter for a combined decade. In 2009 he joined NBA.com, and while he is perhaps best known as founder of ‘Sekou Smith’s Hang Time Blog’, he is, in fact, a digital journalism pioneer, instrumental in starting the Hawks Blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sekou is one of the most respected writers in the basketball community and it doesn’t take long to understand why. On podcasts, he speaks authoritatively, yet the unwavering passion and underlying warmth to his delivery is almost tangible.
Last year on a site called Sports Media Monitor, one of their writers commented in a forum post, “Sekou doesn’t need statistics all the time because he is so in touch with the NBA players that he can perfectly interject quotes into an emotionally-based piece.” He was held in just as high regard as a beat writer. In October 2009, shortly before it was announced he was leaving Atlanta to work at NBA.com, Sekou featured prominently in Peachtree Hoops, SB Nation’s Hawks blog. “He raises a long season out of the mundane and into the highlight of the every day,” asserted the author, who goes by the alias of @hawksdawgs on Twitter. “What Sekou does with his writing and consistency is let each of us live and die with our team . . . while I leisurely wait to write every recap, Sekou Smith is beating a deadline. He is gathering quotes and creating a narrative, and then he lets the rest of use it, examine it, jump to conclusions around it.”
Sekou has come a long way, considering that when he first broke into the business, his goal was to be a college beat writer, and we appreciate him generously taking time out of a packed schedule to share some of his knowledge with us.
1. For the readers that are new to you, would you mind giving us a quick introduction along with a snapshot of your journalistic career?
My name is Sekou Smith and I’m a Senior Analyst for NBA Digital and the founder and editor of Sekou Smith’s Hang Time Blog on NBA.com. I’m a 20-year veteran of the sports journalism business, starting off in newspapers and joining the digital world in 2009. I serve as an analyst alongside TNT’s David Aldridge on NBA TV’s The Beat, a weekly news show breaking down everything NBA. And I’m the creator and host of Sekou Smith’s Hang Time Podcast with Lang Whitaker and Rick Fox.
2. How did you get into sports journalism, and what made you want to do it for a living?
I got into the business by accident actually. An opportunity to cover high school games for the local newspaper came up during my freshman year of college and a professor I had thought I was a decent storyteller and recommended me for the job. My audition was to sit in front of a computer and write a story on deadline, just to see what my raw copy would look like. I got hired on the spot and the rest is history. I did internships in college and by the summer after my junior year I knew this is what I was meant to do.
3. What do you think makes a great sportswriter? Would you think it is more to do with the writing, or more to do with being able to connect with your subject?
I think a great sportswriter is a terribly subjective thing. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. A great storyteller, on the other hand, finds a way to connect all the dots for his readers and keep them reading until the tale is told. Lots of folks can turn a phrase and dazzle with words. But the best . . . you tell the stories in a compelling way that makes it impossible for me to stop reading.
4. What would you say is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job right now is the opportunity to help craft the history of the NBA and the people involved. Years from now, when I’m long gone, my grandchildren will be able to point to the work I’ve done and realize that it’s a chronicling of the history of the game. The stories are great and the interesting people you meet always make it fun. But the legacy left is what sticks out to me. We’re historians of the sport, which is what makes sharing stories, opinions and everything else extremely important and entertaining for me.
5. Before your current tenure on covering the NBA as a whole, you had the opportunity to work with both the Hawks and Pacers. Who did you enjoy working with more, and why?
I loved working with both. I learned a lot in both situations. The Pacers were one of the best teams in the league and that was an exciting thing to cover. The Hawks were one of the worst teams in the league and that was challenging, coming up with ways to make reading about them interesting. I would say that I enjoyed working the Hawks more because they were in a much more vulnerable state as a team and franchise and that made for more compelling storylines for me as a beat writer. But I have no complaints about my time in either place.
6. What was some of the most interesting stuff you saw in Atlanta and Indiana? Would it for example, be the “Malice at the Palace” brawl that broke out in 2004? How did you feel when you saw the altercation unfold?
The Malice at the Palace was obviously the most interesting night of my entire career. It was without a doubt the craziest day of work I’ve ever had as well. The memory of that night remains fresh in my mind, everything from the drive to the Palace from my hotel that day to the 46 voice messages on my phone when I walked out the arena at 3:45 a.m. It was a wild night. Covering the death of Jason Collier in Atlanta was also an extremely interesting time. I’d never dealt with anything like that before, so when you are writing about the passing of a player it takes some serious understanding of the nature of such a thing. My sensitivities for his widow and family were at an all-time high. My heart still breaks for them. But I had to many great times covering those teams that it’s hard to pin-point just a few.
7. Speaking of teams, are there any favourites at all? Or do you prefer to watch each team with the same open mindset?
I don’t know that I have a favorite team that I’ve covered, but the Pacers had a team that won 61 games and finished with the best record in the NBA that was really fun to cover and watch play. Any time a team wins like that, every game builds on the next one and makes for one of those magical rides that fans never forget. Being able to track that team for the readers and fans is a great time for the writer as well.
8. How different would you say it is to cover the league as a whole instead of just a single team? What challenges do you face on a daily basis?
Well, covering the entire league requires a totally different perspective than dealing with just one team. When you cover the entire league it requires you to consider the context of things in ways that you never have to worry about with just one team. You can have tunnel vision as a beat writer. When you cover the league, you have to be able to connect the dots, as I like to say. You have to figure out how everything fits into the broader perspective. The challenge is not falling into the trap of just thinking about that one team and what something means to them and keeping a distance that allows you to consider how everything fits into the bigger picture.
9. Where do you think journalism as a whole is going, with the current boom of digital media and the downfall of the newspaper?
I wish I knew. I have the luxury of knowing where the business has come from the past 20 years and I honestly didn’t see the downfall of daily newspapers coming the way it played out. I assumed they’d get on the digital train earlier and adapt with the times. Clearly, that wasn’t the case for a lot of publications. I think the basics of news gathering and storytelling are the same in both worlds and the folks who do those things well will not only survive but they’ll thrive, wherever the industry is going. Wherever it’s headed, I just want to be around for another 20 years or so to experience it.
10. In your interview with Warriors World when Steph Curry was entering the league, you stated: “There’s nothing about his game I don’t like . . . and he’s got once in a lifetime range.” You obviously called it correctly, but even with your flowing praise back then, has Curry exceeded all expectations regardless?
Yes, he’s even better than I thought he’d be. He’s a better point guard than I thought he’d be and he’s a better scorer than I gave him credit for being. If he can stay healthy, I just believe he has the sort of talent and charisma that will make him an absolute superstar for years to come. Being able to shoot the way he does is a skill that so few guys have. It transcends the game in ways that other skills do not. It’s a skill that does not erode the way other skills might over the years.
11. Have you been paying any attention to the ever-increasing hype Kansas recruit Andrew Wiggins is getting? What do you think of his game? Do you think he possesses the tools to ascend to heights equalling King James?
I have seen Wiggins play a couple of times and while he is a wicked athlete, I don’t know that I see him being in the same category LeBron was at that same age. LeBron was just so unique, I’d hate to heap that kind of pressure on Wiggins. It’s the same thing I saw with tons of guys who came after Jordan and were saddled with those over the top expectations that no one should have to try and live up to. Wiggins will have a chance to have as great a career as he’s willing to work for, because he clearly has all of the physical tools to be special.
12. Where do you think the NBA is going as a whole, what type of league will we be seeing in ten years’ time?
I think we are headed into an era where the skill set of players is going to be much more important than the sheer athleticism that has dominated the game the past decade or so. Players are so diligent about their games now, they spend so much time working on their games and improving their skills in certain areas. I think the golden age has passed, that was the Magic, Bird era followed by the Jordan era. We’re not going back there. The game has evolved. The players have evolved. And we’ve moved on to a more analytics-based NBA where floor-spacing and statistical trends factor into things more than they ever have. I still think superstars will rule the day at the end. But the game itself will defined more by the people riding that analytics train.
13. Finally, just to round the interview off: for all aspiring sports writers out there, what is the one golden piece of advice you would have for them?
Find your own voice and cultivate it by being aggressive in your questioning of all things and fearless in your opinions.