Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Smith’s pursuit of mastering his fate and helping others become the captain of their soul

The Sports Journalism Institute is celebrating its 25th class this summer. Over the next few months we will feature the stories of some of the programs’ alums. Here we offer a look at 1995 alum Sekou Smith.

By Hayden Kim
Class of 2016

Few journalists have better people skills than Sekou Smith. Just ask anyone who has ever worked with him.
Smith, a 1995 SJI graduate, has embraced his gift to connect with people, from newspaper sports departments and television studios to NBA arenas – dating back to his early days at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. And it continues today in his current role as a senior analyst at NBA.com.
“You can watch him make the rounds in a press room and he’s talking to everybody, giving advice or helping,” said Chris Vivlamore, Hawks beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a longtime friend.
“He’s always willing to be there and have an effect on people.”
His knack for personal relationships has enabled Smith to thrive in a business that values breaking news and uniquely-angled features – both require reporters to be plugged into the community. In his second decade in the business, Smith is creating a legacy that will extend farther than his storied career. By the time, he closes up his laptop, turns off his cell phone, he may be one of the more respected basketball writers of his generation.
“He’s made his mark on certainly the journalism world,” said Marc Spears, Senior NBA Writer at the Undefeated and another longtime friend.
“I know it’s important to him to help the next man, the next woman, the next journalist of color to figure out a way in this maze that journalism is today.”
Smith has created his own path, earning respect from peers and gratitude from mentees in an industry known for offering a gig one day and the next, spitting out layoff notices.
Beneath his likability, traits most journalists would trade their list of sources over to add to their reporting repertoire, is a sense of responsibility for the man or woman of color who may follow him.
“I said to myself: ‘However many jobs I have, no matter what I’m doing, I got to do a good enough job — no matter how long I’m there — to make sure that they want to hire somebody like me,’” Smith said. “‘That means somebody will come in and don’t have to worry about being the first person to do this…’ It’s important.”

The SJI Days

Smith, like every graduate before and after, he remembers entering SJI with an open and curious mind, and leaving with a passionate purpose, to keep the vision of Sandy Rosenbush, Leon Carter and others moving forward.
Smith said he has approached every opportunity in his career with long-ranging training he learned the summer of 1995. “The best training you’ll ever get,” he called it.
Sports checks. Tight, unexpected deadlines. Competing with equally-talented peers from across the country. Learning from the best in the business.
These experiences formed the backbone to Sekou’s sustained track record of putting the job first, performing at an elite level and making sure that the stories spoke for themselves.
“I just looked at him as another journalist who did a job and did the job well,” said Rusty Hampton, his former editor at the Clarion-Ledger. “I would hope he’s opened some doors. I would hope that he’s helped people understand that color shouldn’t be a determining factor or any kind of obstacle… he proved it from the moment he walked in to the Clarion-Ledger.”

Early days in the field

Sekou spent his first decade as the youngest minority in every newsroom he entered. He remembers walking into his first SEC Media Days and realizing he was one of two people of color in a room with more than 600 members of the media. And more than a decade into his craft, he can’t forget the lack of diversity he experienced in sports departments – especially on the sports desk.
Smith’s portfolio stood out in an industry whose best looked nothing like him.
“I went into every opportunity knowing there’s something that could go on in there that could either keep me rolling or make me decide I want to do something else,” Smith said. “A lot of the time, you just roll the damn dice, and I always rolled it on myself.”
Smith maximized his natural talent as a people-person and storyteller and utilized his unwavering self-confidence, relentless work ethic and overflowing empathy to become one of the best.
“That’s something that goes back to the family, how we were bred,” Spears said. “Sekou comes from a very educated, great family. It’s natural, it’s part of our DNA. You got to appreciate who did things for you, and you got to reach down and grab somebody else and help them up.”
If Rosenbush and Carter opened the doors of journalism for Smith, he’s kept it open, helping to usher in the next generation of storytellers.
Ultimately, that’s why Smith’s job is never truly finished. More important than the latest breaking news or social media post.
“He just knows that it’s not all about him,” Spears said. “At some point in your future, there’s going to be somebody that’s going to take his torch… Hopefully they can take it to the next level, thanks to some guidance that he gave along the way.”

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