A Whirlwind of Emotions: David Steele’s Journalistic Journey

(Photo Courtesy of David Steele.)

Standing confidently at midcourt of Madison Square Garden, David Steele was flanked by his younger brother Renard and older sister Alexa. At that moment with two of the most important people in his life by his side, Steele reminisced on his childhood passion and love for sport growing up as a Knicks fan. He also felt humbled covering the 1999 NBA Finals, an opportunity many people could only dream of.

Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, Steele idolized the Knicks two biggest stars, Walt Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed. That same day at MSG, Steele introduced his siblings who were also life-long Knick fans to Frazier.

“I was able to give the two most important people in my life access to this game,” Steele said. “They were thrilled, I was thrilled I was able to share that with them.”

Long before that day in 1999, Steele’s early journalistic roots trace back to Washington D.C. After moving to D.C. in third grade, Steele began to follow the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich and the Washington Star’s David Israel. As Steele developed an appreciation for those writers, he read newspapers more frequently. 

Growing up near College Park, Steele grew attached to the University of Maryland. Choosing between Maryland and Notre Dame, Steele elected for the hometown school, referencing his familiarity with Lefty Driesell’s basketball teams and Jerry Claiborne’s football teams. 

Despite his knowledge of the university, Steele’s first official campus visit was during his senior year of high school. On that visit, he was paired off with a graduate assistant who was going to be the next semester’s editor of the Black Explosion-a black student newspaper on campus at the time. 

The following fall, Steele attended the newspaper’s first meeting and asked if the publication covered sports. Prior to that time, they didn’t and the editor was receptive to Steele’s idea. Then shortly after, he wrote his first story about a freshman baseball player who lived in a nearby dorm.

“That was when it all started for me journalistically, working with the people there who were just so good in guiding me in the right direction,” Steele said. “I’m just always going to be grateful to them for doing that.”

Steele worked for the Explosion all four years and his last semester began working for the Diamondback and occasionally WMUC to discuss football and basketball. Although Steele had done extensive work with on-campus publications, he lacked much experience in a professional newsroom. That changed in the summer of 1985 when he began an internship with Newsday, which proved to be a phenomenal experience as he formed life-long connections.

“Newsday to this day is one of my favorite journalistic experiences.”

(Photo Courtesy of Philip Merrill College of Journalism)

“Newsday to this day is one of my favorite journalistic experiences because it was a great atmosphere to be around,” Steele said.

Shortly after graduation in December of 1985, Steele’s next five years were highlighted by rapid change and new experiences. His first job post-graduation was at the Evening Independent, the sister paper of the St. Petersburg Times. There, Steele’s beat was consumer sports, highlighting what the average fan liked to do.

Steele picked up his first big break soon after. The Buccaneers writer at the time was fired for getting into a heated argument with an editor and Steele was promoted to cover the team. Prior to that moment, his only experience covering professional sports was a few isolated Mets games during his time with Newsday

Now at 21, he was covering the NFL and beginning to settle in. Unfortunately, that rhythm was disrupted because the Evening Independent folded that November. After that Steele was hired to be a part of the St.Petersburg Times staff where his role shifted from covering the NFL to working on the copy desk.

Far from home for the first time, Steele began to feel homesick and transitioned to a job with the New York Post covering the New Jersey Nets. Spending a brief time there, Steele was then approached by Susie Kamb, an editor at the National Sports Daily. Kamb offered him a position with the Daily and Steele returned home to D.C. to cover a variety of sports. 

However, the Daily unexpectedly folded. Steele searched for another job as the circumstances surrounding his departure were once again out of his control. Cycling around between several publications, Steele briefly worked at the Stamford Advocate

After so much uncertainty, Steele accepted a job with Newsday on their copy desk. While there, Steele received the second break of his career when the Knicks beat writer at the time jumped over to the New York Daily News and he was asked to fill the position. Now in a secure post, Steele reflected back on the tumultuous events of the last five years.

“I didn’t think of it as a lesson at the time, but you look back and your role was changing, your job title and responsibilities were changing all the time,” Steele said. “It’s something I’ve been able to hang on too, for the rest of my time those fast transitions and ability to adapt and adjust.”

Settled into his role with Newsday, Steele covered the Knicks for several seasons from 1992-1995 profiling stars such as Patrick Ewing. However, in 1995 a position with the San Francisco Chronicle to cover the Warriors opened up. The person in charge of hiring and recruiting for the Chronicle was a fellow member of Steele’s intern class at Newsday 10 years earlier. 

After four seasons covering the Knicks, Steele accepted the job with the Chronicle, beginning a cross-country transition. In addition to the adjustment of covering a different beat, living on the West Coast brought a lifestyle change as well. 

The Bay Area was much different than what Steele was accustomed to in D.C. and New York City with no reliable form of mass transportation. However, Steele knew he was right where he meant to be when the Warriors selected Joe Smith out of Maryland with the 1st overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft.

Spending nine years at the Chronicle, Steele gained an appreciation for the athletes he covered, while also developing a strong tie to the fans and surrounding community. Also, those nine years with the Chronicle marked Steele’s first experience as a columnist. This presented a new challenge as column writing differed greatly from traditional newspaper writing and beat reporting. 

“It was such a free and open conversation that I didn’t really anticipate having.”

However, towards the end of his nine-year stint in the Bay Area, Steele began to feel homesick and developed an urge to return home. Returning home in 2004, Steele began working for the Baltimore Sun as a columnist. While at the Sun, one of Steele’s most notable stories detailed the efforts of Lonise Bias— the mother of the late great Maryland basketball legend Len Bias.

Shortly after college, Steele returned home for a visit when he was confronted with the sad reality that Bias had passed away. Learning of Bias’s death, Steele and his friends returned to the University of Maryland to pay their respects. With the 20-year anniversary of his death in 2006, Steele reached out to Ms. Bias. She answered Steele’s call and they met downtown where the duo had a two-hour meaningful and emotional conversation.

“It was such a free and open conversation that I didn’t really anticipate having,” Steele said. “At that point in my career and my life I felt the confidence to be able to reach out to somebody of that magnitude and someone who had that much emotional value.”

As the interview came to a close, Steele explained his connection to Len covering him as a student journalist at Maryland and how he attended the funeral service at Cole Fieldhouse. Then, Steele expressed his heartfelt condolences for her loss– a powerful connection between a journalist and a still grieving mother.

“I felt myself choking up, and she just sort of reached out with her arms out and I reached out to her and we gave each other this big hug,” Steele said.

(Photo Courtesy of Amazon)

During his time with the Sun, Steele also co-authored his first book, Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith. The origins of that book trace back to a column Steele wrote in 1999 when a local organization in Oakland nominated Smith as their athlete of the millennium. As such, Steele reached out to Smith for an interview and both men formed a relationship.

Six months later, Steele’s friend, a professor at San Jose State, told him that Smith was planning on writing an autobiography. Surprised he’d never written one before, Steele reached out to Smith and both men met in Los Angeles. First, they ate lunch for several hours bouncing around ideas for the book. Then, Smith brought Steele back to his house to show him the numerous media interviews he’d conducted and his gold medal.

At the conclusion of that weekend, both men agreed to pursue the book and the process was set in motion. Steele spent time over the next five years writing everything, compiling all of the research, and conducting the necessary interviews. The book was officially released in 2007, and the way he discovered the book’s release to the public is remarkable. 

The publishing company sent the book to Steele’s residence, but the leasing company failed to notify him that he had received a package. Therefore, Steele traveled to Miami to cover Super Bowl 41 between the Colts and Bears without even knowing his book was released. While at the Super Bowl, a man approached Steele to offer him congratulations on the book. Then, the man pulled a copy of the book out of his bag. 

In shock, Steele couldn’t believe the book was officially released to the public. The man then offered to give Steele the book, an offer he gladly accepted. Soon after, Steele returned to his hotel and immediately called Renard and Alexa to tell them the great news.

“I pulled the book out because I was going to describe it to them,” Steele said. “Looking at my name I just busted out crying like a baby because I wasn’t ready for what it meant to have done the book, to have seen the actual final finished product and to know that was my name on the cover of it.”

Throughout the entire eight-year process Steele’s sole focus was to make sure he was telling Smith’s courageous story accurately. During that period, Steele placed a heightened pressure on himself. Once he knew that Smith was satisfied with the finished product–Steele didn’t focus heavily on the response from readers. However, those positive reviews still meant a great deal to him.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to feel that I got it right,” Steele said. “The positive reviews, they’ve been gratifying to me and it’s sort of a reminder whenever you’re feeling down. To know you did that it’s a confidence boost and a reinforcement that you’ve chosen the right path and that you’ve done things the right way.”

“You could be a success and you’re still going to hit a really hard obstacle.”

After leaving the Baltimore Sun in 2009, Steele covered college basketball for AOL Fanhouse until 2011. From 2011-2019, Steele worked for Sporting News Media covering a wide variety of topics including Colin Kaepernick’s protest in 2016. Having spent over 30 years in sports journalism, Steele has covered numerous NBA Finals, the 2000 Olympics and several Super Bowls.

However, several games stand out above the rest. In Sydney at the Olympics, Steele witnessed Cathy Freeman win the 400m gold medal in her home country of Australia celebrating post-victory with both the Aboriginal and Australian flags as she received a rousing ovation from the fans. Steele also covered George Mason’s historic Elite Eight win over UCONN in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Patriots, the No. 11 seed upset the No. 1 seed Huskies 86-84 in overtime to advance to the Final Four. 

Yet, the game that will forever be imprinted in Steele’s mind is Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. In the closing seconds of that game, Michael Jordan drilled a game-winning shot over Bryon Russell– the last shot he ever attempted as a Chicago Bull. That infamous shot was the culmination of the recent Last Dance Documentary, which detailed Jordan’s career with the Bulls. 

From his seat on press row, Steele watched Jordan steal the ball from Karl Malone. Shortly after, Jordan buried the game winner, Steele saw first-hand both the jubilation from the Bulls and the despair from the hometown Jazz and their fans. For the remainder of that night, Steele and all of the other journalists in the arena remained fixated on the unprecedented history they just witnessed.

“It was another one of those moments like, ‘yeah this has been a pretty good way to make a living’, Steele said.” If I don’t get to do this anymore after this, this was not bad to get a chance to witness something like this and get the chance to describe it to everybody.”

Over the past 30 years in sports journalism, Steele learned a valuable lesson through all the trials and tribulations. Through these challenges, Steele learned that as a journalist you can only count on three things: your standards, your integrity and your own credibility. 

“You could be a success and you’re still going to hit a really hard obstacle, and something is gonna disappoint you, let you down or betray you,” Steele said. “Yet it’s no reflection on you, how good you are or how well you’ve done that job.” 

Experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions in his over 30-year-career, Steele has grown tremendously as a journalist. Through that growth, Steele reaffirmed his passion for sports journalism, which never wavered from Mount Vernon to San Francisco.