Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Does Gary Smith Still Matter?

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:

Pat Tillman.

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.

-- D.S.

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.

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