SI 60 Q&A: Gary Smith on his award-winning morality tale about Richie Parker
Gary Smith retired last spring after more than 30 years of writing brilliantly for Sports Illustrated. During his illustrious career with SI, nine of Smith's stories were nominated for National Magazine Awards, in either the profile or feature writing category. He won four times, including for "Crime And Punishment," from the June 24, 1996 issue, which was judged the best feature story in American magazines that year. I spoke to Smith recently about the piece and the lessons it still carries today.
SI: How did you first hear about Richie Parker?
SMITH: A friend of mine named Cal Fussman, who is a writer with Esquire, was living on Long Island and he just started sending me envelopes every two or three days with two or three New York Post stories with big bold headlines about this kid named Richie Parker. They just kept coming for a month or so with a scrawled note in there that said, “You need to write about this, there’s something with real depth to be written here.”
Finally after that inundation I just said, he’s right, and started the steps to follow the chain.
That’s really what that story was, following the links in the chain. Realizing the farther I went in that chain how much this story could suggest or reveal about American's relationship with sports and the torquing we have to do sometimes in that relationship and how compromised we can all get and the contortions we can all go into to justify our love of sports.
SI: Those are certainly issues that fans have had to deal with lately, particularly in the NFL.
SMITH: Right. So many things came into play there: morality, ethics and what really matters, where do we draw the line or do we just compartmentalize sports off to the side and say, I don’t care very much if the performer is compromised.
From these young athletes and then to college coaches and then to the university presidents who were part of [the Parker saga] and then down the line to even the media’s role in all this. We usually just take one of those aspects and dive into that, but to have a story that could serve to take 20 steps back and look at the whole trajectory of a piece and see how it plays out on every link of the chain was kind of a unique opportunity.
SI: You separated the story into 12 "chapters" about the various links, the central characters in the drama.
SMITH: Yeah, and that’s why I chose the wording I did: “Here is a man,” “Here is a coach,” “Here is a principal.” I wanted to simplify it because it can also get very confusing. If you started jumbling this whole thing up it could get chaotic. But to tease the pieces apart and see how this leads to that leads to that leads to that … hopefully it starts to dawn on the reader, Oh now I see. This is the part of sports happening unconsciously and maybe I don’t -- or really I do -- want to lay claim to it and lay ownership to my part in the chain. Because the fan is really the unspoken piece of that story. I never blamed him but [I wanted to ask], what is your part in this? Do you want to pretend it away or do you want to own it?
It was really designed as a bit of a high wire act where you don’t ever want to tip too far to one side or the other. When you may think that you’ve arrived at your conclusion, maybe you haven't. There’s some silence at the end of that discussion rather than a conclusion. Maybe by the end of this piece you are not so sure and you’re scrounging around and shaking your head and not so decisive about where you fall on these things, because they are complicated and there’s so much nuance.
Here was a chance to sit with all that and look at all those nuances and hopefully come away not so sure about all this as you were, and then deciding, Am I going to continue to pretend that away or am I going to maybe start looking at the whole thing differently?
SI: Did you have your own feelings about who was right and who was wrong when you started reporting the story?
SMITH: I was not coming in there to judge, I was going in there to understand. That gave the [people in the story] the safety to discuss what their fears were and how they could see the argument to just shut a kid off and cast him out of the gates. They weren’t just arguing for their side, they would look on the other side of the fence. Getting them in the full bloom inside themselves would be getting the reader to feel what they felt. I was really fortunate in that piece to have a number of people who had those minds and hearts.
The more I went on with that story the more I realized the complexity goes on and on. The people we identify as the villains from a distance have a lot of good intentions and a lot of good reasons for those intentions. This is not an easy board game to move your pieces around on. You’re kind of moving in the twilight. It’s shady and shadowy and you’re not sure. You could easily go on a sports talk radio show and do a 15 minute harangue on some of these guys, but once you got through this you wouldn’t be so sure about it. So it was kind of a counter approach to the sports talk world.
SI: How did you single out the people to tell the story though?
SMITH: Certain ones just jumped up and demanded to be centered upon. Stephen Trachtenberg at George Washington University was such an interesting character. He was smart and willing to explore all the pockets of this thing and so self-aware as he was going through it how all the different moves he was making were being perceived.
The high school principal is the frontline person. She’s got a kid who has been totally good to this moment and knowing how good his life has been and where it’s going to go. Then the whole question of the second chance is woven throughout the story, and it’s something we believe in so much in America -- and it’s woven throughout sports -- but we can be totally contradictory and say, "That guy can never again be seen on the face of the earth." Taking into account that in a lot of these cases you’re throwing a way a whole human life.
The principal knows him and his family and his poor mom and is just weighing so many other factors. They’re really important, significant things that the principal had to decide.
SI: The most powerful vignette might be the one about Jill Agostino, the newspaper copy editor who wrote about her experience having been sexually assaulted. How did you get her to talk to you?
SMITH: When I was researching anything that had been written on this, I came across Jill’s editorial on the subject and just thought, Wow this person would be great to talk to. For good reason she had a lot of hesitation about it. It was a very gentle process that had to unfold to give her enough assurance that it was a worthy endeavor for the piece and for the issue that she was obviously so concerned with.
Having her in the story was especially critical because the victim wasn’t ready to step up and voice that side of the piece, but it had to have that component or the piece would have lost its balance. It would have been really distorted without that voice. The fact that she was willing to stand up for the victim’s side and voice what you go through when you experience something like that that really kept the piece from falling off the wire.
SI: Did you reach out to the victim?
SMITH: I tried and had a brief section that covered some of the bases but they weren’t really ready to have her open up. It was either her or her parents, I can’t remember which but probably both.
SI: Did you sense that these people wanted to justify the decisions they'd made to you?
SMITH: I’m sure for any human being it’s natural to want to defend why you did what you did. But it turns out that these were all people who had, if you look at their whole life rather than this decision, you would find the soil that led to this decision and it would have made sense coming out of that soil. They sensed that I would see it coming out of a natural outgrowth of who they were and how they were raised. I think they were sincere enough to go explore the other side of it.
SI: One person in the story who seemed pretty staunch in defense of his approach, at least initially, was the newspaper reporter.
SMITH: He was explaining himself by saying, “I’m just doing my job” but by the end of it he voiced that he had some questions and some real mixed feelings. There was some real honesty there even though it initially it was, “I was just doing my job.” By the end he was starting to wonder if there were other options. I really appreciated his honesty because he could have hidden that part of it. He could have ridden that high horse all the way.
SI: Legend has it you have a rule about speaking to 50 people for every story …
SMITH: That’s not true. I don’t know where that came from, but any time anybody’s ever asked me about it, I say “Nope.” I talk to as many people as I need to to understand a story before writing it.
SI: Was there anyone you wanted to speak to for this story but didn’t? Because the ripple effects likely extended elsewhere too.
SMITH: Obviously I would have loved to talk to the victim herself if I could have. That was the main absence there but I can’t remember there being any other huge missing person there that I thought, Oh damn, this piece would have been so much better.
SI: Parker is quoted sparingly at the end. Why did you make that choice, and what did you think of Parker himself when you finally got a chance to talk with him?
SMITH: He was nice, a very quiet, pulled back kid. It seemed just talking to him on the phone that he was a shy, somewhat timid kid. I realized once I had all my material that the story is around Richie more than it is about him. This is going to be more about the vortex than the center of the vortex. That’s really where the deepest, most complex story lay, and so I wanted you to feel him just enough and get to know him just enough. I felt like if I lingered too long with him the vision I had of what the story could be wouldn’t start to get in the reader’s head, which is that this is really about more than that.
SI: Did you reach out to him at the beginning of the process or the end? Was it difficult to convince him to talk to yet another reporter? Or did he realize this was a different type of story?
SMITH: Pretty darn early and then I think I circled back toward the end again. I talked to him in person. For whatever reason there may have been a little convincing but I don’t remember there being a huge lobbying effort to get him to go along with it. From his end he may have thought, Take 1 on this story was not a pretty picture, Take 2 had to be better. I don’t know how much weighing went on in his head. He gave off a gentle spirit when we were talking.
SI: But you were able to convince him that this wasn’t another rip job.
SMITH: That was developed to me early on. It was more of my nature anyway, just really understanding that the whole dynamic for me doesn’t work if you’re coming in with preconceived notions because life surprises you continually. You’re not going to get those paradoxes and those ambiguities if you come in with a predetermined notion about human beings. Whatever trace of that may have been, if there was ever, in me it was long gone by that point. I was eager for the material that could come into your lap when you just kind if went out there with a spirit of understanding. I think I saw early on in the game how wrong judgments could be, and secondly I sensed that you would really foreclose on material if they sensed you were prejudging.
SI: Did all the complexities and the subject matter make writing this story harder than others for you?
SMITH: The big wrinkle was figuring out how to get that tone of simplicity, and then take this piece by piece and move the flashlight to the next piece and [tell the reader] don’t make up your mind because something more is coming. Then how do you translate that into your structure?
The second challenge was having that metaphor in mind of the electron and not knowing enough about that to really write it the way I wanted to write it.
SI: So what did you do?
SMITH: I just got on the phone with a College of Charleston chemistry professor and asked him, "What’s the classic example of an element that can be volatile?" and he said, "Cesium," so I just got him to flesh out what I did know. He did that for me and I was off and running with cesium.
SI: I’m sure your high school chemistry teacher was thrilled.
SMITH: (Laughs.) Yeah, my ears were nowhere near as open in high school chemistry. Anyway, it was fun when you get a sense of a metaphor that really holds up.
SI: The story happened to come out right after the saga reached a resolution of sorts with the answer to the question about whether or not he would get to play college basketball. Was that the plan, to hold the story until there was an answer there, or was it going to run at that time regardless?
SMITH: The story was going to run regardless. That news came in right at the buzzer, so that was a hasty addition.
SI: This was a rare cover story for you. Did you know it would be on the cover all along?
SMITH: As it was getting toward publication, Rob Fleder, the editor on the piece, said they were thinking about it.
Not so much for wanting my stories on the cover, but I have often felt that the pieces that got into some real depth are what make SI different from other sports magazines. When it was done really well, I thought it only made sense to put those pieces on the cover. I also thought it was a really interesting photograph of him that ran on the cover. That was where SI really works best. Not because it was my story, but when a story really goes after something big and the photography is unique as well, putting that as our face forward over just another game that blurs by in your mind is really where SI, to me, would want to plant its flag.
SI: It’s probably one of your most memorable stories. Where does it rank for you?
SMITH: Maybe a top 10 one but I have a hard time picking one or the other. Somewhere in the top 12, but what the hell do I know?
SI: Did you keep up with the people?
SMITH: Barry Baum, the reporter, stayed in touch. I think he’s in the front office of the Brooklyn Nets, he’s continued to write me notes for years since then. Every now and then I would hear something about Richie himself. Other than that I don’t think any of the other characters I kept up with.
SI: You have said you get asked about this story a lot.
SMITH: It does come up a good bit. Even right when it came out there were a lot of people talking about that feeling of being caught, just constantly feeling like they would be going one way and then, No, I can’t, that floor has been taken out from under me now that this next piece of the puzzle has been laid out there. From the response I got, it really did seem to create that sense of a hung jury. Life can be really confusing when you stop and take in all the forces that are at play and do it with an open heart.