For Love Of The Game

Shelley Smith, photographed at San Pedro High School (photo by John Mattera)

It’s November, the heart of college football season, and for Shelley Smith, that means no rest, several flights in-and-out of LAX and every Saturday spent at a different football stadium across the country.

But it’s not just college football that keeps Smith from curling up on the couch to the latest blockbuster hit, it’s also Thursday night NFL games, pre-season NBA games, the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal and the continued lockout talks of the NHL strike.

It’s these precise reasons though, that get Smith out of bed each and every morning, well these and her daily trips to the local San Pedro gym, Hey Day Fitness, where she can talk sports without the pressure of a camera in her face.

Smith loves her job, and she loves it because “no single day is the same.”

Smith joined ESPN in 1997 and quickly became one of the leading ladies in sports journalism. She has climbed the ranks and has had great success in doing so, including four Sports Emmys, one of which she received in 1997 for her segment on Magic Johnson as part of an ESPN production on AIDS and Athletes.

But she didn’t start at the top. For Smith, having an interest and passion for journalism started at a young age. But back then, it was an interest in breaking news and features, she hadn’t even considered a career in sports.

A Denver native, Smith attended the University of Nebraska, where she majored in journalism and political science. During her time at Nebraska, Smith wrote for the college newspaper and through this came an opportunity for lunch with an alumnus, who happened to be the sports editor at a major newspaper in Denver.

“In college I thought I wanted to go into news or features reporting,” she says. “That all changed when the editor called me and offered me a gig in the sports department.”

Smith shooting a story on the “most dangerous golf hole in the world” along the DMZ in South Korea for ESPN in 2009. Smith originally covered the golf course in 1988 for her very first Sports Illustrated story. (photo by Dylann Tharp)

The editor took notice in Smith, and she never looked back. Now a sideline reporter for ESPN, Smith is an award-winning journalist and author of three books, with a fourth — Al: The unauthorized biography of Raiders owner Al Davis – on its way. But she says it’s been a constant challenge, and she has always set out to outwork and out prepare her peers.

“You make your own luck in this field by working hard,” says Smith. “If you are well prepared and work harder than anyone else you can make up for what you lack in talent. It is really about taking the extra time and getting it right, but don’t get me wrong, I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time a couple times.”

Case in point, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Smith was in Seoul covering the Olympics for Sports Illustrated when word broke that Canadian Ben Johnson would be stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids. Upon hearing the news, Smith, along with a photographer, raced to the airport, where Johnson would soon be boarding for a flight to New York – Smith got on that flight, sat with Johnson for 45 minutes and conducted the first one-on-one interview, an exclusive.

“When I got on that plane I knew it would be my big break,” she recalls. And it was.

The Ben Johnson exclusive is arguably Smith’s biggest story ever – and she says she will never forget the rush of it all.

“I knew it would be the biggest story I would ever cover,” she says. “It was the middle of the night, a double-decker plane, and I knew I was sitting on something huge. It was the greatest feeling in the world to get off the plane with hoards of reporters waiting for Johnson’s arrival and walk past them knowing I already had the story.”

This was just the start for Smith, who was offered a position with Sports Illustrated in 1989, and six months later was asked to make a move to the West Coast from New York.

“When I was in college, we print journalists thought broadcast journalists should be in the drama department,” she says. “We thought we were the only serious journalists – so when I accepted the position at Sports Illustrated in 1989, I had reached my destination, I was a writer and that’s what I wanted.”

Upon arriving in California, she made her home in San Pedro.

“I loved San Pedro,” she says. “The air was clean, it was a affordable and it didn’t seem like big, splashy Los Angeles.” Smith’s daughter, Dylann Tharp, was three at the time, and she wanted her to grow up in a good community.

“It was important, with all the traveling I do, to have a place to come home to,” she says. “A place to exhale – I have stayed in San Pedro ever since.”

Tharp, now 26, was a fixture on working road trips. Smith remembers various all-star games where Tharp would sit on the floor next to her and play with Barbies while Smith covered the game – so much so, that Tharp began to interact with the players and would later track them down for her Mom.

“I took Dylann with me a lot,” says Smith. “She grew up with Charles Barkley essentially – they are still good buds. She was with me on the NBA or NCAA tournament trail and also went with me to all the bowl games.”

“There is a photo above my fireplace where Barkley is holding her at the Minnesota All-Star Game, after chastising me for using my kid to do all my work, my producer said, ‘Does she know Shaq?’”

Tharp, after graduating from San Pedro High School, captained the University of Oregon soccer team and in 2007 was named to the Pac-10 second team. She majored in art and communications at Oregon, and is now living and working in Los Angeles.

Since Smith joined ESPN in 1997, she has recorded hundreds of articles and reports on topics ranging from the Olympics to the O.J. Simpson trial. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS national championship game, the NHL Stanley Cup, golf and tennis championships, ski racing, weightlifting, boxing and motor sports.

“I’ve always wanted to write stories,” she says. “Making the transition to ESPN was difficult, it was a lot of training – hair training, make-up training, where to stand training, voice training — but I love it, I love being a sideline reporter. I love my job, and I love even more that everyday presents a different challenge — no day is the same.”

In addition, she is the co-founder of the Magic Johnson Foundation newsletter, serves on various committees for The Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro and is a volunteer writer for many charity organizations, including the Serra Project, which provides homes for AIDS victims.

Smith plans on walking the sidelines for sometime. She loves that her weeks can range from USC football, to Lakers basketball, to baseball and the NFL.

“I am writing a book on Al Davis, which is the hardest thing I have ever done,” she says. “But I have also found a new passion for jumping on stories. I love my job, I love it all. Everyday is different, the sports world is always changing, and something is always happening.” spt

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