A green light to greatness.®

Searching for Gary Smith

He looks inside others for answers about life. And himself.

By: Sarah Perry

A balmy day in L.A., lanes of traffic, horns blaring. The car dances over the lane markers. Clack, clack, clack. The car weaves in and out, next to this car, then another. That was a close one.

Fear coils in the pit of America’s greatest sportswriter as he watches the hands of America’s greatest boxer slip off the wheel of his car. Clack, clack, clack. Muhammad Ali’s eyelids are jerking, slipping, twitching. Should I take the wheel from an all-time champion?

Ali is a big man, a strong man, so proud. How would he react to someone taking control? His eyelids droop, nearly closing. His hands slide and the steering wheel spirals out of control. Clack, clack, clack.

It’s Santa Monica Freeway and the cars are going 60 miles per hour, inching closer. Gary Smith is writing his third cover for Sports Illustrated. I’m gonna die. Ali’s eyes are closed. Gary’s heart races, thumping against his shirt. Ali’s hands fall to his lap.

The car veers to the left, nearly crashing into another driver. Clack, clack, clack.

Just then Jamillah, Ali’s 9-year-old son, reaches from the back seat, cradling his father’s head between his chest and arm, and grabs the wheel. It’ll be okay, he tells Gary. Happens all the time.

Gary, Ali and Jamillah speed down the freeway, the world’s greatest boxer asleep at the wheel, his son in control.

Gary Smith, big shot sportswriter, is a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the magazine world’s most celebrated writers. Gary’s first “Ellie” award arrived in 1992 with “Shadow of a Nation,” the story of Jonathon Takes Enemy, a Crow Indian basketball player pulled apart and put back together by fortune, family and generations of loss. Gary struck again in 1997 with “Crime and Punishment,” about another high school basketball star convicted and branded as a sex offender. Then, 2000, for the infamous Texas Christian University football team, and — bam! — in 2003, one more time, for George O’Leary, the Notre Dame coach who had the world at his fingertips, and lost it all because of a lie on a resume.

He’s interviewed the famous and the infamous. Big names: Ali and Agassi, Tyson and Tiger. Small-time players, too, ones you’d never heard of before. Yet Gary’s remained as modest as the 16-year-old cub reporter who began honing his craft 40 years ago. He’s a thoughtful husband, supportive father, loyal friend. Teaches yoga to children. Is a Big Brother. Taught English at orphanages in Bolivia. Helped his sister adopt a child. Adopted one himself. Feeds the homeless and starving students. Hosts Thanksgiving dinner for 40 family members, planning everything from scratch.

But beneath Gary’s modesty and aw-shucks manner lies what people call one of the most penetrating minds in narrative nonfiction today. He uses poetry to delve into a young track star’s head, family history to understand a baseball owner, a psychological game to help a tennis legend understand himself, and a father’s vision to predict that a certain young golfer would flame out. “What kind of mind thinks like this?” wonders co-worker Rick Reilly in the introduction to Gary’s latest book Going Deep.

Gary may be the only writer, certainly the only sportswriter, who uses philosophy to peer into people’s souls, to find truth. Nietzsche is his favorite. “Smashed all the meanings,” says Gary. But try to peer into Gary’s psyche and he squirms. Rocks back and forth.  Stutters. Catch a glimpse, and he’s gone. He can figure out everyone, it seems, but himself.

Jeez, you think, who is this guy?

Bonnie Richardson, Texas track star, got the full Gary Smith treatment. Gary saw her story in the paper, called her parents for permission to interview, and landed in Rochelle sometime in July, halfway between here and nowhere. The town has fewer people living in it than most restaurants turn over in an hour. Bonnie had won the Texas state track championship in 2008 and 2009. Not the team, just Bonnie. She was 17, didn’t know what to expect from a reporter. Certainly not some reporter from SI coming to town, staying for a week, eating dinner with her family, following her around at work, taking a poem from her teacher.

Poking inside her head.

“I’ve never had an interview that extensive,” she says today. For the first time, a writer interviewed her friends, her family, her teachers. Her championship moments already passed, Gary sat with her for hours going over the video on her family’s back porch, overlooking her mother’s garden. What were you thinking at this moment? What were you feeling? Did you move? Why did you move?

Bonnie remembers answering vaguely, embarrassed, sorry she couldn’t answer better.  I don’t know, she told Gary many times. He sat with her parents and her sister, reviewing the video, asking more questions. Getting the big picture, connecting the dots. “A lot of times, it’s not what it seems to be on the surface. It’s a coiling,” Gary says. “When I’m in the interview mode, I’m just trying to think of every possible thing that could be arising in that moment and asking about it. It’s finding those connections that you can use in the moment, but they’re revealing things that are latent in the back mind and you can bring them to life.”

Bonnie didn’t know that Gary would use the poem her teacher had given him. He framed his story around it. Thousands of people read her words. I wonder why being myself is so problematic. I hear legions of fate calling my true name.  She marvels to this day at how he did it: “He got inside my head,” she says.

“He must have gone through my nose because he was in my cerebellum in a nanosecond.”

Some of Gary’s subjects are stunned by the master storyteller’s mysterious methods of boring into their skulls. “He must have gone through my nose because he was in my cerebellum in a nanosecond,” says Mike Veeck, the 54-year-old owner of the St. Paul Saints baseball team. Gary wrote about Veeck and his relationship with his daughter Rebecca, who is blind and wants to be “a baseball guy” too. Baseball runs in the family. Veeck’s grandfather was a legend, credited with growing ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field. His father employed exploding scoreboards and midget pinch hitters and circus acts on the field. He also produced a few winning teams. But all those years, before the interview with Gary, the grown son had never added two and two and made four. He wasn’t aware why he was so driven, that he was mimicking his father’s actions, competing with his father. “I never needed 20 years of psychiatrists. I could have done this interview and … understood,” Veeck says.

Gary spent 10 hours with Veeck, not including follow-up phone calls to mine for yet more details. “I’m old. I’ve been interviewed by a lot of people. He was the toughest, the longest. My head hurt,” says Veeck. He made a list of people for Gary to talk to: family, friends, enemies, anyone he knew or thought he knew who would talk to him.

What did Veeck think of his story,  “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” in the end? “It reduced people to tears,” he says.

Growing up with eight siblings in a five-bedroom home in Wilmington, Delaware, Gary didn’t particularly stand out. Their structure was the Bible. Discipline was the daily vitamin. His dad was the vice principal of the high school. His mom tried to stay sane raising nine children.

Gary was the quiet one. Observing, reading the others, burying himself in Steinbeck and Hemingway. He worked at the local paper full time at 16, earned a full scholarship to study at La Salle University in Philadelphia, landed a full time job at the Daily News. He married his girlfriend and moved to the “vanilla suburbs” of Philadelphia, reveling in his job at the News. Everything was structured, says his wife Sally, a psychiatrist. He had the perfect job, was happy, then  his first wife came home from a tour guide job. “I’m out of here,” she told him as she unpacked her clothes.

His life was ripped open, leaving a gaping hole of uncertainty. “I was blown away,” Gary says. She didn’t want counseling, therapy, or help. He couldn’t see why, for years. Still can’t. “Who knows how much deeper it goes?” he says today. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, searching for answers. None came. His ex-wife is the only person he can’t seem to figure out — and maybe, just maybe, that’s why he studies others so intently.

Years later, he reads his notes at his home in Charleston, notes scribbled behind pages of Schopenhauer philosophy.

The dots in our lives connect. Life is not random. It has meaning.

Gary say on Agassi’s back porch once, the sizzle of a perfectly grilled steak popping in the background as he sipped a perfect mixture of peach raspberry margarita. Agassi wore shorts and a faded T-shirt, the hot Nevada sun beating down on his shoulders. Gary’s eyes followed him everywhere. Agassi was a seeker. He would find something — a steak, a margarita, coffee — and would perfect it. This is the guy most like me, Gary thought to himself. He found stories, spent weeks plunging the depths of his subjects, writing, ripping up versions, rewriting, until he got it right. Until it felt right.

Agassi was bewildered with Gary. Didn’t know what to make of him. Gary didn’t focus on anything, asked questions about his childhood to his adulthood, a first for a journalist. When Agassi asked him what he wanted to write about, he said, “The whole shebang.”  Then Agassi got it. “He kept wanting to whittle it down to get a grip on it,” says Gary. “I asked about it all, ’cause I need to understand it all to get it.”

After a few days of questions, Agassi opened up – opened up about his father, Brooke Shields, his inner turmoil, never being satisfied. Who changes himself? Gary asked in his story. Agassi did. Turned from “prodigy to champion, punk to philanthropist.” To make that believable, Gary had to ensure that readers trusted Andre’s metamorphoses. So Gary took his readers along with him. 

You are 50 feet away, watching Agassi at the U.S. Open, then 2 feet away, flying in his private jet, then you are about to enter a forest … and get into Agassi’s mind.

It’s during one interview that Agassi remembers a game he and Brooke Shields, his former wife, always played. She led Agassi through a forest and asked him what things looked like. Brooke said Agassi saw the forest as difficult and dense, which is how he saw life. As part of the game, she suggested finding a key in the forest. The key symbolized education, but Agassi saw a rusty key. An eighth-grade dropout, he had learned through experience rather than books.

Gary says he didn’t connect the dots at first. He usually doesn’t until he sits down to type up notes from his legal pads. He puts the notes in categories on his computer so he can find the information. But later, he realized, that game “was all about a journey through unknown, uncharted territory.” It was Agassi’s journey to self-discovery.  “I identified with Agassi’s hunger to figure things out,” Gary says.

After the breakup with his first wife, Gary says he fled to Europe, searching for answers. He landed at Bar Lydia in Italy’s grape country, Castel Viscardo, with its rows of grapes, an old ruined castle crumbling in the distance, moonlight cascading over the fallen stones, the scent of tomato sauce seeping into the hot, heavy air. Gary drinks and eats with two Italians until 1 a.m. They stumble outside. One tosses Gary his keys, holds up a finger and throws up on Gary’s feet. And so began the European adventures of Gary Smith.

He learns to make bricks and wine in Italy and picks grapes in France, sweating, searching as the sun beats down on his broken shoulders. He discovers Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who offers deeper insight, understanding, into the conundrums of humanity.   “All the things, the problem of life, the problem of consciousness, it’s so close to what is at the bottom of a human life,” Gary says of philosophy.

Gary’s life begins to look up. He begins dating Sally, the woman he’d met through his ex-wife. They honeymoon in Bolivia, climb Mount Kenya and dance through the streets of Rio de Janeiro in their own hand-sewn Carnival costumes. They live in Australia and Spain and France, picking up friends and languages, even children, along the way.

Years later, echoes of Gary and Sally’s past adventures linger on the wall of their Charleston, S.C., home: Pictures of Gary with the Italian family who taught him to make bricks, the Yugoslavian shoe given to him by a source, a picture of daughter Gabrielle stuffed in the shoe. Sally, a psychiatrist, thinks those months Gary explored Europe are part of the reason why he has such insight into his subjects. When you immerse yourself in cultures, you’re the outsider, you’re coming at things from a different angle, your assumptions are turned upside down. “It prompted that quest to understand people more in depth,” she says.

It’s during his European days that  Gary begins to pour himself into his stories at Sports Illustrated. Reading books before he goesfor the first interview, exhausting his sources with phone call after phone call. Before he headed out to the edge of Orlando to interview Tiger Woods in 1996, he had already earned one of his four National Magazine Awards. Tiger was then America’s top college golfer, winner of a record three U.S. Amateur titles. Gary started his story with Tiger’s father, Earl, gushing over his son at a banquet. Tiger would have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than Buddha. He will transcend this game … and bring to the world … a humanitarianism … which has never been known before. Gary, surveying the scene, saw lunacy. He thought the “machine” might win instead of Tiger, the machine being fame.

Gary had seen it before. Fame sinking its claws into people. But it was the father’s vision that made it inevitable. The father who had beat death time and again, knowing that he was meant for something, that his son was meant for something. Gary started his story with Earl’s preposterous goals for Tiger.

“To have that much celebrity and fame happening already, combined with the vision of his father . . . Immediately it was setting up a paradox of colossal proportions in so many ways. Starting with the father, laying this out in the public, it was different and rare and unlike anything we’d seen before with so many athletes,” says Gary. “Getting that going right from the get-go seemed to make the most sense.”

He framed his story in 1996 around the machine versus Tiger: Who would win? He chose different moments of Tiger’s life to illustrate different sides of him. He let the ambiguities ride, didn’t try to explain them away – another key element in Gary’s stories. “In life, we want things to be certain, but it’s almost always just a confluence of things, things we’re not even quite aware of,” he says. “To clean it all up and make it A or B. It’s not an honest rendering of human nature. To get to the reality, the ambiguity, that’s how we move through life. Truer writing, and better writing, gets to that.”         

Jesup, Georgia. Ten days of silence, no phones, newspapers, talking. Only quiet in this 40-acre haven for meditation, 10, 12 hours a day. Only Gary and his thoughts amidst velvety green oaks and maples, a pond, a walking path and dozens of strangers he couldn’t speak to, including his friend, Duke Hagerty.

Gary met Duke years ago when he needed a quick stitch. Duke patches faces and paints his dreams, and he’s quick to say how brilliant and talented Gary is, but hesitant to talk about his best friend too deeply. He once forced Gary to bury a tennis racket in his own back yard because Gary lost a game. “Burying the hatchet,” Duke says and chuckles. Yeah, Gary dropped a few “f bombs” over that one.

They decided to visit Jesup on a whim. They’ve been gathering for weekly philosophy study sessions for years now, Gary and Duke. They began studying Buddhism and Hinduism, decided it was time they went beyond the walls of their homes and plunked themselves into the middle of the theories they loved. Then reality hit. Hard.

“It was a truckstop in the middle of nowhere,” Duke says of the meditation facilities, frustration creeping into his voice. Gary slid into the silence, Duke bucked against it, staying only because he didn’t want Gary to tease him about his lack of control. Control. When you meditate, you strive to relinquish those controlling thoughts, block thoughts, and succumb to whatever happens. In Jesup, Gary and Duke practiced Vipassana meditation. The goal: to seek peace and happiness, by investigating the mind, finding the core of your unhappiness, and letting it go.  Observe the reality inside.

Gary remembers sitting cross-legged on a powdery blue cushion, eyes closed. “Like your spleen is secreting, your mind is secreting thoughts, and to live at the total mercy of the creation, you just kind of watch what happens when you slow everything down. You see it’s out of control. You realize, ‘That’s what I identified as myself all along, this organ that just keeps secreting thoughts?’ So you step outside and see that it’s all a creation, see it as a big spider web and brush it away.”

Today, despite all the mellow musing, Gary and Sally still argue over the trouble he has relaxing, letting go, enjoying life. Sally is quick to say that he isn’t really controlling. He just plans and plans and packs and packs each day until there is no more room for spontaneity. When his mother visits in Charleston, he makes an itinerary for each day. He plans his stories the same way, so why not life? “It’s like he wants to wring every ounce out of life,” Sally says.

And that part about his modesty, not displaying awards or sports memorabilia or opening up about himself? He’s humble, sure, but Sally, always the psychiatrist, says Gary just doesn’t want to hear himself talk. “He values what everybody does and he doesn’t see that he does anything,” she says.

When Gary drove home from Jesup, he was more relaxed, but Sally could tell he struggled with letting things be. He didn’t try to plan dozens of activities for one day. He didn’t pester his kids about their decisions. “My mind was always at work on the world,” he says of himself before his retreat. He exhausted those around him like he exhausted his sources. Probing, seeking, questioning decisions. The kids have had to “find their own way around him,” Sally says. And those poor people he questions to death? “I feel sorry for them.”

A warm Sunday in spring, Gary and Sally discuss one of his stories over a plate of wheat pasta. “Damned Yankee” chronicles the ill fate of John Malangone, a woulda-coulda-shoulda baseball player whose burning secret sizzled away his chances for fame. When Malangone tried to talk about that secret, he’d flee into church to “escape the demons,” Gary says.

Malangone’s tale finally slipped onto paper when a few of his friends mailed Gary a letter, begging him to write the story that would help their friend escape those demons. Gary approached Malangone cautiously, but he could tell the old Italian was ready to talk.

Sally, swirling pasta on her fork, shakes her head when she talks about reading Gary’s first draft. “I was thinking, Gar, this guy is having panic attacks!” Sally says. But Sally, understanding that Gary doesn’t like to brand people with psychological diagnoses, tries not to think too much like a psychiatrist when she reads his stories. “Sometimes I just have to kind of back off.”

Gary and Sally often discuss philosophy and psychology. Not necessarily to help him delve into the minds of his subjects, but because he simply likes knowing what’s going on up there. When it comes to people, he doesn’t like to box people in categories — as clinically depressed or schizophrenic or paranoid — or whatever their problems might be. “It would limit their humanity,” Gary says.

Sally and a friend read over Gary’s stories before he sends them to his editor at SI. But mostly, Sally says, Gary’s stories are already there, and she usually just tightens sentences and cleans up grammar. His insight into his subjects – dead on. “He would have been a great psychiatrist,” Sally says.

In the inside of his book, Going Deep, Gary dedicated his work to Sally: To Sally, my wife/editor/shrink/pal.

In his attic, Gary sits at a wooden desk, looking out into his emerald garden, scribbling notes in the back of his dog-eared philosophy book. “Stories,” he writes, “satisfy a deep inner yearning because they affix an ending, a culmination point, a resolution upon life, which NEVER permits us such satisfaction.”

That scene of Ali at the wheel never made it into the story. Gary says many times, he never includes things he has seen himself, preferring to reconstruct scene after scene after scene. After typing up his notes, he looks for “pivotal moments” in someone’s life. He’ll sometimes take a day or two, take a walk, roll over the scenes in his mind. He’ll scribble thoughts on Post-Its before he sleeps, after he wakes up. He chooses scenes that “get to the guts of what a person’s about,” he says.

Gary’s Ali story, in the end, hardly quoted Ali. Gary chose to concentrate instead on the members of Ali’s “entourage,” the ones who were left behind when Ali left the ring: the doctor, the facilitator, the cook, the masseur, the bodyguard, the manager and the motivator. Gary found Gene Kilroy, Ali’s “facilitator,” running casinos in Vegas, selling Ali memorabilia and reminiscing about the old days. For Gene, Gary pulled out a quote from Nietzsche. “It captured something about the weariness of a man who’d seen and done it all,” says Gary.

Gary says he never figured out if Ali was serious that day in the car in L.A. The medication for Parkinson’s could have made him fall asleep, or it could have been another of Ali’s infamous tricks. Moments after Jamillah took the wheel, Ali woke up, flagged cars to follow him, and lead about 10 cars full of strangers to his L.A. home, entertaining them for hours with magic tricks.

Was the world’s heavyweight boxing champion pulling a rope-a-dope on the world’s heavyweight sportswriter? Was he resisting the famous mind drill? Gary, for once, will never know.




He looks inside others for answers about life. And himself.
Share Article