But figuring that as long as he didn’t stay in it too long “it wouldn’t taint” him, he took the job, and, among other things, began squiring leaks from the senator to the columnist Jack Anderson. Five months later, the Tribune called with an offer in Chicago and Smith came aboard the general assignment desk. Eventually, he asked to be put on sports, where he hoped to carve out a niche covering pro basketball in a town ruled by baseball and football. And he did.
After twenty-five years at the Tribune, Smith’s exit came abruptly in the spring of 2008. He says that Mike Kellams, then the Tribune’s assistant sports editor, raised a vague formal complaint about him to then managing editor George de Lama, and Smith was summoned to the “principal’s office.” Nothing much came of this, Smith says, but he read it as writing on the wall. “I loved the job,” he says, “but I came to hate where I was doing it.” Kellams, now the paper’s associate managing editor for sports, has a different recollection of events and says he was never under the impression that Smith felt forced out. In any event, Smith moved to Phoenix, where he did some freelance work. As months passed without a job offer, he reached out first to an NBA team he will not name, and then to the Bulls, asking if he could be of service.
Back in Chicago, Steve Schanwald, the Bulls’ executive vice president of business operations, was confronting the shrinkage of the Chicago sports-journalism scene. “When the Tribune started to cut back, as when all sports sections were cutting back, we felt it was leaving a void for us to effectively market our product as we had in the past,” says Schanwald. After receiving Smith’s e-mail, Schanwald immediately invited him to Chicago. Smith was hired on a two-year deal as an independent contractor, and was told to carry on just as he had done before. According to his contract, there would be no constraints or interference from Bulls brass; his work would appear on the Bulls website and Smith would get the final say on everything he wrote.
The only thing the team insisted on was that a disclaimer appear on each of his pieces, spelling out his editorial independence and lack of special access. “I just think it is important for anybody who reads what he writes to know that Sam is not a mouthpiece,” says Schanwald. “I think it is important for other colleagues in the NBA, when he writes about other players or rumors, to know they aren’t coming from the Bulls organization.” While Smith refused to discuss the details, within his first month on the job the disclaimer was moved from the bottom to the top of the page after another NBA team raised an issue about something he had written.
Three years later, the team says it couldn’t be happier providing one of its most vigilant followers editorial independence on its own web platform. And the returns have been noticeable: the Bulls’ website’s pageviews increased 8 percent the first year of Smith’s blog, which, according to the team, currently accounts for 13 percent of its web traffic.
In recent decades, a number of ex-sportswriters have left newspapers for communications and PR jobs with the teams they once covered. Smith not infrequently hears from them and their reaction is usually the same: there is no way in hell my team would let me do what you do.
Schanwald thinks that if not for Smith, he could have made a similar arrangement with another sportswriter. But Bill Adee, a former Tribune and Sun-Times sports editor, is not so sure. “Here is a guy who was well established as a personality in town, and especially one that would take controversial stands,” says Adee, who now runs Tribune Company’s digital side. “So, I think Sam is in a different boat.”