YOU MAY already know that Gary Smith, widely considered the best sports writer on the planet, announced he is retiring after a 32-year career with Sports Illustrated.

But did you know he worked at the Daily News from 1973 to 1980?

"I started out on the [copy] desk for 2 years writing sports shorts," said Smith, who was born in Wilmington, Del., and graduated from La Salle University. "My first story [for the Daily News]? It might have been a Frankford High football game in '75 or '76."

That led to a rather unique beat.

"My assignment was to cover [West Philly High's] Gene Banks," he said. "He was a bigger phenom than Wilt. I followed him for the entire [1977] season."

Eventually, Smith went on to cover the Eagles, then coached by Dick Vermeil.

Coincidentally, Vermeil was the subject of Smith's first story for SI in March 1983.

"It was about him being burned out and his new life after coaching," said Smith, who has a knack for unearthing things you never knew about a person.

An excerpt:

"By Vermeil's second year, the out-manned Eagles were coming within a touchdown of far superior teams. But already Carol Vermeil could see the sprint dehydrating her husband. At last she and Eagle General Manager Jim Murray persuaded him to visit the team psychiatrist. He entered the house a few hours later, his jaw set.

"Well?" said Carol.

"It would take me a week," said Dick, "to straighten the guy out."

Smith has received numerous honors while at SI, including four National Magazine Awards - the Pulitzer of the industry. At 60, he is still at the top of his game.

So why retire? Is he, like Vermeil, burned out?

Nothing of the sort, he insists.

"I felt it was the right time to try something different," he said. "To see what life has in store."

And does he have an inkling of what that might be?

"Books," he said. "Most likely, books."