'When the music's right:' An appreciation of Gary Smith

Gary Smith, the legendary Sports Illustrated feature writer, announced his retirement on Monday. Simply put, Smith's on the shortlist of best sports writers of all time. He's also in the conversation for best magazine feature writer of all time — in any genre. There are two sports writers whose work was supremely influential in my career — Charles Pierce and Gary Smith. They're very different writers, but the common thread for me was reading their work in college (and even now) and just shaking my head, thinking "Jesus. How do you do that?" It's like a young songwriter listening to Rubber Soul or Abbey Road and realizing that this is how it's supposed to be done.

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Picking out a favorite Smith story is like picking a favorite Beatles song. Three stand out to me: his feature on a dying Jim Valvano; his profile of a retiring Andre Agassi that I always loved; and his story about Richie Parker, a high-school basketball star who was accused of sexual assault. The Parker story floored me when I first read it - I ripped it out of the magazine, and it's still in a box in my basement. I openly aped the structure of that story in one of the first big features I wrote as a sports writer.

What I admire most about Smith is his silence. In our age of transparency, of writers describing how they got their story, their tricks of the trade, their struggles in writing, Smith didn't indulge in that. He's not on Twitter. He doesn't write about the story behind the story. He's wonderfully old school in a way that's not self-indulgent or showy. He doesn't brag about how he's old school. He doesn't embrace debate. He simply works and reports and writes. He doesn't become part of the story. He's a storyteller, the best we've had in our business. Joe Posnanski called him a magician, and that's a pretty apt description.

In the preface to a collection of his stories, he summed his attitude up beautifully. It's fitting that a tribute to his writing should end with Gary Smith's own words:

I hate explanations, and maybe that's a clue right there. When the music's right, no one needs an explanation, and when it's not, no one wants one.