Sam Smith says he’s living out the “ultimate journalistic fantasy” after leaving the news business. The former Chicago Tribune sports writer, who gained a national following—and, at times, citywide scorn—for his relentless, guileless coverage of the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era, is blogging hard again about the Bulls—for the Bulls.
It’s an odd wedlock, to be sure, and one that justifiably arouses suspicions about what the writer had to give up in order to keep practicing his trade. To hear Smith tell it, he has bridged the holy divide between journalism and public relations with his integrity and incredulousness intact, and with more freedom than he had before. Of course, things are glorious in Chicago these days, with the Bulls enjoying their best season since Michael Jordan won his sixth championship in 1998, so the team and its blogger-in-chief acknowledge that their relationship isn’t currently being stress-tested.
In March, when I met the sixty-three-year-old Smith near his home in Aurora, Illinois, he had just returned from Miami, where the Bulls’ season-sweeping road victory over the Heat had sent him off on a 2,365-word soliloquy. It was a typical Smith offering: long and obscenely thorough, less a recap than an elucidation of the season as seen through the various subplots of a single game. Among the many things he enjoys, post-newspaper, is that there’s no editor to chop up his sentences. “Now, if you read me you know me a little better,” Smith says, “because now you can hear my voice better.”
This is not the first time that Smith has gone against the conventional wisdom of his beat. In 1993, he cemented his status as the doyen of Bulls sportswriters with his best-selling book, The Jordan Rules, which painted a detailed and not always flattering account of Michael Jordan in his first championship run. By revealing the superstar’s petulant and spiteful side, Smith broke something of a sacred vow in Chicago media—Thou shall not blaspheme His Airness—and became the target of criticism from some fans and fellow reporters alike. Among the latter, some knocked Smith for saving his goods for a book, as opposed to putting them in the paper, while others condemned him for simply publishing them at all.
Smith has no regrets for the things he put in the book and the things he didn’t. “The day The Jordan Rules came out,” he recalls, “I walked up to Jordan in the locker room and said, ‘I just want to let you know if you have any problems with anything, I am glad to talk about it, but I’m going to keep being here.’ And to me, that was the thing about The Jordan Rules: I didn’t write a book and go away. I wrote a book and came back.”
Indeed, over the next two decades, Smith served as the Tribune’s NBA writer, where he continued to burnish his name with a raconteur’s accounting of trade deals and coaching hires and general league skullduggery. Smith sometimes seemed to write more of what was going on around the NBA than what many team executives knew.
Smith’s former colleagues and competitors say they haven’t noticed a change in his writing now, or any evidence of suppression, and roundly say that if you still want to read the best Bulls stuff around—hell, the best NBA stuff around—you better check out Sam Smith.
Only once before in his career had Smith considered crossing the line into the realm of public relations. After starting out as a city hall reporter for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, he decided to go to Washington to cover politics. He worked for three years at an upstart newswire service, but left after a falling out with the owner. While hunting for new employment, he was offered a job as Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker’s press secretary. Smith liked Weicker—a Rockefeller Republican whose jousts with the Nixon White House earned him the nickname, “The White Knight of Watergate”—but was leery about the job. “The notion then was that if you went to the inside you could never get back out, that you were compromised,” he says.