GRCC honors late sports journalist as Distinguished Alumnus

Grand Rapids Community College alumnus Sekou Smith’s life was cut short by COVID-19, but family members say they want graduates to be inspired by his passion for helping others succeed.

A tribute to the sports journalist and community leader was part of GRCC’s commencement ceremonies on April 30 and May 1. Smith, who attended Grand Rapids Junior and Grand Rapids Community colleges between 1990 and 1992, was honored as this year’s Distinguished Alumnus.

After leaving GRCC, he attended Jackson State University in Mississippi, where he became interested in journalism. His sportswriting career started at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. He went on to cover the Indianapolis Pacers for the Indianapolis Star and then the Atlanta Hawks for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Smith connected with the NBA’s media teams in 2009. In recent years, he served as an analyst for NBA TV and a writer for NBA.com. He penned the “MVP Weekly” column and hosted the popular “Hang Time” podcast.

Tributes pour in

His death in January at the age of 48 brought tributes from NBA stars, his writing colleagues, and the many young professionals he had mentored over the years through such organizations as the National Association of Black Journalists, Athletes for Computer Science, and Mercantile Bank leadership camps.

His father, Walter Smith, says GRCC has been “a foundation” for his family, noting that his wife and children attended the college. He is touched by the Distinguished Alumnus honor, as well as the other tributes from the sporting world.

“We knew who he was as a son and a brother, but I did not really know the reach he had around the world,” Smith says. “It took me a little time to be able to read them, but there have been some really nice tributes. The ones I treasure the most are primarily the ones from Grand Rapids. It’s where we have our roots. And wherever Sekou went in the world, he never forgot where we came from.”

Professionalism and integrity

Sekou Smith was recognized during this year’s commencement, with a tribute that includes a video from the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. The Hawks created a Sekou Smith Award to annually honor the player on the team’s roster who best represents themselves and the franchise with professionalism and integrity in their interactions with the media.

Smith’s sister, Misti Stanton, also a GRCC alum, says he always had a passion for helping others — especially people from Grand Rapids.

As he became well-known for his work in the media, he looked for ways to use his influence to help people grow and thrive, from high school students to fellow journalists starting out, Stanton says, adding that he strongly believed in the impact positive role models have on young people.

Keeping commitment

Stanton is a vice president and diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Mercantile Bank. She says Smith was planning to speak to Grand Rapids-area high school students during a Mercantile Bank leadership camp in 2015 when he was suddenly assigned to interview basketball star LeBron James in Boston.

Stanton says her brother insisted he be able to keep his commitment, and addressed the students and took questions via video.

“Don’t have your guard up all the time,” he told the students. “Put yourself out there and ask for help if you need it. Make sure you find mentors and role models, and be proactive in asking them for any help you might need.”

Stanton says she hopes students are inspired by her brother’s life.

Grand Rapids Community College has been offering educational opportunities in West Michigan for more than 100 years. GRCC offers classes at its downtown Grand Rapids campus, and at several locations throughout Kent and Ottawa counties, as well as through distance learning.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.

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