The last time I spoke to Sekou Smith we said we loved each other.
Blessed for that.
We spoke over the summer. I wish it could have been during the soul-crushing past 10 days as Sekou battled COVID-19 and I, and many others, prayed for his recovery. I would have liked another chance to tell my friend what he meant to me before he died way too soon at age 48.
I worked with Sekou when he came to Atlanta from Indianapolis to cover the Hawks for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005. I was the pro-sports editor, and Sekou and I spent the next four years working together. He was one of the best reporters I have known. He did so with a personality that shone so brightly, including his 1,000-watt smile and laugh. He made every minute you were with him better. Every minute. He loved and bragged on his family, was kind, generous with his time and willing to join a good debate. He could argue the merits of why he thought the Big Ten was a better football conference than the SEC. Yes, he had that debate once.
The outpouring of love and respect for Sekou after news of his death speaks to his character and talent as a journalist. His friends and colleagues in the NBA world expressed their grief. The NBA and the Hawks, among others, issued statements. Coaches and players spoke about him in glowing terms. There were only glowing terms when it came to Sekou. The Hawks used the word “heartbroken” in their statement. We all are.
Here are a few stories that I hope offer some insight into the talent and spirit of the man.
*We were preparing for the 2006 NBA Draft. I went to Sekou with this, I thought, great idea before the draft. Let’s do a story with five players the Hawks might select with the No. 5 overall pick. We can give readers a photo and short recap of each player. Sekou said to me: “We only need one photo. They are going to pick Shelden Williams.” We adjusted our plans. Needless to say, the Hawks selected Shelden Williams. It wasn’t a guess. Sekou knew.
*The Hawks were not good early in Sekou’s tenure. After one particularly bad road trip, we were convinced they were going to fire the head coach. I walked over to then-Philips Arena for practice so we could plan coverage. After I arrived, Sekou left the media workroom and walked through a breezeway that connected to the practice court. As only he could do, Sekou opened the door as practice was starting, peeked his head in and got word from a player that the coach was indeed still there. We always laughed when we would reminisce about that story. Only Sekou could get away with that.
*Years after Sekou left the AJC for Turner and NBA.com in 2009, I was on the Hawks beat. He dropped by the arena one night near the 2016 trade deadline, an absolutely crazy time for NBA beat writers. I was at my cubicle in the work room chasing potential player comings and goings, text messages flying. Sekou stopped by the desk and whispered “Kris Humphries.” Kris Humphries? Hadn’t he just been traded to the Suns? “Kris Humphries,” he said as he walked away. Days later, I wrote a story about how the Suns had bought out and waived Humphries and he would sign with the Hawks. Sekou still owned the Hawks beat, kicking my butt, years after he left.
*Finally, my last conversation with Sekou. Years ago, I was a guest on his “Hang Time” podcast to discuss the Hawks. We spoke about the team, and the conversation turned light as we joked about me now being in the role he once had and coping with the grind of the NBA beat. And that’s when I said something I have regretted ever since. Had I known the difficulty of the beat when I was his editor, I wouldn’t have been a “slave driver.” I don’t know where that term came from. I never used it, and yet it was there on the tip of my tongue. I immediately was ashamed. Sekou never said a word, that day or in the years since. Honestly, it would resurface in my mind from time to time, and it bothered me. Why would a term so vulgar be at my mind’s reach?
After the events of this summer, that memory became more at the forefront. I called Sekou and told him I needed to apologize. He told me he didn’t remember, and that he didn’t have to worry about me. He knew where my heart was. I appreciated his graciousness and patience in hearing me out. I’m not claiming a magnanimous gesture on my part. I appreciate Sekou’s tolerance of me in that moment. We spoke for a long time about a lot of things. At the end of what would be our final conversation, we said we loved each other. It was the first time we expressed the deep admiration we held for each other as friends and brothers. I can’t believe it was also the last time.
Prayers, peace and love to his family. I love you, man. #SEKOUSTRONG