There are things about a new place that stick with you. Perhaps you despise it because of what you left behind. Maybe you love it for the same reason. The possibilities of resting your head in a fresh location are endless. For me, moving to Atlanta introduced me to the practice of following a sports team through the eyes of beat writer. Reading his words and sharing in his carefully crafted experiences allowed me to visualize a team in a way I hadn’t before. His knowledge has allowed me to extend the dreams of what I could do and be. I can tell stories, I can give insight and I can make an impact. I know this because I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I know this because I read Sekou Smith.
Jerold Wells Jr., The Starting Five.net: “What made you want to be a Sports Journalist?”
Sekou Smith, Atlanta Journal – Constitution: “I don’t think it was a Sports Journalism thing at the time that I was choosing a career path. It was more a matter of me being introduced to journalism my second year in college at Jackson State. A professor of mine, Professor Stringfellow, opened the door for me. He asked me if I wanted to learn more about the business. He invited me to come down to the local paper and see how it worked. He paired me with a man named Dewey English who was the managing editor at the paper. We talked about how the newspaper fit into the larger society and really the world. He wasn’t a sports guy; it wasn’t about sports to him. He was just explaining to me how the paper fit in with the city and its people and how the paper had influenced them historically. That’s where my interest in journalism came from. The sports aspect was already in me and in my mind. Growing up my father read papers like you couldn’t believe. I grew up in between Chicago and Detroit so we’d have six or seven papers in the house on a Sunday morning. All the Chicago papers, all the Detroit papers, the local papers, whatever. I was exposed to newspapers at an early age. We always had them around so I was always conscience of what was in them. Sports was an interest of mine that married in with the journalism much later in my life.
JW: “What makes a good sports writer?”
SS: “First and foremost you have to be inquisitive. I think it’s the same thing that makes a person good at anything. You have to be a person that wants to know why this thing ticks the way it does. I’ve come across all kinds of people in this business who were really good writers. There are a lot of good writers out there. That’s totally different than being a good reporter. I didn’t understand that when I was younger. They aren’t the same thing. Some guys are good writers and some are good reporters. So I would ask people, ‘how do you know?’ Or, ‘how can you distinguish?’ After years of being in the business you realize that some people are good at making contacts and cultivating relationships. They can find things out and dig up dirt. Others are fantastic wordsmiths. They can take next to nothing and write it up to amaze you. It’s a totally different craft and a totally different aptitude. The best are those that can combine those two disciplines and make them work together.
JW: “Who has influenced you professionally?”
SS: “You know it’s tripped out, when I first broke into the business my goal was to be a college beat writer. I thought the college beat was where it was at. When I was in college I used to follow Michigan football from almost a 1,000 miles away. I’m a big Michigan fan and everybody that knows me knows that. This was when the internet was still young so not all newspapers had good websites. I used to be locked in reading about Michigan football on the Detroit Free Press website. I also started studying newspapers and columnists about that time. Now by studying I don’t mean studying in school because I was an English major. I mean studying newspapers, sports writing and sports writers to really hone my craft. I read a lot of Sports Illustrated at that time as well. I didn’t read bylines though. The only byline I read consistently was a woman name Paula Bovin, she covered Arizona State for the Arizona Republic. Now she’s a columnist out there. I’ve actually seen her, met her, talked to her, sat next to her in press row before but I never told her this. She was the person I modeled my career after. I would read her stuff about Arizona State and I had no interest in them at all. I think I came across one of her stories on a message board and I started following her after that. I wanted to get a feel about how you should follow a college beat. Not just the basketball team and football team but the entire athletic department. I wanted to know how to come up with stories in the spring and summer that were relevant to the reader, and that made sense in regards to the bigger picture of beat you were covering. To me she was the ideal model of what a college beat writer should be and I followed her work until she stopped covering Arizona State and started with her column. I still read here today. I think she had a good handle on how to comprehensively cover the beat. In every sport, from every possible angle, she always had that program covered.
JW: “What brought you to Atlanta to cover the Hawks for the AJC?”
SS: “It’s funny, I had a few people here that I knew already. Steve Wyche is a good friend. He came from the Washington Post to cover Georgia. Mike Lee, who used to cover the Hawks, is a good friend of mine. When he left to cover Washington he gave me a call and said, ‘I’m leaving, the Hawks will be looking for a beat writer.’ I told him, nah, I’m good. I loved my job. I was working for the Indianapolis Star covering the NBA and I loved it. I didn’t have a ton of interest in moving. Not only did Steve and Mike mention it to me but Mike Nobla, my first boss after I graduated from Jackson, was here. He was a college editor at the time. I don’t know why my name kept coming up to these people here but I talked to them all and at one time or another told them I wasn’t really interested in moving. So on opening night of the ’04 – ’05 season I was driving to the arena in Cleveland before the Pacers – Cavaliers game and Mike called me. He said he wanted me to talk with the sports editor down here because they were looking for someone to cover the Hawks. The conversation with the editor escalated into some further opportunities and I came down for an interview a few days after the Pacers – Pistons brawl at the Palace. Yeah, I was there. I went home for a day and then flew down here, interviewed and the rest is history. The strange thing about coming here was that in Indianapolis the Pacers were such a big deal that we didn’t have to fight to get them coverage or for the resources needed to properly cover a team. Coming here I knew it would be a little different. The Hawks were relegated to the back of the sports page and weren’t really a priority. For me it became a challenge. I figured I would find a way to make the Hawks a big deal. I kind of juiced myself up to make them relevant. I knew they were bad but I figured I needed a challenge to get myself going. I wanted to prove people wrong about Hawks basketball. Plus city wise you can’t go wrong with the city of Atlanta. My wife is from a place about four hours from here so for her it was an easy sell. It was a good move family wise. The decision really came down to covering an established team with a huge fan base and national attention or coming here and figuring out how to make this something people want to pay attention to. It’s been a challenge but it’s been rewarding as well in terms of creating something out of nothing.”
JW: “How hard is it to cover a bad team?”
SS: “You know it’s funny I’ve found that covering a good team is tougher. I say that because when someone is good it’s harder to find openings. Guys are guarded and nervous about keeping things on an even keel. They don’t want to rock the boat at all. It’s difficult to find any openings. Loose lips are not common on a really good team. Now when you’re bad, guys are unmasked. Guys will say anything. You’re inhibitions are gone. When you’re horrible you don’t think anything else can really go wrong. When a team is 13 -69 what is there to really worry about? What else can go wrong? On a winning team there’s a different dynamic in terms of the guys being nervous and guarded because they don’t want to mess things up. That helped a lot when I came here. I came in and got with this team when they were at their lowest. My coverage of this team has evolved as they’ve gotten better. I’ve chronicled them from the 13-69 days up until now with the back to back playoff appearances.”
JW: “Talk about the evolution of the Hawks. They are a legitimate franchise now. How did they go from the laughing stock of the league to a team that can compete with any team on the league on any given night?”
SS: “It’s funny, I’ve taken so many lumps from other writers and people in the business about this team it’s crazy. People would approach me on the road and tell me straight up, ‘your team is horrible.’ It’s not like I picked the team or coached them but I knew what they meant. They were that bad. I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be the worst team in the league unless you’ve covered it. Think about the guys who covered the Nuggets before Carmelo or the Cavaliers before LeBron. They understand where I was at. When you win between 14 and 17 games in a season that’s as bad as it gets in this era; add to that not everybody gets that magical get out of jail free card. Every team won’t get Carmelo or LeBron. Now the Hawks could have drafted some pretty good players. Maybe the Hawks wasted their get out of jail free card by not drafting Chris Paul or some of the other players they missed on. I think they’ve taken the longest hardest road possible. The Hawks have gone against the grain in nearly everything they’ve done. Fighting the power in the draft, taking guys everybody said they shouldn’t. Then the ownership situation in the midst of signing Joe Johnson to a free agent contract happened. It’s been a professional boom though. I say that because even when the team wasn’t very good they got attention due to the drama and soap opera. You have an appreciation for better times now when you think of the horrible times. If you want to know something that’s hard to do in this business try writing a ‘this team is bad and got the snot beat out of them’ 69 times in a season. Your creative juices start flowing when you have to recreate the ‘this team is awful’ story that many times. Plus, you don’t want your writing to read stale and lose the interest of your readership. I learned a lot about myself during that time though. I couldn’t let how bad they were influence the quality of my work. After the year I go back and read my work and try to follow it to guard against that. That’s where having a blog is helpful because you go back and look at how critical you were when they were bad as opposed to when they are playing better. My coverage has definitely changed. Whereas before there was really sharp criticism and almost sympathy to a more constructive thing now. I’m analyzing how to piece things together to keep moving forward. The evolution isn’t just for the team. It’s for ownership and the fans too. Going from horrible to respectable is a journey for everyone involved.
JW: “Let’s talk a little the Hawks in terms of draft picks. Look at this team. Josh Smith is still here. Sheldon Williams is gone. Josh Childress is overseas. How close do you think the organization is, or should be, to parting ways with Marvin Williams?”
SS: “That’s a good question. I don’t think they should be close at all. They only way I would say consider it is if they know they have a sure thing coming in. The value of that asset should match or be better than Marvin. I think too many times, teams want to wash away a mistake just for the sake of washing it away. Sure the Hawks took Marvin when there were point guard options that needed to be addressed in that draft. The thing is I wrote at the time that I could live with not drafting a point guard as long as they addressed that need in free agency. They didn’t do that. They brought in Speedy Claxton. That wasn’t the answer. They didn’t go out and find a top shelf starting NBA point guard. They found a guy that was basically Chris Paul’s backup. That’s not good enough. What I’ve learned watching the NBA over the last decade is that the good teams fix their mistakes quickly. They don’t compound them by adding another one. Sometimes you don’t know you made a mistake until after. Most people had Marvin ranked as a top five prospect in that draft, he and Bogut. It just so happened that he and Bogut were the first two off the board. I know everyone talks hindsight like they knew Chris Paul and Deron Williams would be this good. Who knew those two would the transcendent point guards of their era when they came out in that draft? If there was a consensus on that they would have gone 1-2. The worst thing you can do if you’re the Hawks is scapegoat Marvin because you picked him when maybe you shouldn’t have. It’s not like he’s been a bust in the NBA. It would be different if he were like Sheldon (Williams), where you realize quickly that this dude can’t play. Add to that, I said this too: the more egregious mistake to me was taking Sheldon the next year instead of Brandon Roy. I’m not sure you can make that kind of mistake twice. How do you come back the next year and stare Brandon Roy in the eye and not take him? It was a consensus that Brandon Roy was the most pro ready prospect in that draft. That wasn’t a debate. People knew that if you picked him he could come in a play meaningful minutes. So you take a Sheldon Williams, a guy nobody was going to pick before ten at best. To me that mistake, after missing on the point guards, is ridiculous. Can the Hawks get equal value in a sign and trade for Marvin over the summer? If they can, good. If not you better be very careful of throwing away an asset. This is a guy that’s averaged double figures the last three years and been a starter. You can’t always get a good return on the time and money you’ve invested in Marvin thus far.
JW: “There’s been a lot of criticism of Mike Woodson. It’s been aimed at coaching style, player management, and maybe even his personality. He didn’t get a contract extension. The GM, Rick Sund will be here. How closely tied to you think the performance of the team and the impact of draft picks/ free agent acquisitions will be with him being retained or dismissed?”
SS: “I think they colored his future before that. I think that the draft picks and free agents, as well as the team dynamic in training camp, will determine if he even completes next year. He doesn’t have the security of a contract beyond this year. A lot of times you’ll see GM and coaches tied together. When you’re someone else’s coaching hire and you don’t have the security of a contract that’s not good. And even if you do, look at Sam Mitchell, there are still no guarantees you’ll be around past a bad start to the season. They started this season 6-0 and that really set the tone for the rest of the season. Say they have a rough start next season; what if they go 0-6? What if they struggle until around Christmas and they’re still under .500? I don’t know if Mike Woodson survives that. That’s the predicament he’s in. I don’t think that’s foreign to him, having been around this league as long as he has. He’s had longer than a lot of people would have imagined. I don’t think he feels sorry for himself or anybody else. It’s a hell of a challenge for him. You basically have to re piece half a roster before training camp and be ready to rock when the season starts. That’s daunting. The guy lived through one rebuilding project during his tenure and survived it. I don’t know if he, or any other coach, could survive another one. Sure it won’t be as drastic because you have Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith who are here and ready to move forward. Still, you have to address the point guard situation. You have to get some more pieces and solidify a bench this summer. By anyone’s estimation those factors are going to affect Mike Woodson’s future with this team.”
JW: “I was looking at the draft. Mike Bibby, if he comes back, is getting older. The team could use some point guard help. They could also use help up front to rebound and defend alongside Al (Horford), Josh (Smith) and Zaza (Pachulia). Who do you see in the draft that can help the Hawks?”
SS: “First and foremost you look at the draft as who picks ahead of you and who may fall to you. At pick number 19, in a draft that’s light on bigs/top shelf power forwards, it becomes a guard draft. So the one need you know you can address is the point guard issue. It might be a backup for Bibby or an eventual replacement. It might be an immediate replacement. Based on draft position and need, there’s a point guard in this draft with the Hawk’s name on it. That’s if they decide to go that route. I don’t know how you would find immediate help on the glass. That’s a skill that requires more proficiency than a college guy might have right away. That’s when you scour the free agent ranks. Maybe you trade for it. That’s a skill. For example, Chris Andersen’s NBA skills are rebounding and blocking shots. You’d have to go find a guy with that skill set and make him a part of the rotation. I think Zaza Pachulia, who’s a free agent, brings that element to this team. I think Al does and I think Josh, who led the team in rebounding in the playoffs, does. I think you have half of what you need. Half the battery of players you need to rebound and defend at a high level are already on the roster. I wrote this on my own blog yesterday actually. I don’t think you can get to the conference finals without five to six serviceable big men on your roster. You need those 6’8 to 7′ players that can go out and play extended quality minutes. That’s just a fact. Look at who’s still playing right now: L.A., Orlando, Cleveland, and Denver. Run down the list of front court players those teams have that can play. Those teams have the quality up front. I think you go into the summer comparing yourself to the teams that made it to the conference finals the year before. They set the standard and you set the bar for your team by them.”
JW: “It’s funny you mentioned that. Look at the team that’s having the most trouble right now, Cleveland. They don’t have that aspect. They don’t have five cats, they don’t have four cats. Ben Wallace and Joe Smith are old. Ilgauskas can’t move. That leaves LeBron, he rebounds like a power forward anyway and Varejao. Essentially they only have two of the five or six you need when it comes to the rebounding and defending aspect.”
SS: “Exactly. It’s funny how the league shifts. I was talking to one of the Hawks assistant coaches before this interview and we were talking about the direction the league is going. I’ve also discussed this type of thing with other guys in the business that do not cover the NBA. I remember when Jordan kind of vacated that spot as the #1 player in the league and guys were debating if it would be Kobe or Vince Carter that would be the heir apparent. Allen Iverson was obviously there to doing his thing. We knew there wouldn’t be another Shaq so our argument went along the lines of who would be the next Jordan type player? Who would set the standard? I personally thought it would be the Allen Iverson type of player that would dominate the league going forward. After the Bad Boy era, some of those Knicks teams and some of those physical Miami Heat teams the league started to move away from the rough and tumble physical style. After Shaq, I didn’t see another big man being able to dominate the league. Focus on the end of games. It’s guards and forwards dominating games. Kobe’s going to work, LeBron, Carmelo. Hybrids like Rashard and Tukoglu. Those guys are taking and making shots to decide the outcome at the end of games. You have to judge your team based on these standard bearers. Kobe is the man right now with LeBron following very closely. When it comes to your team you have to ask yourself, how do I match up with this type of player. For the last six or seven years the league has been one where you have to match talent for talent at two guard and small forward. Now, this is not to discount the contributions in this era of Shaq, Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan. The thing is that talent doesn’t come along every year. There isn’t a KG in every draft. You know there will be a plethora of 6’4″ to 6’7″ two guard types coming in and out of the NBA forever. That’s not going to change. When you’re building a team that’s going to win a championship I think that changes. What Dwyane Wade did was rare. Having a 6’4″ guy as your catalyst is almost unheard of. Traditionally you build around a point guard like Chauncey Billups or a post. Now that formula is all over the place. There is no set formula anymore. Even the two star system is out as a way to build a championship team. For years teams tried to emulate the impact of two guys like Mike and Scottie or Karl Malone and John Stockton. Now I think it’s three or more. Boston won with the three headed monster of KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. If you ask yourself about the teams still playing what do you get? Well Cleveland doesn’t have three. They don’t have three guys on that level. The Lakers definitely have two in Kobe and Pau Gasol but who’s the third? Lamar Odom? Who’s the third guy? Denver has Carmelo and Chauncey. Who’s the third guy there? If you look at Orlando they have three. Dwight, Hedo and Rashard come the closest to that formula. They have three legitimate guys that can carry you on any given night. That’s what I love about the NBA. There’s so much more than just rolling the ball out. Before I covered the pros I used to complain that it was scripted, the same thing happens every night. When you cover it you get a sense of the history of the game. You realize how intricate the game is and the trends that influence the game. You would think that after the success of the triangle that more teams would try to run that offense. That’s when you realize that the system really is based on the talent that you put inside it. You can’t duplicate that. This is a pick and roll league, much like it’s always been. Basketball basics baby. It’s the foundation of just about every team’s offense. It’s amazing how complex a thing can be that should be so simple. There’s so much more to the pro game than what you see on TV.”
JW: “Weigh in on this debate. Joe Johnson or Josh Smith. I’ve watched the growth of Joe Johnson from High School phenom to college star. I watched him blossom in Phoenix after the trade from Boston. I’ve watched him play here. When I see Joe Johnson I see star. I’ve also watched the growth and promise of Josh Smith. I see the physical tools, the potential, the skill set. I’ve watched his growth. That being said, whose team are the Hawks and whose team should they be? ”
SS: “I don’t think the Hawks are either one of their team and I don’t think it should be. There is a clear tug of war here as to what style of basketball to play. I don’t think its conscience or even spoken but it’s there. I think this team needs that same thing Denver needed when Chauncey Billups came. Sometimes you need a guy that eliminates the friction from a situation. To me Chauncey is the consummate point guard. He’s the model in this era. You want a guy that’s not so overcome with being a star that he overshadows the team. You want a guy so overcome with winning that the will to win supersedes egos. Look at this. It’s a little different but in Denver there was confusion about their style of play. Would they play George Karl’s way or would they play a style that complemented Carmelo Anthony and the rest of that roster? Billups was a guy that came in and was the go between. A.I. came and that didn’t work. They could run all day but they couldn’t win. Chauncey showed them how to have backbone and play a certain way in order to win. That can’t come from a coach or a scheme. Sometimes its about a guy being a moral compass for a team; some people around here think it may be Al Horford to fill that role. They think he could be the guy to be the skeleton to build your culture and identity around. I think that’s a lot to put on a guy that’s been in the league for two years. I’ve been here all of Josh Smith’s career. I’ve watched his growth. I was covering the SEC when Joe came up. I remember before he started playing, Nolan Richardson was excited about a kid he had that was a Prop., so he wouldn’t be eligible until Christmas of his freshman year. People had expectations for him then and he lived up to it. Since then he’s become an All Star here. For me that background is unique when it comes to this situation. I think it’s vastly overblown. I’ve talked to the players about it. I’ve talked to the coaches and the agents. It’s a complete non factor if the organization is committing to winning. The team doesn’t have to belong to either one. Plus I don’t think either one of them is good enough to have that hanging over their heads or define them. I don’t think either one is that kind of superstar. I think that era is done in the NBA as well. I really don’t believe we have that cache of superstars in the league anymore. People say the league is down but there are so many good players in the NBA right now. Why not be a part of a conglomerate? Why not contribute to a team that can win for a long time? Who knows, Joe may continue his All Star ways. Josh and Al may rise up and become All Stars. It’s up to them and how they improve year to year. Whose team it is should be the least of their worries. Hell they need to be working together. Think about this. I had this stat from last season: when Joe and Josh both score 20+ points in the same game they were 11-1. So the question around here should be how do we get both of these guys scoring 20+ more often. I’d key in how to get these two guys playing better together, not which guy should be the focus. I see that as one of the valid criticisms of Mike Woodson. Running everything through Joe may be an old theory. That’s the way he wanted to play but if they want to keep getting better they have to figure out how to incorporate the other guys into what they do. If Mike likes it or not, that’s on the money. It’s not hard to notice that the Hawks play better when they have threats outside of Joe Johnson.
JW: “Talk about the demise of the newspaper industry. Where do you think newspapers are headed?”
SS: “Man that’s a horribly good question. For a guy like me who has been doing this since 1994 it’s a little frightening. I have no clue man. For years I’ve been working on things other than the traditional newspaper model. When I came into the business message boards and other internet tools were just taking off so I’ve always had a basic understanding of other things outside of print. I knew the role that your brand played in what you do and your success. I know there’s a place for the gathering of this information and the repackaging of this information. I’m not sure where that fits in regards to the traditional newspaper model. I’d love for there to be a clear cut answer so the industry could stabilize. That’s a part of evolution though. Some time ago, I remember the so called traditionalists would bash the USA Today. They would say it wasn’t a real paper or that it wasn’t this or that. Now, in a few years it may be the only hard copy paper you can get outside of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or the Washington Post. This is an ideas business and an innovation business. You have to be on the cutting edge of that as opposed to chasing the tail of it. I think the newspaper industry lost sight of that for a while. People figured folks would just always pick up a newspaper. Then again I’ve heard from people a lot older and wiser than me that we’ve been through this before. Think about it. Newspaper’s demise was predicted when radio took off and again when television news went through the roof. We’re still here. I would like to think that we’re resilient enough to reconfigure and stay relevant for a long time, certainly as long as I’m in the business. I don’t know exactly where we fit in the traditional model. I know there’s a place for what we do. It’s just a matter of finding that place.