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.
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.”
What if the Bulls’ charmed record takes a turn for the worse next season, and Smith’s coverage turns harder? “Sam wouldn’t be writing anything that talk show hosts wouldn’t be saying, that people wouldn’t be writing in newspapers in town,” says Schanwald. Smith points out that things weren’t so peachy in 2008, when the Bulls, following a season in which they finished .500 and fired their head coach, first reached out to him. And he adds: “If I were writing things that were offensive to the Bulls, I’m sure it would be an issue. But I never felt I was doing that anyway, even when I wrote The Jordan Rules.”
So is Smith influenced by the entity that signs his checks? Adee thinks Smith’s situation is no different than any other reporter’s. “Everybody has conflicts,” Adee says. “So to me, Sam’s are stated and that disclosure is very clear on the site and it is up to me to judge whether I buy that.” But Kellams, while attesting to Smith’s virtue, adds, “I don’t know if discerning fans are ever going to completely trust that stuff.”
At the beginning of this season, Smith re-upped with the Bulls for a three-year contract. He won’t say how much he earns but says it is commensurate with what he made at the Tribune. The terms of his deal remained the same: he is contracted to cover the Bulls’ games, write an NBA notes column on Monday—just as he did at the Tribune—and answer reader mail in a Friday column. He posts game follow-ups directly to the website once he’s finished them, and the typos are all his own.
He spends less time traveling than before, usually watching Bulls road games on TV, and has been able to avoid a lot of the scut work of latter-day beat coverage, like in-game tweeting. “I love this arrangement with the Bulls now more than anything I’ve done in sports,” he says, “because I get to write in-depth about things. It is the same concept with The Jordan Rules: I get to say what happens, but also why it happened and how it happens.”
So far, Smith says he’s faced only one losing battle with the Bulls: he’s failed to convince the team to leak him information, in spite of multiple attempts. By being an independent contractor, as opposed to an employee, Smith does not have to adhere to the restrictions the NBA places on team personnel. For example, while Bulls management is not permitted to comment on labor negotiations with the player’s union, Smith can write about them. (He recalled that at one point, the Bulls ran one of his blog items about collective bargaining by the league, just to make sure.)
“That’s why they keep me at arm’s length,” he says. “They weren’t looking at it so much journalistically as to protect themselves from other teams. They didn’t want other teams saying this was their words in effect. They wanted deniability.”
However it has come to be, Smith feels he’s never been freer. When Bulls executive John Paxson and former coach Vinny Del Negro got into an embarrassing scuffle last April, Smith deconstructed the entire affair on his blog.
The same incident snagged the Tribune’s Bulls beat writer, K. C. Johnson, who was criticized after it was revealed that he knew about the fight weeks before it became public, but opted to sit on it.
Johnson responded in print, writing that his decision was based on a “humane reason,” and not for any beat-sweetening journalistic purpose. But Smith—who claims he didn’t know about the fight until it was reported elsewhere—won’t let his former colleague off so easily. “K.C. did what every good beat writer does,” he says. “You measure your priorities.”