Through many awards and high-profile assignments, Gary Smith once held the title of America's Greatest Sportswriter. I'm not sure if that fits anymore.
Smith has a new book out -- a collection of his best stuff. And it's a good moment to consider whether Gary Smith matters as much in a sports-media landscape dominated by PTI, rather than SI. If you're under the age of 30 or 35, I suspect his relevance to you declines quickly. (And even if you're over 30 or 35, his relevance has also probably declined, aside from the bi-annual "Hey, Gary Smith has a new piece; maybe I'll get to it...."
I'm not saying long-form sports journalism doesn't have a place. Hell, if all we had was quick-hit, knee-jerk, tissue-thin, something-out-of-nothing sensationalism -- and that's 98 percent of sports media these days, "new" or "traditional" -- we would be worse off for it. (Smith CAN do short-form: See his memoriam for Gene Upshaw two weeks ago.)
I was more awed by Smith when I was younger than I am now. Maybe it's the era, maybe it's the vast new talent and consumer tastes that have emerged in the last 10 years, but -- with obvious exceptions -- Smith's stuff feels a bit formulaic. Like: We get it -- Radio is developmentally challenged and we're supposed to feel a tugging at the heartstrings about it.
There is one stirring exception.
Rather than read a collection of his stories (most of which I and his target market have already read, or I could just as easily find for free in SI Vault), I would have preferred for Smith to take what I think was his greatest story -- about one of the Top 5 most important and powerful sports stories of the last century in American sports -- and turn it into the full-length book that so desperately needs to be written:
Smith's utterly remarkable "Remember His Name" was published 2 years ago last week. (You can find it here.) I feel like Smith robbed us; he has this one-of-a-kind talent and has had one of the most charmed careers in the history of sportswriting -- this book needed to be written and he was the one to have pulled it off. But, hey, there's always another piece of treacle.
Here is the new book. Obviously, rather than Smith, it was put together by the editors of SI -- and it was virtually costless. I'm not suggesting that he copped out by self-publishing a collection; I'm just lamenting that he didn't use his prodigious gifts to give the Tillman story the comprehensive book-length examination that it deserves from a top-flight journalist.
Who knows: Maybe Smith is doing it. It would be his greatest contribution to sports and sportswriting. We can only hope so.
UPDATE: Apparently Jon Krakauer had a Tillman book slated for publication next month, but it was pulled indefinitely. I would put Krakauer as one of the authors -- like Smith -- who could do the story justice.