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.”