The death of journalist Sekou Smith on Jan. 26 after a battle with COVID-19 sent shockwaves through the sports world. Fellow media members, coaches, athletes, NBA organizations and NBA commissioner Adam Silver all paid tribute to the longtime analyst who covered the league since 2001.
Smith, 48, was known for his devotion to his work as well as his outgoing personality.
“This was a guy that won you over with his smile, he didn’t really even have to say anything,” said Joseph Duarte, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. “He had that sort of funny, loose, personality where it can never be too serious. He always wanted to keep the mood light.”
Duarte met Smith during their time as members of the Sports Journalism Institute’s 1995 class. At that time, Smith was a student at Jackson State University, an HBCU.
Smith was a proud alum of SJI, a training and internship program geared towards increasing diversity in the sports media. The program has 28 classes going back to 1993 and more than 350 alumni.
Greg Lee was a member of SJI’s 1994 class and is now one of its directors. Lee worked with Smith at Turner Sports and remembered him as being active in the SJI community following his graduation from the program, returning to speak to subsequent classes and always giving guidance to young journalists.
Although Smith’s efforts to help increase diversity are well noted, Lee said he believes his friend mostly led by example.
“Everyone has their own way of advocating, he did it by doing excellent work,” Lee said, adding that Smith believed in giving aspiring journalists “a chance to do the work—that’s how you diversify a newsroom, by giving opportunities to worthy people like Sekou who symbolized what it meant to be an SJI alum.”
In commemoration of Smith’s life-long dedication to sports journalism, Jackson State established a scholarship in his name. The scholarship is aimed at helping students who want to pursue a career in sports media.
The Atlanta Hawks also chose to honor Smith by starting an annual Hawks-NBA Summer League internship in his name. Each summer a journalism student from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a solely HBCU conference, will be chosen to work as the Hawks beat writer for NBA summer league. Smith covered the Hawks from 2005-09 for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Those who knew Smith well say the scholarship and internship embody everything that he was about.
“Jackson State and Atlanta were who he was,” Lee said. “And to have internships and give opportunities to students who want to pursue sports journalism careers and are coming from an HBCU, I understand coming from an HBCU, I am an HBCU grad, and it means the world to those students. They’ll just try to hopefully follow the big footsteps of Sekou.”
Darren Everson is the deputy chief news editor at the Wall Street Journal and a member of the 1995 SJI class. To him, Smith’s legacy will always be defined not only by the work he did, but by the person he was.
“A lot of times you come across people that you work with or you’re aware of like at other newspapers, whatever, and they’re really good, but they have really sharp elbows and they are difficult to deal with,” Everson said. “Sekou wasn’t like that. He managed to get a long way, but still also treat people well.”