How Gary Smith became America's best sportswriter.

The stadium scene.
June 30 2003 6:09 PM

Going Deep

How Gary Smith became America's best sportswriter.

(Continued from Page 1)

There is one nonfiction subgenre that still uses point of view: the clunky political and business-world tick-tocks of the school of Bob Woodward. ("Rove could see their point, but at the same time, politics was a continuing element of the presidency even during war, not to be ignored.") That wouldn't pass muster for Smith. Maybe his most remarkable ability is to be both inside and outside his subjects: completely understanding where they're coming from, in all senses of the phrase, yet at the same time casting a critical eye on their actions and rationalizations. From the O'Leary piece, here's the decisive moment when the coach, upon taking an assistant's job at Syracuse University, first practiced to deceive:

George spat a stream of brown juice into a Styrofoam cup. A new habit. One more thing, besides the college football letters, he now had in common with the Syracuse defensive coaches. He began filling out a second document, entitled Personal Data Sheet, in which he was asked to spell out his academic credentials. He began to list the graduate schools he'd attended and the credits he'd earned. He had 31. It wasn't enough. Presently have B.S. +48, George wrote, adding 17 credits.

Hell, it was no big deal, just another coach's ploy, wasn't it? Like thrusting his badly scarred left hand with its permanently bent pinkie—the result of a tumble at age five, when he landed on a broken bottle at the bottom of a sump—into the face of a player who seemed always to complain of injuries and screaming, "See that? That's college football!" Just a way of creating more authority, more aura, more men who made more victories. Just, like raw honesty, another tool. Right?

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Not every Smith article is a masterpiece. He can sometimes edge into sentimentality. And he does tend to overuse a few devices, like rhetorical questions, deliberatively repetitive phrasing, and direct address. (He deploys all three in the lead paragraph of his Crow basketball player story: "Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day. How could you call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon? How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?")

Never mind. Remember, Hemingway was too fond of the word "and." Plus, he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees. Gary Smith is a modern nonfiction master, and it's about time everyone else got the memo.

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.

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