Q&A With Sekou Smith of the Atlanta Journal Constitution
For those who may not know you, give us a brief introduction about yourself.
My name is Sekou Smith I cover the Atlanta Hawks and the NBA for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Been here since 2005, before that worked for the Indy Star, left there a month after the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl. Watching this franchise evolve from the crapper to the playoff team for the last 2 years, I cover it, blog it, tweet it and everything else.
Why did you decide to enter Sports Journalism?
At Jackson state university, my second year I had a professor who guided me into taking some journalism classes, he was a columnist for the local newspaper in Jackson. He introduced me to an editor and sports editor, sportswriter there and they kind of recruited me and groomed me from there. Spent the last 3 years at school working at the newspaper covering high school sports, Sec sports and pretty much everything else. II kind of got on the job training through school and after I graduated, I started working full time and been doing it ever since, it’s been 17 years since I got started in the business.
What do you think about the rise of digital media and the decline of the newspaper?
It’s really a long time coming, when I got into the business as a student I was reading newspaper websites and message boards. I know writers who from an early age wanted to be sportswriters their whole lives; I kind of came into it from the flipside from a fans perspective and dived into it as a young adult. I embraced the digital side of it long before it became en vogue, I used to have heated debates with long time writers about how we need to think outside the box and how websites and media were going to change the business.
It’s the wave of the future, its just about changing, have to be prepared for change and embrace it. I think the demise of newspapers has been overstated. I think all of us writers, bloggers, etc… Are a lot of those things in one now and part of a bigger mechanism which is journalism and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The way we do things has changed, is changing, and will change in the future and we have to be ready for it.
There are blogs that are more informative, insightful and important than many papers and that’s just a fact. That’s why a lot of people turn to them for information. The key for a guy like me or Marcus Thompson is that we have to function as a beat writer and supplement that with blogs, twitter, chats, etc… When I got on Facebook, I remember people initially telling me to not be on Facebook or other social media sites at work. Now a few years later, a part of the job is to be on Facebook and twitter. Constantly updating the people on Facebook, twitter, etc… About what’s going on, your pieces of work and what not.
The newspaper industry itself is trying to see where it fits into this digital market and us as individuals are doing the same by marketing ourselves making sure what our doing s relevant and people are looking at it on a newspaper, online, blackberry or whatever. You have to make sure what you’re doing is reaching the masses and you have to spread your own word to get it out there.
What’s your take on the sensitivity of organizations in regards to what gets written and talked about them in the media?
I heard about the Raymond Ridder situation, hated to see him involved in anything because that’s my guy and he’s been great to me over the years. Organizations’ get sensitive about getting trashed, I’ve written my share of critical pieces on the Hawks during my time here and I try to maintain that the criticism is based in reality and not anything without proof or ability to back it up. I think the Hawks are in a different situation because they’re in a sports town which is really hard on its team. The Atlanta Falcons have never had back to back winning seasons, that was staggering to hear when I first got here and the Hawks went a solid decade out of the playoffs, which Warriors fans can relate to. The Hawks have understood that you can shut up the criticisms and complaints by winning and they’ve don’t that the last couple of seasons. The criticism has shifted from you can’t make the playoffs to you’ve made the playoffs now what? And that’s criticism any organization would welcome.
What’s your take on the Warriors from the outside looking in?
I look at them and to me they’re at where the Hawks were two years in ago in that I see all the right pieces and the right mix of talented youth with the veterans you need to get the process moving along. Randolph is the x-factor, if you can find a way to tap into all the talent he has to bring the best out of him; he’s the guy that can make them a different team.
From the outside looking in, it just looks like there’s so much going on out there. The sole focus is not on winning basketball games because there is so much stuff off the court and in the front office that it does have an impact on the players. In other organizations, the Coach and GM are usually able to shield the team from the extra drama. Talking to Crawford, he didn’t sound hurt over leaving Golden State. He didn’t say anything bad about the Warriors but like Harrington when he left he was excited moving forward and only sad part was leaving the Bay Area as well as playing in front of the great fans in Golden State. When you haven’t been successful you have to wonder if there’s something fundamentally wrong with the organization. It’s tough when you get in that charged up political environment where the agenda is not simply winning games. The agenda should be to put a team together that can compete and win games, you can have all the bells and whistles, marketing and extras but if you’re not winning its all a moot point.
The Warriors have had no success in terms of playoff appearances other than a couple of years during Chris Cohan’s tenure as owner. They made the playoffs in 2007 but it seems from that point on they’ve regressed rather than progressed.
My best friend is a principal out in West Oakland; he’s been out there for close to 9 years and loves the Warriors. He’s of the belief that the Warriors are one of those franchises that loves to afflict heartache on people. The fall of the team after the playoff run was catastrophic and I don’t imagine any team who has such a phenomenal run and experiences such highs has dreams of blowing the team apart, taking steps backward but sometimes you can outsmart yourself and that’s what happened with the Warriors. You can’t lose the core group of that playoff team and expect to pick up where you left off, its not logical. That’s one reason why I like what the Hawks did this summer because they didn’t decide to part ways with guys from their playoff team and break the continuity. Generally, you don’t build a team overnight, you can go out and purchase one like Boston did and I’m not knocking them its just that you have to do whatever it takes to be successful. The chances of you building a successful team by changing the parts year after year are impossible that’s why you have to do your homework on your own team and make sure you don’t do something that takes away from your product rather than strengthen it. Sometimes you have to let a team grow from season to season as best you can and that’s where success will come from in terms of consistency.
There’s a lack of structure in the Warriors Front Office, no clear cut leader and it seems individuals are trying to make their own moves.
I loved the pieces they had on the team that went to the playoffs you can’t pay for the kind of magic they generated that year. They had some older guys in Baron, Stephen, and Al who were seasoned vets and they had young talented guys in Monta, Jason and Andris which created a mix of guys who fit together and dialed it up to another level in the playoffs. To get into the playoffs the way they did and to accomplish what they did in the playoffs should’ve bought them the opportunity to continue to grow together along with adding on rather than subtracting. I don’t know who was making the decisions and pulling the strings out there but I know that you better have the proper people in place otherwise its not going to end up well.
What did you think about the Jamal Crawford trade? How does it impact both teams?
I love the move- it came out of nowhere out here, we knew the Hawks were busy checking into different things but the Crawford deal was a bit unexpected. Obviously the Warriors wanted to move Crawford and the Hawks had two guys in Speedy Claxton and Acie Law who weren’t in the rotation last year and weren’t likely to be in the rotation this season either. To get a player who scores 20 points a night and can play off the bench or as a starter at multiple positions is a no-brainer for the Hawks. If you would’ve told anyone out here that they could get a player like Crawford for Speedy Claxton they would have laughed at you because of injuries along with other reasons Speedy’s time with the Hawks was a bust. So to get Crawford for Speedy and Law who hasn’t lived up to expectations is a good move for the Hawks. Why it works so well for the Hawks is that they get a motivated Jamal Crawford coming in here simply looking to win and willing to do whatever it takes to do so because he’s tired of playing for losing teams. The only thing more motivating for a guy other than playing for a contract is a guy who is trying to win and that’s when you usually see the best from a player.
Crawford’s going to be coming off the bench in Atlanta?
I think they’ll be bringing him off the bench but he’ll be on the court at the end of games with Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson in a 3 guard set. Having those 3 on the court at the end of games allows the Hawks to have their 3 best ball handlers and scores on the court playing together. Makes sense to play them together especially at the end of games.
Talk about Acie Law, what type of player is he and what can we expect to see from him in Golden State?
Acie had a bit of a tragic run with the Hawks in that every time he got solid minutes he was successful but would wind up getting hurt. He’s had a wrist injury; ankle injury and last year suffered from back and hamstring injuries which limited his time on the court.
His game is more suited for the style the Warriors play- up-tempo, pick and roll, get to the rim type of situation. I worry about his confidence after his time with the Hawks and that he’s not in such a big funk from his time with the Hawks that it affects his psyche and confidence. Mike Woodson is tough on young players and demanded a lot of Acie right away. There was no Mike Bibby on the team to soften the blow, Acie was put in a situation where he had no wiggle room and was thrown in there from the beginning.
It’s going be tough sledding in Golden State because he didn’t go to a situation where there are a lot of open minutes at the guard position. He may or may not be in the plans and basically has to earn his keeps because he’s got the stains of his first two years on his resume where people are doubting him and labeling him a bust.
Seeing Law play in the Las Vegas Summer League, I saw a guy with bad body language, not in great shape and he didn’t really stand out.
He’s such a talented dude and excellent guy I hate to see him struggle. I wrote a story about him his rookie season about how he had the weight of his entire family on his shoulders as they all relocated to Atlanta from Dallas to be his support group. It’s hard to get over the initial shock of being a high draft pick and having things not work out they way you want them to; its going to be a test of his character to see if he’ll find a way to get minutes in Golden State and turn his career around. It’s going to be challenging because he’s not going to get the consistent minutes to prove himself so he has to find other ways to show Nellie and everyone else that he’s deserving of consistent minutes.
You know Stephen Jackson from your time covering the Indiana Pacers, if he’s on your team you love him, if you’re playing against him you love to hate him. Is Stack Jack one of the most misunderstood individuals in the NBA?
I’m different than some people in that I don’t count tattoos and pass judgment on guys instead I go off how they interact and treat me. Jack has always been fabulous and shown respect whenever we’ve spoken, what more can you ask for. As far as teammates go, you couldn’t have a more fearless cat on your team, even in the brawl in Detroit he went into the stands to back up a teammate it wasn’t as if he started the fight or went looking for problems.
Former NBA player Steve Smith is a good friend & neighbor of mine and I asked him about Jack a while back. Steve loved him, loved the way he played and how he wanted to win above all else. When older NBA players gush and talk about players who come behind them I listen to their opinions over people who tend to complain and find faults in players. I can care less about some of the antics that others focus on because I get on the referees just as much as Jack because they some of them are crappy. The Warriors are lucky to have Jack on their team and if they didn’t want him there’s a long list of teams that would.
There was a lot of noise out here when Jack got his extension, do you think it was a good move to give Jack a 3 year extension?
I think Brian Cardinal got a $39 Million dollar contract and I’m not knocking another man’s money ever but if you want to be mad at contracts in the NBA I wouldn’t red flag Jack’s for concern because Jack actually produces. There are plenty of other guy’s pulling down more than they ought to be f you’re looking at production so Jack shouldn’t even be on the list when discussing bad contract’s in the NBA.
Covering the Pacers, were you in Detroit the night of the infamous Pistons-Pacers Brawl?
Yeah, I was there sitting behind the Pacers bench with Mark Montieth another beat writer for the Pacers. It was a unique situation because I believe it was the first matchup between the teams since the Eastern Conference Finals the season prior. The Pacers were giving it to the Pistons on their home floor and we saw Artest give Ben Wallace a nasty hard foul which we knew would result in Ben coming back down court and returning the favor. It was normal hard basketball which resulted in pure craziness and as Artest lay on the table I could see the cup come flying in then hit Artest.
The entire situation could have been prevented if the referees had grabbed Artest, got both Artest and Wallace off the court immediately or a handful of different things which could have avoided the mess that ensued. It was a frantic night for everyone including us in the media as we’re in the midst of it and trying to cover it at the same time.
Being from Michigan, it was a good thing that it happened in Oakland County and not somewhere in the heart of Detroit because it would’ve been a whole different story. If Artest and Jackson went into the crowd there it would have been a different reaction than just beer and punches being thrown. It’s not something I’m particularly proud about being there in person but I guess I’m one of the 20,000+ thousand people who happened to be there that night.
Must’ve been a surreal night?
Mark Montieth kept elbowing me after the Artest hard foul because we knew something was going to happen, we thought Artest and Wallace would just scrap for a few but that’s not how it went down. It was jaw-dropping; I stayed in Detroit for a couple days after to cover the fallout from Detroit while Mark went back to Indianapolis to cover it from the Pacers angle.
There were so many people on their cell phones that all the circuits were down so when I got to my rental car at 3am in the morning I had so many calls and texts about the situation. My mom called me about 6 times asking if I get involved in the fight but I told her I didn’t get anywhere near the punches. The day after at breakfast we still couldn’t believe what had happened the night prior, calling it surreal is the best description.
Being that you were right behind the Pacers bench when everything was going down, did you happen to see the fans run on the court and engage the Pacers players physically?
Yeah, that was going on right in front of us. Anthony Johnson, who was inactive, was in a suit, he caught a guy with a right hook. People who were behind us were trying to hop the ledge to get closer to the floor and the action.
My biggest thing about that night was that you can buy a ticket to come watch, yell and heckle but when you cross the line and enter the action where the players are working, you are asking for whatever you get. There’s a clear separation between the floor and stands, the fans and players both have to respect it otherwise whatever happens is what you deserve. I’m hoping to never see anything like that in my career again.
Did you get a chance to go into the locker room afterwards?
ESPN was broadcasting the game so only Jim Gray was the only reporter allowed to go into the Pacers locker room while the rest of us had to wait outside for the players to come talk to us. We got to talk to some of the coaches and players as they were walking to the bus; they were all shook up and said the same thing about how they couldn’t believe what had just happened.
I hadn’t seen that footage in quite a while and when Artest signed with the Lakers they played a clip of the brawl and it seems so long ago because I don’t pay attention to it or go to YouTube to relive the good ol’ days.
Due to the circumstances, they enacted some impromptu media rules that night which we didn’t appreciate and tried to work around. It was without a doubt the longest day of work I’ve ever had for sure.
Artest is forever going to be known for his role in the brawl; it’s the first thing that is brought up when people talk about him.
Unfortunately for him it’s a stain he won’t live down along with other stuff which is part of his profile. It’s something he won’t live down because even 20-30 years from now it’s going to be part of his profile as a NBA player.
Artest to the LA Lakers, good move?
It’s a good move for the Lakers because I don’t think anyone would argue that Trevor Ariza is better than Artest, he’s younger but Artest is an upgrade for the Lakers.
The key for the Lakers is to keep Lamar Odom because when he played well the Lakers were untouchable. If they don’t keep Odom it changes a lot of things out West. There’s a lot to be said for the chemistry of a championship team and it shouldn’t be messed with too much as you can lose it real quickly.
Odom allows the Lakers to be versatile in the way they play, would you consider Odom to be one of the underrated players in the League?
He’s one of my favorite players in the league because it’s hard to find guys his size possessing his skill set. People are always complaining about him not being consistent and doing it every night to which I say if every player played up to 100% of his skill and capability we’d have a league full of superstars, it’s not feasible. Guys are who they are and you have to appreciate players with whatever flaws they have to their game.
What other teams do you think had a good off-season?
The Spurs had a good off-season; they picked up Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. With Jefferson, it makes them re-charged for another run at the title with a healthy Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Cavaliers with the Shaquille O’Neal pick up because anytime you get Shaq it cranks up your ability to compete at a higher level. It didn’t work out for him in Phoenix but that’s one stop in his career where it didn’t work out with winning a championship.
Orlando is the one I want to watch to see if Vince Carter meshes with the team as well as Hedo Turkoglu did. Vince Carter is a better player than Turkoglu but whether he fits as good as Turkoglu did in Orlando will be interesting to see.
To me I don’t see much else, I don’t see a team which was buried in the conference and not has vaulted up into the upper echelon of either conference. There are 3 or 4 teams in each conference and then the rest are battling it out to fill up the bottom spots of the bracket.
What are your thoughts on Stephen Curry?
I loved watching him in College I thought he was fabulous. It’ll be interesting to see where he plays in Golden State and how his game translates in terms of him playing on the ball or off the ball. He’s got an interesting dilemma in Golden State where they have Monta who one of the most explosive offensive talents in the league. If Curry is ready to play the point and can put him beside Monta you have a serious backcourt that can score from anywhere. There’s nothing about his game I don’t like, I love his range, and he’s got once in a lifetime range. He’s got the best bloodlines for a shooter you would want in having Dell Curry as his father and his mom is crazy fine.
As great of a shooter Curry is, he’s probably the second best shooter on the Warriors, Anthony Morrow is automatic.
It’s funny; when he was at Georgia Tech I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Georgia Tech has had a bunch of guys who didn’t make have the impact at Georgia Tech that they’ve made in the NBA, guys like Morrow, Will Bynum, Mario West. I saw Morrow had 47 the other night and summer league which goes to show that when you have that kind of explosive scoring ability you’ll always have a job in the NBA.
A lot of rumors of Amare Stoudemire being on the move possibly to Golden State, do you make that move if you’re the Warriors?
Yeah, that rumor has also spawned a lot of Amare for Josh Smith rumors down here in Atlanta but there nothing more than rumors at this point.
As far as Golden State, getting a guy like Amare puts you into the elite competition because you get a superstar big man as your anchor. If I’m the Warriors I make the deal because I don’t know if Brandan Wright and Andris Biedrins are established guys in terms of being anchors on a playoff team. Usually I’m against trading two starters for one guy but the Warriors situation is different because they weren’t a playoff team last season. If you feel like Biedrins is a top young Center in the NBA and Brandan Wright can become a player then you have to think long and hard because it would make sense to keep and develop them.
I’m a firm believer in the NBA that if you have young talented players who are helping you win at a high level you don’t just punt that for a quick hitch. When you’re talking about making a seismic deal like that where you’re trading away a few very good assets you better get someone who can change the culture the team, you tell me if Amare does that for Golden State.
Amare probably gets them to the playoffs but nothing more because he doesn’t improve them defensively which means you won’t get far in the playoffs.
To me it’s a judgment call, Boston is an interesting case study because a few years before they got Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen they were treading waters like the Warriors and Hawks in the past. Before getting Garnett and Allen everyone wanted to fire Doc Rivers and run Danny Ainge out of town yet a year after everyone was praising them and calling them geniuses. I don’t think Amare would have the impact in Golden State that Garnett had in Boston, so it’s a calculated risk and you have to live with the consequences if it doesn’t work out.
About Sekou Smith
Sekou Smith is a proud native of Grand Rapids, Mich., also the hometown of the late Gerald R. Ford, Yesterdog and “Pretty Boy” Floyd/“Money” Mayweather, among many others. A lifelong and unabashed supporter of Michigan’s football and men’s basketball programs, he is also a rowdy booster of the Smyrna Spartans football program. The AJC’s Hawks and NBA beat writer since 2005, Smith has covered the league since 2001. He’s had his “dream job” since 1994, spanning the globe to cover everything from high school sports, recruiting, college football, basketball and baseball to the U.S. Olympic cycling trials and the Indy 500. A husband and father, Smith resides in Smyrna.
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