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Apr 29 / King Kaufman

Gary Smith, an all-time great writer, retiring from Sports Illustrated

Gary Smith, the legendary Sports Illustrated features writer, is retiring from the magazine. SI colleague Grant Wahl tweeted the news Monday.

Smith is a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, which is an all-time record. He’s widely regarded as the best magazine writer in the business, sports or otherwise. His four long pieces per year in Sports Illustrated would form a strong backbone for any reading list of great sportswriting. Another colleague, S.L. Price, wrote a tribute to Smith that gets at what makes his writing so good.

Smith had little interest in painting Mike Tyson or Allen Iverson as pure villains or Dean Smith as a pure hero. He knew better. His great achievement was an inversion of sport’s central allure — the way it reduces messy existence to clear winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. He made it OK to feel uncertain about the athletes we were sure we knew, to empathize more than judge, to end a story feeling more conflicted than consoled. Because at gut level- we understand: No human is ever as simple as a ball game.

I interviewed Smith in 2008, when a collection of his S.I. stories, “Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories,” was published. I asked him if there were lessons he’d taken from covering athletes for so long:

I guess the No. 1 thing is trust yourself. I described it as discomfort when you can’t find the words or the way into the story. The discomfort is less than it was years ago because I trust that something’s going to come here. Just relax, keep chewing and chewing here. That feeling of much more self-trust is probably the biggest difference, and I’m sure that’s what an athlete wants to have in his head before he walks into the arena. was planning a wider tribute to Smith that should be up by the time you read this. Go read. Update: Here you go. If you like great writing, say goodbye to the rest of your day if you click.