John Smallwood, 55, remembered for his gregarious, friendly manner and his calm, measured writing style
The former Inquirer and Daily News sports columnist passed away Sunday after a long illness.
Yvette Smallwood sometimes would find herself exasperated, out in public with her husband, Daily News and Inquirer sports columnist John Smallwood.
“He could talk to anyone, and would talk to anyone. … We could be at the grocery store, or in a parking lot somewhere, or at the airport, and he would just start talking to people. They didn’t have to know who he was, or anything,” she recalled. “People opened up to him. … I was drawn to him. I think most people he met were drawn to him, liked to talk to him.”
That trait served Mr. Smallwood well in a sportswriting career that lasted more than three decades until failing health forced an early retirement two years ago. He passed away after a long illness Sunday at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., at age 55. He leaves behind his wife and their daughter, 16-year-old Ryan, of Smyrna, Del., along with his parents, John Sr. and Jacqueline Smallwood, of Odenton, Md., and two older sisters, Pamela Candelaria and Gina Simpson, both of Glen Burnie, Md.
Mr. Smallwood grew up in Odenton, where he played high school soccer and baseball, and he was a 1987 graduate of the University of Maryland. He came to the Daily News in 1994 from the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, after having also worked at the Roanoke (Va.) Times. At the Daily News and then at the Inquirer after the staffs merged, he often wrote about college and NBA basketball, particularly during the Sixers’ Allen Iverson era.
“Anytime he was interviewing you and asking questions, it was like a friend asking you,” former Sixers general manager Billy King said. “If you tried to B.S. him, he would give you that ‘Oh, come on, Billy, you know that’s not true.’ You couldn’t lie to him, because he had that look. He critiqued you with compassion.”
King said Mr. Smallwood was one of the first people to tell him the team needed to move on from Iverson, as the 2001 NBA Finals appearance grew more distant. King said that though he felt he “couldn’t let my guard down” and agree at that time, the conversation led him to “put more pressure on the people above” to go in that direction, something that ultimately happened in 2006 when Iverson was traded to Denver.
Mr. Smallwood wrote an Iverson book, “Allen Iverson: Fear No One,” published in 2002, conceived for a target audience of teens. Six other NBA-related books he authored were for young readers, his wife said.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers began his Monday press conference by saying: “Before I start, I want to send out my condolences to John Smallwood’s family. He’s a pioneer in our business, a Black columnist. Not just for Philadelphia, but for the entire [United] States. So I just want to send my condolences and recognition of what he has done for everyone.”
Rich Hofmann, a former Daily News columnist and then Inquirer/Daily News sports editor, recalled that when teenaged Kobe Bryant first came into the NBA, “he called John ‘Mr. Smallwood,’ which probably speaks to Kobe’s upbringing, but it also speaks to John’s stature.”
“He loved the camaraderie of the press box,” Hofmann said. “He just loved being in a press box at a big game.”
Hofmann said that throughout the turbulence of the Iverson years, Mr. Smallwood’s columns often served to help calm the storm.
“Something would happen and the city would be on fire, and John would come in with a level-headed opinion,” he said. “He never felt the need to manufacture outrage. He never had to pretend to be mad at something.”
NBC Sports Philadelphia host Michael Barkann worked with Mr. Smallwood on the Daily News Live! show and its successor, Philly Sports Talk. Barkann said of Mr. Smallwood, “He just had a great spirit. … There was a serenity about him, a calmness and a pureness, and he had a great laugh, which would fill up the studio when he came in, and he was always asking about you. … There’s the old saying, ‘You can disagree without being disagreeable,’ and that was John to a T.”
Inquirer columnist Marcus Hayes met Mr. Smallwood when they both worked in upstate New York, “part of an early-’90s influx of journalists of color,” Hayes said. “We had a lot of shared experiences of being the only Black person on the staff. Shared experiences and shared goals. And we both realized our goals, to become columnists at a big-city paper, at a relatively young age. … John just adored what he did, and deeply appreciated the privilege of being able to do it.”
Hayes recalled that he’d been working at the Daily News for a few months in 1995 when Mr. Smallwood came into the newsroom after having been out of town covering college basketball for a good while. “He asked me, ‘Oh, are you here for a job interview?’ ”
In the late ’90s, when Mr. Smallwood was still single, a Daily News Live! producer called Mr. Smallwood’s home and discovered his answering tape message, which at that time contained seductive background music and Mr. Smallwood’s voice pitched low, evoking a Barry White-like vibe. The recording became a running gag that was used on-air for decades. Barkann recalled that Mr. Smallwood never objected: “John would kind of giggle about it.”
Barkann recalled that after marrying Yvette and becoming a father, Mr. Smallwood would often bring Ryan with him to the studio.
“He was just so proud of her. You could just see him beam,” Barkann said. “I miss his spirit. It hurts not having John in the world.”
Yvette Smallwood recalled that she met Mr. Smallwood through her cousin, who attended church with him in Philadelphia, at a time when she was living in Colorado. They met socially at a family gathering in Las Vegas, and then again when she moved back to her native District of Columbia to attend law school, but it took a few years for them to start dating.
On their first date, she thought him “too opinionated,” when, knowing she had gone to Princeton, he started talking about how terrible the Tigers’ basketball team was. She didn’t know much about the Princeton basketball team, she said, but she thought he was quite rude. She soon revised her opinion.
“He was a genuinely good person, which you can’t say about everyone,” she said. “He cared about people. All people.”
Fatherhood was special to Mr. Smallwood. When Ryan — now a junior at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington — became heavily involved in dance, her father was the guy with the camera that the parents of other dancers would ask for photos of competitions. They would eagerly await his detailed Facebook posts.
“He was the ultimate dance dad,” Yvette Smallwood said.
Mr. Smallwood battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma in college, and ultimately doctors felt the disease and its treatment led to the deterioration of two heart valves. He went into surgery 11 years ago to have them replaced, but there were complications, and Mr. Smallwood was placed in an induced coma for 3 1/2 weeks, Mrs. Smallwood said. He ended up with circulatory problems that caused the amputation of all his toes. Subsequently, he walked haltingly, with a cane.
“They didn’t think he was going to make it,” she said. “There was a lot of battling back from that. God had a plan for him.”
Ryan was 5 at the time. As he fought his way back to health, Mr. Smallwood told his wife, “I’m here to make sure she’s OK.”
“He liked to be there for people,” she said.
At work, his insistence on remaining active despite the physical limitations he incurred earned him great respect.
“John was well-liked and respected by all at the Daily News and throughout the Philadelphia sports community,” said Pat McLoone, Inquirer/Daily News managing editor for sports. “He had a very upbeat disposition, even as he struggled through numerous health challenges. He was a joy to be around.
“The outpouring on social media of sadness and fond memories of how John handled writing about sports has been overwhelming. I think the readers of the Daily News and viewers of Daily News Live! saw how genuine John was.”
Former Daily News executive sports editor Josh Barnett agreed that “the outpouring of admiration for John since his passing has been heartwarming and shows the great connection he made with Philly sports fans.”
Barnett also noted that “as much as John wrote about the Sixers or Eagles, he was a big advocate for women’s sports, and pushing for sports that he felt were underrepresented in our coverage to be given their due. That’s among the things I admired about him most.”
Funeral services are pending. Mrs. Smallwood said charitable donations in Mr. Smallwood’s memory can be made to the American Cancer Society, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts Annual Fund, or the giver’s favorite performing arts program.