As SJI celebrates its 30th class, it is also remembering two members gone too soon: Sekou Smith and Juan Rodriguez.
Smith, a member of the 1995 class, began his career at The Clarion Ledger and was the Atlanta Hawks beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 2005-2009. In 2009, he started at NBA.com. Smith died in January 2021 after a battle with COVID-19. He was 48.
It’s rare to come across a member of the media as universally loved and respected as Smith. The press room in State Farm Arena, where Smith worked, laughed and cut up with his peers, now bears his name. Many in the sports industry shared their condolences and favorite memories of the late sports reporter after hearing the news of his death.
Michael Wright, friend and NBA.com co-worker of Smith’s, said a lot of people who reminisced publicly were young journalists. They mused over Smith’s kind words and stories he critiqued for them.
“Sekou has always been an advocate for young journalists,” Wright said. “He always made sure he’d get their numbers and made sure they had his number. ‘Call me anytime,’ that type of thing.”
Wright said he thinks Smith would be ecstatic to know his legacy lives on through a SWAC internship with the Atlanta Hawks and a memorial scholarship named in his honor at Jackson State University, his alma mater. (He was “hyped” about Deion Sanders taking over the football program there, Wright said.)
Clement Gibson, also a graduate of Jackson State, was the inaugural Sekou Smith intern for the Atlanta Hawks in 2021. He made a video about his experience, during which he expressed gratitude for the opportunity and the chance to be part of Smith’s legacy.
“Getting a chance to learn more about Sekou Smith and hear about how humble he was, and how hardworking he was and funny he was from the people that loved him the most, is an experience that I will never forget,” Gibson said in the video.
Smith always worked with a hunger, Wright said. He had an insatiable appetite for honing his craft, telling the best story in the best way. Smith recognized this business as one of relationships, so he made sure to never be a stranger. That’s why folks had so much respect for him.
“It’s hard for me to say ‘had,’ because I still love him to death,” Wright said. “Still miss him. So, I don’t like to think of him as gone, but, you know, still with us.”
Friend and NBA.com coworker Lang Whitaker said he knew Smith’s byline before he knew the man. He came to know Smith very well, though, as the two lived together on buses while filming their show “Hang Time Road Trip” for NBA.com. The happy, the sad. The fun, the caring. Whitaker saw into all of it.
Smith was “dynamic” in every sense of the word, Whitaker said.
A love for baseball, family drove Juan Rodriguez
Rodriguez worked for Florida Today and the Miami Herald before joining the Sun Sentinel in 2002, where he served as the Miami Marlins beat writer. He was a member of SJI’s 1994 class and died in 2016 after a long-fought battle with brain cancer. He was 42.
“He was meant to be in a baseball locker room,” said Julie Engebrecht, Rodriguez’s editor when he interned at the Star Tribune.
Engebrecht knew Rodriguez as a student at the University of Minnesota. She went to his wedding, and the two always made sure to meet whenever the Marlins came to Minnesota and then Cincinnati after Engebrecht moved there.
“I appreciated being part of his life at so many different points along the way,” she said.
Engebrecht, a survivor of breast cancer herself, said she had no idea how Rodriguez managed to balance the grind that is treatment and the grind that is covering MLB. He was first diagnosed in December of 2012 and continued to work, scheduling treatments around his schedule with the Marlins.
Baseball meant so much to Rodriguez.
“That and his family filled him up,” said Kathy Laughlin, Sun Sentinel sports editor who worked with Rodriguez as a copy editor there.
“While the rest of us were thrashing around with whatever problem, (Rodriguez) would just (with) the least amount of ripples in the water, he just got it done,” Laughlin said.