The best of Gary Smith: Picking the greatest stories of his SI career

In his 32 years at Sports Illustrated, Gary Smith won four National Magazine Awards for his writing.
Bill Frakes/SI

On Monday, senior writer Gary Smith retired as one of the most decorated magazine writers ever after 32 years at Sports Illustrated. Smith, 60, won four National Magazine Awards and a record 13 of his stories appeared in The Best American Sports Writing. SI senior writer S.L. Price wrote a wonderful tribute to Smith in which he identified a 1985 piece on former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown as his favorite Gary Smith story. Picking a favorite Gary Smith story is a near impossible task; there are so many great ones to choose from. When asked to pick his favorite or most memorable SI story, Smith identified two: a 1996 piece about an 18-year old mentally impaired South Carolina boy affectionately called Radio, which was made into a movie in 2003; and Damned Yankee, a 1997 story about a tormented Yankees catcher named John Malangone. "Out of all my stories, something just sticks out with those two," Smith said.

SI asked writers and editors for their favorite Gary Smith stories, and as we expected it wasn't an easy task.

Paul Fichtenbaum, Editor, Time Inc. Sports Group
Frank Hall, American Hero, June 24, 2013

Trying to pick your favorite Gary Smith story is like trying to choose which of your children you love the most -- it's an impossible task. But if I have to pick I'll point to one of his most recent longforms, the story of Frank Hall, who faced down a deadly school shooter in Chardon, Ohio. Why? First, it's remarkable that somebody can sustain a level of unmatched excellence in any craft, especially after 30 years, and Gary has done just that in telling the tale of Hall. Second, it's a helluva story, rich with details only a superior reporter can unearth, it is meticulously told with passion and emotion, and it is about a true American hero. What more can you ask?

S.L. PRICE: The Greatest: Gary Smith is retiring from magazine writing

Chris Stone, Managing Editor, Sports Illustrated
One Tough Bird, June 26, 1995

Even with the three-inch steel spur running through his skull, the Rooster did not forget the secret. My favorite Gary piece was his Richie Parker piece (Crime and Punishment), but that Roy Jones Jr. piece always stuck with me because of the lead. I've recited it dozens of times. Who could write something like that and then, 7,500 words later, make those words seem like the most logical, plausible words a writer could have chosen? Those were also the twilit years when boxing still occupied that outsized, romantic place in these pages -- and in the Gary Smith canon. Gary on Roy Jones Jr. or Tyson or Ali, Bill Nack on Hurricane Carter, Rick Hoffer on any fight on deadline. Each was a clinic. (P.S.: take a look at the cover of the issue in which the Jones piece appeared. Awesome).

Jon Wertheim, Executive Editor
Boot Camp, Feb. 7, 2000

At the 2000 Australian Open, I was a cub reporter for SI and had the supreme good fortune of trailing Gary as he wrote a piece centering on Andre Agasi and Martina Hingis. You're unlikely to find this in the Gary Smith compendium or box set; but for me it was invaluable. I saw firsthand that one of the great keys to his writing is exhaustive reporting. I had never seen a journalism pursue a subject like this, pursuing every conceivable angle, talking who anyone who might have conceivably relevant insight. Gary is a magician with words; but it's made easier when you have such an abundance of source material. That Australian Open piece? It triggered Gary's curiosity -- which has never taken much -- and provided some of the spark for this.

Chris Ballard, senior writer
Higher Education, March 5, 2001

Of all Gary's many skills as a writer, to me it's his empathy that is unparalleled. Higher Education is the story of a black basketball coach in Ohio's Amish country but, like all Gary's stories, it's about so much more than sports, or coaches. I've probably read it half a dozen times now and it never fails to force me to take a moment and step back from my own life and see the larger perspective. I spent a good part of my early career trying to write like Gary. Eventually, I realized that was both foolish and impossible. Best just to appreciate him.

Richard Deitsch, senior editor
Shadow Of A Nation, Feb. 18, 1991

Commas. In the hands of an amateur, they can murder a reader. In the hands of a master, they create poetry. I've never seen a writer use the punctuation staple as elegantly as Gary Smith did, and no piece of sports writing has witnessed commas travel with more elegance than the tale of Jonathan Takes-Enemy, Crow Nation basketball legend. Here is but one graph: Through the sage and the buffalo grass they swept, over buttes and boulder-filled gullies, as in the long-ago days when their scouts had spotted buffalo and their village had packed up its lodge poles and tepee skins, lashed them to the dogs and migrated in pursuit of the herd. Damn, that's perfect.

Richie Parker: Cover date June 24, 1996
Jeffrey Lowe/SI

Michael Farber, former senior writer
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

This was a 12-part symphony that carried me down dark and lovely passages, many of them surprising and all of them gratifying. Most important, Gary never lost the leitmotif -- the basketball player and the man. This story could have as easily been played at Carnegie Hall as read in the pages of SI.

Rob Fleder, former executive editor
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

Of course: it's almost impossible to pick just one. Hell, I just scrolled through the Gary Smith titles in the SI Vault and was tempted to just take three or four days and read the greatest hits.

But when I imagined your gun to my head and forced myself to pick just one, it had to be the Richie Parker piece. It was a story of a sexual assault by a young athlete and its devastating long-term effect on not just the central characters but an ever-widening circle of people. It was a complicated, many-layered tale, and Gary brought to it all his powers as a reporter, a writer and a deeply empathetic storyteller.

Chris Hunt, special contributor
Shadow Of A Nation, Feb. 18, 1991

Gary took a troubling theme -- the Crow Indians' prowess at basketball and their inability to use it to escape the reservation because so many players were parents and alcoholics before they finished high school -- and found its personification, the brilliant Montana prep star Jonathan Takes Enemy. Gary made readers care deeply about Jonathan and suffer with him as he struggled to break his destructive bonds with the rez. As moving a Gary Smith story as I can recall, and a deserving winner of the National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Lee Jenkins, senior writer
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

The incomparable Rick Reilly once wrote that picking his favorite Gary Smith story was like choosing his favorite child. Jim Valvano or Tiger Woods? Jamila Wideman or John Malangone? Rick is right. This is an impossible assignment. Gary could make a Philadelphia Eagles sidebar sing, and he has. I don't know if Richie Parker was Gary's best story, or in his top five, or even his top 10. I only know that I was a freshman in college when I read it, thinking I wanted to be a sportswriter, but not quite sure. Like all art, certain pieces find us and move us, when we need them most. The timing is as important as the content. Seven years after Richie Parker -- and hundreds of embarrassing Gary Smith impersonations -- I interviewed for a job at a large newspaper and recited a sentence from the story. The editor, remembering it as clearly as I did, recited along with me. That clip was more valuable than grad school. One of my early assignments at SI was the 2009 World Series between the Yankees and the Phillies. Gary was there, inconspicuous as ever, wearing a backpack and asking if he could stand in the dugout during batting practice. Most writers don't even know what he looks like because he is never on TV. Maybe that's his secret. Or maybe it's something else. I was told to prepare a feature for the magazine on the Phillies. "It will run," my editor said, "unless Gary's muse speaks to him."

Peter King, senior writer
Eyes of the Storm, March 2, 1998

The one I'll remember is the Pat Summitt story from 1998, about Summitt that was told in part through the eyes of a prize recruit from eastern Pennsylvania, the girl Summitt recruited when she was about to deliver a child. This paragraph is one of the best paragraphs I recall reading in his great stories over the years:

There are a hundred ways to write a story about a hurricane. We could watch it gather shape and strength from afar and chronicle its course. We could follow it and document its wake. But perhaps the truest way is to see and feel it through one person—one girl who ran both from it and straight at it; one girl sucked into its eye and then set down on its other side; one girl, now a woman, who has had time to sort out what it did to her life.

It was an honor to share the masthead with Gary.

Thomas Lake, senior writer
Higher Education, March 5, 2001

I'd go with Higher Education, the story of an African-American basketball coach changing lives in a small Amish town. I can't write anything about it half as good as this brief passage: At halftime he slammed the locker-room door so hard that it came off its hinges, then he kicked a crater in a trash can, sent water bottles flying, grabbed jerseys and screamed so loud that the echoes peeled paint. Kevin and his mates did what all Hawks did: gazed straight into Coach's eyes and nodded. They knew in their bones how small his wrath was, held up against his love.

Tim Layden, senior writer
Tyson the Timid, Tyson the Terrible, March 21, 1988

In the spring of 1988 I was a writer and columnist at the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union and had been covering boxer Mike Tyson, who lived and trained nearby in Catskill, N.Y., for almost two years. I felt like I knew Tyson reasonably well, as well as you could get to know him at that time. But Gary's profile of Tyson pulled back the curtains on a troubled life and helped everyone understand where the fury came from. It was spectacularly reported, right to the moment where Tyson reveals that a neighborhood boy in Brooklyn killed one of Tyson's pigeons by shaking its head off, sending Tyson into a blind rage from which he really didn't emerge for a bout a decade. Everything made more sense to me after that story, and my admiration of Gary's work was deeper than ever.

Writers and editors constantly marveled at Smith's ability to get deep into a story and uncover information that no one else could get subjects to reveal.
Bill Frakes/SI

Craig Neff, Olympics editor and former senior writer
Someone To Lean On, Dec. 16, 1996

I'll go with Someone to Lean On the story of Radio, a 50-year-old mentally impaired man who over three decades had become a beloved part of the fabric of a South Carolina high school football program. Gary's pieces have always been stories of humanity, not of athletes. They are filled with moral decisions and human frailties and moments of life-changing goodness and greatness. Why do figures like Radio, so often shunned by society, frequently find a meaningful place in high school sports? Gary describes the moment -- the powerfully human moment -- when the high school's young football coach sees Radio, then 18, being laughed at by players while trying to imitate their calisthenics. The coach could play the tough guy and run Radio off; instead he calls him over and asks him to be a team manager. Writes Gary, "The choices that make or unmake a life are so small." Almost 20 years later, I still recall welling up.

Stewart Mandel, senior writer
Blindsided by History, April 9, 2007

In only the way Gary can, he weaves a tale so detailed you would think he was there in person. But no, this is the story of a high school football team in Arkansas in 1957 going about one of the most dominant seasons of its era amidst a school shrouded in a horrible segregation showdown. And of course he puts his own unique spin on it by bringing in the current-day (2006) team as a narrative device. You couldn't put it down.

Jack McCallum, former senior writer
Moment of Truth, July 26, 1999

Every year in my Sport, Culture, Media class at Muhlenberg College I have the students read Gary's story on Pat Tillman because it resonates in so many contemporary ways. But the Gary story that resonates with me is the narrative he spun from the photo of the 1957 TCU football team before the Cotton Bowl. It had action, perspective, pathos, joy and exquisite turns of phrase and generally debunks the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words -- this one needed the words.

Michael Rosenberg, senior writer
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

My favorite Gary Smith story is Crime and Punishment. I suspect that would get the most votes among Gary Smith fans; certainly it would in the top five. It is Smith at his best: diving into a compelling subject, observing what nobody else sees, placing it into societal context, and structuring it for maximum effect without seeming contrived. But that's not the story I think of first when I think of Gary Smith.

Instead, I think of "He Has Overcome," his 1994 profile of Lenny Wilkens. Writers read stories in a different way than most readers. An NBA general manager once told me he couldn't enjoy his team's games because "I see too much" -- even when his team scored, he saw the mistakes that the casual fan missed. That was his profession, and this is mine. I read He Has Overcome, and I see where so many other writers would have failed.

Most people would consider Lenny Wilkens boring, and most writers would write boring Lenny Wilkens stories. What did Smith do? He found the small contours of a personality that seemed flat, held them to the light, and told a riveting story of an African-American man pursuing excellence in a country that judged him by his skin color.

Wilkens tells Smith: "I was learning to watch people, to read eyes and body language. I never let anyone know what I was thinking or feeling. I worked at that. I really didn't care if people misread me. If I read them and they misread me, it's to my advantage."

To get that revealing quote, Smith needed to understand Wilkens as well he understood himself. Otherwise, how would he even know what to ask? The depth of reporting is astounding. He learns that Wilkens only sweats through his feet, and that he notices when his wife has used his car because the wheels are parked at a slightly different angle, and he explains what it all means.

Reporting is the gathering of secrets, and writing is how you reveal them. This story is a reminder that Smith combined the two as well as any sportswriter ever.

Lindsay Schnell, staff writer
The Rapture of The Deep, July 16, 2003

Much like a generation of wannabe hoopers grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, a generation -- or was it generations? -- of aspiring sports writers grew up devouring Gary Smith's work. That's how I always described him to people unfamiliar with his role in journalism: For sportswriters, he was our version of Michael Jordan. He was the greatest of all time, and he set the standard. Picking your favorite Gary Smith story is both a cruel and wonderful game; by choosing one you're leaving out so many gems, but it also gives you an excuse to dive back into his expansive archive. For me, The Rapture of The Deep hit hardest. I'll forever remember sitting on my parents' couch, ignoring chores, as I got lost in a magnificent story. So many times I've gone back to re-read it, hoping I can take an analytical view to understand how he captured such a complex story and made it so simple, but every time, I get lost again in his beautiful, powerful storytelling. Who knew deep sea diving could be so intriguing, so heartbreaking and so romantic? If Gary Smith taught us anything, it is that the best stories are often in dark corners others have overlooked or underestimated. I'm forever grateful for his work, but most of all, for his kindness toward all of us who just wanted to be like him.

Andy Staples, senior writer
Ali and His Entourage, April 25, 1988
Walking His Life Away, July 26, 2004

Why are endings so difficult? Maybe it's because we have the inverted pyramid drilled into our heads from the moment we pick up a notepad. Get the good stuff up high. Leave the trash at the end in case the copy desk needs to cut it because the Phillies pitcher threw a no-hitter and they need more space elsewhere on the page. Or maybe it's because most of us aren't that good. We have these great ideas, but we didn't interview enough people or gather enough background info to carry that idea for 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 words.

Gary Smith is that good. Read these two stories. This one is about America's most iconic athlete. This one is about a race walker you've probably never heard of. The final sentence of the first story is six words long. The final sentence of the second story is five words long. Those two sentences are better than most stories you'll read. Those two sentences are beautiful not because of any particular combination of nouns and verbs, but because Gary made you care so damn much about the thousands of words that came before them.

And that's the hard part.

Pat Tillman: cover date, Sept. 11, 2006.
Courtesy of the Tillman family

Phil Taylor, senior writer
Just Pray for Me, Baby, July 20, 1988

I've been asked to pick my favorite Gary Smith story before, and I've found it's best to go with the first one that comes to mind at that moment. Otherwise I torture myself trying to choose between all the memorable ones. This time around, that story is Just Pray for Me, Baby, the piece Gary did about Michael Spinks in advance of his title fight against Mike Tyson in 1988. I was amazed at the daring way he wrote it, as a sort of internal conversation that Spinks was imagining with his young daughter. He used slang and street vernacular in the process, taking such big chances with his style. Reading it was like watching a pilot swooping and rising and dipping all over the place, but in complete control of the plane. I didn't really know you could tell a non-fiction story that way. But it wasn't just the style of writing that gripped me, it was the detail Gary included. How did he get Spinks to reveal himself so completely, to talk about fear and grief, about the time he heard a song on the car radio that made him start crying so hard behind the wheel that he could hardly see and breathe? As a young writer, I remember thinking that I didn't just want to read this guy's stories, I wanted sit in on his interviews. Just to see him get inside people. Just to learn.

So that's my favorite Gary Smith story, today.

Pete Thamel, senior writer
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

Upon reading and re-reading, the thing that stands out with the Richie Parker story is how Smith organizes such a complex topic and seamlessly weaves it all together from every possible perspective. Smith gets you so deeply invested in the characters, and the story is so intricately told, yet at the end you have no idea how you should feel. It's a jumble of emotion, from rage to empathy, and the hallmark of a perfectly told story.

Tom Verducci, senior writer
The Ripples on Little Lake Nellie, July 12, 1993

The Ripples on Little Lake Nellie is one of the finest pieces of nonfiction writing ever produced. It featured Gary at his unmatched best: thorough reporting, lyrical writing and the skill to tap and present raw human emotion with understated elegance.

Grant Wahl, senior writer
The Secret Life of Mia Hamm, September 22, 2003

Mia Hamm is one of the greatest U.S. athletes of the past 30 years, but she wasn't an easy nut to crack during her playing days if you were a sports journalist. One of the qualities that made her such a respected player inside the U.S. team was her utter lack of interest in talking about herself. But that's also what put Hamm right in Gary Smith's wheelhouse. Gary's mix of acute observation, empathy, ace interview skills and pure doggedness allowed him to get great stuff on Hamm from the people who knew her -- and, in time, from Hamm herself. The result is the most revealing profile of Hamm ever written.

Luke Winn, senior writer
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

I was 15 years old when the SI with Gary Smith's Crime and Punishment on the cover showed up at my house in Wisconsin. For a kid who hoped to someday write for SI, Smith's story about former New York high-school basketball star Richie Parker was a revelation. It offered no guide as to who was right and who was wrong. Its arc contained little closure. All it tried to do was understand and empathize from all sides. It was a lot for me to process at that age, and I could not get it out of my head -- both as an example of peerless sportswriting and a lesson on how to treat subjects who've been painted as villains. It was, and still is, the most human thing I've ever read.

Alexander Wolff, senior writer
The Unexpected Hero, July 26, 2010

Gary usually trafficked in the grand themes that touch on the people who play and coach games -- life, death, fear, courage, redemption. So it might seem strange that I still can't let go of his story about a passionate fan who simply wanted Floyd Little enshrined in the Hall of Fame -- wanted it more, even, than Little himself did, and quietly, doggedly, creatively (like a Hall of Fame athlete) led a lonely campaign that ultimately succeeded. Most of us think of the divide between fan and hero as an unbreachable wall; the beauty of that story lay in how Gary showed that wall reduced to rubble.

Don Banks, senior writer
Damned Yankee, Oct. 13, 1997

It's almost impossible to choose, but in my favorite, most memorable Gary Smith story, "Damned Yankee,'' he exquisitely captures the secret torment of little-known former Yankees catching prospect John Malangone, who once was seen as the likely successor to Yogi Berra in the late 1950's. But Malangone never made the majors, his promise blocked by the haunting sense of guilt and fear he carried in the wake of a childhood accident that devastated his family. At the age of 5, Malangone had thrown a makeshift javelin with kids in the neighborhood, and it wound up hitting and killing his 7-year-old uncle, who was also his closest friend.

Believing himself a murderer who would eventually be found out and punished, Malangone ultimately wouldn't let himself succeed in baseball or life. Illiterate and held in the grip of his troubled past, he grew up with demons he could not shake until long after his baseball carer had failed and his dreams of being a Yankee had died. It's a heart-breaking story of self-destruction and the long, painful road to self-forgiveness, and Smith's mesmerizing narrative brings the power of both to light. In typical Smith style, the complex and nuanced portrait that emerges of Malangone through the years contains a sense of the humanity that in some part each of us can relate to.

Chris Burke, NFL blogger
Remember His Name, September 11, 2006

The very last line of Gary Smith's illuminating piece on Pat Tillman -- "Doing something he loved to do just because it was hard and scary, sort of like telling the truth." -- references not Tillman's decision to leave the NFL to serve in the military post-9/11 nor Tillman's tragic death in the field. Instead, Smith here is calling back his lead, and a photo of Tillman doing handstands on the roof of his parents' home. Such was Smith's brilliance in making every detail, every single word of his articles carry maximum weight. Reading Remember His Name felt as if a thrilling, emotional military epic had been ripped from the big screen and recreated on the pages of a magazine. It hit newsstands at approximately the same time that I entered the world of professional sports journalism, at once providing me writing to aspire to ... and setting a bar that I knew I likely would never be able to reach.

Doug Farrar, NFL blogger
Crime and Punishment, June 24, 1996

While I have great respect for everyone who has written takeout pieces in the long Sports Illustrated tradition, Gary Smith has always stood above and apart when it comes to longform. And to me, there's no better example of his mastery of the format than Crime and Punishment, the story of high school basketball star Richie Parker. Few would be able to bring Smith's sense of nuance and humanity to a story about a teenage athlete convicted of sexual abuse. But he brought several stories to the fore, and tied them all together. Parker's story, the story of Parker's former assistant principal who tried to help and protect him, the story of the newspaper copy editor who was forced to face her own painful past through Parker's story, the stories of the college coaches and administrators who dropped Parker like a hot potato when the story went viral. On and on and on. Though this incredible story, Smith was able to tie everything together and reveal the innate complexities of Parker's story in ways that most writers would not be able to do in a single-subject piece -- never mind something this deep.

Wright Thompson, senior writer, & ESPN The Magazine
No Man Is An Island, April 12, 1999

Gary Smith's profile of David Duval isn't his best story, or his most famous, or even my favorite, but it is the one that changed my life. It came out in the spring of 1999, after I'd started covering sports for the Columbia Missourian and decided that my greatest dream would to one day write magazine stories. That story was the first one I remember after I became aware of the legend of Gary Smith -- and to see someone with his reputation risk and gain so much on a story made me understand the stakes and challenges of my chosen craft. That day, the measuring stick of Gary first entered my life. It has never gone away, and I constantly ask myself the question I first began asking after reading about David Duval -- a question an entire generation of sportswriters have asked: What Would Gary Do?

Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports columnist
As Time Runs Out, June 11, 1993

I can tell you in five seconds without looking. The Jimmy V story, which was astoundingly powerful at every turn. Just brilliant. In the lead though, he mentions all these ailments Valvano is suffering through and writes, that's the disease. Then he lists a bunch more and says, that's the cure. I found that to be among the two greatest sentences I've ever read by anyone in any genre. Just expressed the completely devastating fight Valvano was in.

Rick Reilly, former Sports Illustrated senior writer and ESPN commentator
Damned Yankee, Oct. 13, 1997

It's an odd thing to have a god as a buddy, but Gary Smith is that to me. We've been drinking, traveling and writing pals for almost 30 years now. We've been roommates, co-conspirators, therapists, trip-advisors and each other's coat to tug on. And yet every time he writes, he becomes my teacher.

Of all the rich Gary Smith tapestries that hang, my favorite is Damned Yankee, the story of a five-year-old boy who accidentally kills his best friend with a homemade javelin and torments himself for 60 years over it, ruining a potentially great catching career with the Yankees.

Read it and see if you find a single "he said/she said" quote in it. There are none, only scenes, woven so perfectly together that you feel as if you're in a movie that's too good to go get popcorn. Gary never starts writing a piece until he's spoken to 50 people. And not just once. Often, he calls them back a dozen times after the first visit. I've been in the room when he does it. "Nancy, I'm so sorry to call you again on this ... yes, I know, sorry, sorry ... right, this is the last time ... right, really sorry ... but I just want to make SURE I know what that moment was like." And an hour later, Nancy will finally get to hang up.

Read it and be rewarded with all the detail. With that kind of inexhaustible reporting, he doesn't need quotes. He can show you. He can plop you down right there, in East Harlem, in 1952, on a sweltering day "up on the roof with Uncle Duffy's pigeons ... playing checkers and eating linguini with red sauce bare-chested."

Read it and notice how luxuriously he treats you. The blocks of writing are short, the narration is constantly broken up, the time shifted, the scenes changed, the pace furious. You are swept along as if in rushing rapids and Gary has the only paddle and you are happy. You're in that wonderful place that reading so rarely gives you, hoping it never ends.

Read it and tell me if you can find a single sentence that doesn't absolutely have to be there. Gary and I and bottles of Zinfandel have ruminated on good writing for hours at a time. But the thing that matters to him the most -- and is the most exhausting -- is ridding his pieces of every sentence that isn't essential, no matter how tenderly he loved it. That's why it takes him two months to finish most of his pieces. That's why he cocoons himself in his attic in Charleston. That's why his wife Sally doesn't see him for days at a time. That's why, when he comes out, at last, he looks rumpled and bleary and confused, like a man who's been locked in a hot box. Wait, what day is it?

Gary Smith is the finest magazine writer that's ever been -- on any subject -- and now he's retiring from magazine writing. But I'm thrilled to know my teacher will go on writing books. And when they come out, I will lock myself in a room with no paddle and be happy.

In 2008, Gary Smith published an anthology of some of his best work -- Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.

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