Sekou Smith, a beloved sportswriter who got his start in Mississippi, died of COVID-19 at age 48.

We begin with his name: Sekou. Sekou Smith. “Sekou” is of African origin, from the Fula language. It means “wise” and “educated.”

Sekou Smith, who died Tuesday at age 48 of COVID-19, was both wise and educated. He was also generous, thoughtful, loyal, always engaging, witty and thoroughly dependable. His death has left a hole in the soul of his legions of friends, this one included.

Rick Cleveland

Nevertheless, when I think of him, I smile – probably because he always did, every time I saw him.

I smile thinking about how so many Mississippi ball coaches struggled with his name over the years.

This was Jackie Sherrill: “I like him. Nice kid. I like the way he writes. But how do you say his name?”

At various times, I heard it pronounced See-Que, Say-Cow, See-Cow, to name a few. If it bothered Sekou (SAY-koo), he never let on.

Sekou grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., but his family had some Mississippi roots. His daddy wanted him to experience an HBCU education. So it was that he came to Jackson State.

At the Clarion Ledger, he was a newspaper version of a walk-on. He came in as part of the high school statistics team that flooded into the sports department on Friday nights, working for minimum wage, to take football reports on the phone. He was studying mass communications at JSU and he was like a sponge, soaking up sports and newspaper knowledge with a seemingly endless thirst.

You could tell early on Sekou was a keeper. Then-sports editor Donald Dodd hired him full-time as part of an award-winning high school coverage staff. In those days, we covered high school sports the way the morning dew covers springtime Mississippi. Sekou became a valuable reporter, who quickly earned the trust of high school coaches and administrators across the state.

Sekou could write and he had a knack for finding the most interesting part of any game and making it an easy read. He was a really good storyteller. He didn’t let the keyboard get in his way. He didn’t try to impress you with flowery prose; no, he just told the story. Readers appreciated him. So did his editors.

He graduated to the Mississippi State beat, reluctantly as I remember.

“I just love the high school beat so much,” he told me.

“You can always go back to it,” I told him.

He never did.

Covering Mississippi State, he made his mark. His news stories were incisive. His features always hit the mark. He told you what you needed to know.

“You could trust Sekou,” former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton says. “He was always fair. You might not always like everything he wrote, but you always knew he would be fair. And he was just such a good person. How could anyone not like Sekou?”

Answer: You could not. And if you did, the problem was with you, not him.

His reputation quickly outgrew Mississippi. Offers began to come in from all over. He moved to Indianapolis to cover the Pacers and then to Atlanta to cover the Hawks. Pretty soon, he became one of the reputable reporters covering the NBA. He became more than a print journalist. His vibrant personality and smile made him a natural for TV. Turner Sports hired him as a TV analyst for both the network and for NBA.com.

It has been a joy to witness. The praise Sekou received nationally sounds amazingly similar to what we would hear about him here in Mississippi covering the high school and Mississippi State beats.

Google him today, and you’ll see.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: “The NBA mourns the passing of Sekou Smith, a beloved member of the NBA family. Sekou was one of the most affable and dedicated reporters in the NBA and a terrific friend of so many across the league. Sekou’s love of basketball was clear to everyone who knew him and it always shined through in his work. Our heartfelt condolences go to his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriel, Rielly and Cameron.”

Silver’s comments were echoed across the league by coaches, players and administrators. Stan Van Gundy, coach of the New Orleans Pelicans: “I got to know him well enough to know three things – I was lucky to spend time with him, I wanted to know him better and he was a good man.”

Sekou, quite simply, was one of best guys ever. Whether in Madison Square Garden or a rural Mississippi gym, the authentic goodness of Sekou Smith was unmistakable.

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.