GRCC honors life, legacy of journalist Sekou Smith with 2021 Distinguished Alumnus Award

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.

GRCC commencement ceremonies on Friday and Saturday will include a tribute to the sports journalist and community leader. Smith, who attended Grand Rapids Junior and Grand Rapids Community colleges between 1990 and 1992, is being honored as this year’s Distinguished Alumnus.

Sekou Smith
Sekou Smith

After leaving GRCC, he attended Jackson State University in Mississippi, where he became interested in journalism. His sports writing career started at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson; he then covered 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.

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, said 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,” Walter Smith said. “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.”

Sekou Smith will be 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, said 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 said, adding that he strongly believed in the impact positive role models have on young people

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

Stanton said 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.”

Smith said she hopes students are inspired by her brother’s life.

GRCC plans four indoor, in-person ceremonies, spreading them out over two days to adhere to pandemic safety protocols. The School of Arts and Sciences ceremonies are planned for 4 and 7 p.m. April 30, with the School of Workforce Development ceremonies at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. May 1.

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