ESPN reporter Shelley Smith, right, poses with with daughter Dylann Tharp while in Cuba last June doing on a story about Shaquille O’Neal’s charity work. (Photo courtesy of Shelley Smith)
Shelley Smith’s mother, 81-year-old Luanne Smith, is all dressed up to watch last week’s Kentucky Derby from her home in the Denver area. (Photo courtesy of Shelley Smith)
It’s not atypical for ESPN reporter Shelley Smith to be on assignment on any given Mother’s Day Sunday. This year, she’s been dispatched to Oakland, covering the start of the NBA Western Conference finals.
Her 81-year-old mom, Luanne, remains confined to her bed in suburban Denver, on hospice care for a variety of ailments, but manages to dress up for any occasion, such as last week’s Kentucky Derby.
Smith has comfort knowing that spending the day with her mother will be Smith’s daughter, 31-year-old Dylann Tharp.
“I’ll miss that she’s not as close in proximity,” Smith said of her one-and-only adult-sized kid, “but I’ll be glad she’s with my mom. That will make me happy.”
Working moms in the sports media business develop all sorts of a Wonder Women skills – flexibility, navigation, astutely organized with a few prayers mixed in that things they can’t control don’t fall apart. They might accept nights, weekends and holidays as work-related potholes, but they network with other moms and create strategies with red-eye flights out and first-flights back to have some semblance of normalcy with their families.
And then there are single moms such as Smith, in the media business more than 30 years, who commandeer their careers with even more superpower creativity.
Still, we haven’t got to the subject yet of Smith’s own breast cancer and melanoma recovery the last couple of years, Tharp’s move this week away from Southern California try a new adventure after her job as an NFL Network features producer in Culver City was eliminated in a company reorganization, how both joined emotional forces again after the passing of Smith’s sister last December, and then all the other stress from surviving the recent round of ESPN layoffs.
“This is what happens,” Smith will say, “and you just roll with it. It’s a matter of how you turn something that’s crummy into something positive.”
“She’s a warrior,” Dylann says of her mom.
Dylann’s impact on her mother’s career path happened before she was even born.
At a time when Smith worked as a sports reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the late ‘80s, the editors decided that since she was pregnant and stuck at home, she’d be best suited to watch more TV and write a sports media column.
“I have pictures of her sitting on my lap as I’m typing away on a story,” Smith said.
Smith recalls a time when Dylann used to ask her as they were watching a game on TV: If someone wins, do you have to go somewhere? After having it explained, Dylann admits she’d cheer for the team that affected an outcome to where her mom didn’t have to leave.
As it turned out, on various NBA or college football assignments for Sports Illustrated or ESPN over the years, Smith figured out a way to bring Dylann along. Some PR people or her own production crew didn’t always understand.
“Taking her with me, I thought, would be fun for her, and really, I didn’t think too much about it,” said Smith, who’ll turn 59 in July. “I knew I’d miss her and I didn’t want to miss any more time with her.
“She’s always been curious and adaptable. She’d bring her Barbies along and play with them off to the side. If she got tired, she’d pull a couple of chairs together and fall asleep. She never complained.”
Dylann’s precocious nature resulted in getting an in with the subjects of many of mom’s interviews. Charles Barkley ended up in a series of family Christmas cards. Keyshawn Johnson became her babysitter/nanny before he even attended USC.
When Dylann went to the University of Oregon and became an all-conference defensive standout on the women’s soccer team, Smith organized parent tailgate parties and worked around them to make opening kick. As long as she could find WiFi and file reports, it worked out.
Eventually, Dylann’s toughest adjustment in this “Gilmore Girls”-meets-“Thelma and Louise” dynamic was acting as a caretaker for her mom as she publicly revealed her breast cancer challenge in October 2014, six months after it was diagnosed.
“She and I have been – and I hate to use this phrase – but we’re thick as thieves,” said Dylann. “I felt very helpless. All those times she’d take me to McDonald’s after I lost a soccer game, and now … she was much more the provider.”
Smith biggest fear was telling her parents about the cancer, but “I told Dylann right away. To me it was, ‘Let’s get through it.’ But she really did suffer a lot.”
Dylann adopted a motto that came from a line in the movie “A League of Their Own,” when manager Tom Hanks shouted out with a growl: “We’re gonna win!”
By the time Smith returned to work in April 2015, she and Dylann went together to Hawaii for an NFL draft and soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon quarterback. Smith calls her self cancer-free today.
The special moments
Over the years, the two have managed more lighthearted Mother’s Day rituals. When they lived together in San Pedro, they’d canvas the local newspapers to find who was offering the cheesiest promotion. One led them to a British pub that was giving out Princess Diana mugs. They were first in line that day, afraid the place would run out.
“I have that mug on my hutch as a prized possession,” said Smith.
Dylann says the characteristic she admires most about her mom is her compassion, which includes reaching out recently to ESPN employees who have lost their jobs. Smith said Dylann’s “big heart” is equally admirable, noting a time when Smith got her tickets to a Lakers’ NBA Finals game once, but Dylann thought a special-needs student from her high school would appreciate it more, so she gave them away.
Their two TV journalism careers have crossed. Competitively, they could find themselves “calling dibs” on stories that came up – like an instance last year that saw Dylann and Shelley driving together to Rams’ camp in Oxnard as both worked on pieces for the NFL Network and ESPN, respectively.
Their combined talents came on the 2015 ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “Trojan War” about the 2006 BCS title game. Shelley wrote the narration; Dylann worked on the production side.
They often travel together. They were in Cuba last June as Smith did a piece on Shaquille O’Neal’s charity endeavors. They met up at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where Dylann eventually had to step in as security when a fan from France tried to put a live rooster on her mom’s head as she was doing a live TV shot.
Travels now take Dylann to be with her extended family in Jefferson County, just west of Denver, leaving her place in Echo Park. Journalism has been part of her DNA – her father, Mike Tharp, was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report and now works in Texas. Mike Tharp and Shelly Smith divorced when Dylann was 6.
Dylann admits she could return to the business someday, but now she wants work that’s more meaningful, a greater help to others. She always knows her mom will be there for immediate advice on careers and anything else.
“We probably talk a million times a day,” said Shelley.
“She’s always been there for me,” said Dylann. “She’s the best lady I know. The best person I know.”
MEASURING MEDIA MAYHEM
• In the spirit of reorganization, ESPN isn’t trying to make news by giving new permanency to its “Outside The Lines” and “E:60” news shows, but it ends up doing so. “OTL” gets a new studio and revamped approach for Bob Ley starting Monday at 10 a.m. Jeremy Schaap spearheads the later, with Ley, as a live program Sundays starting at 6 a.m. and repeating throughout the day. “The best part is that there are no rights fees for news,” Ley says. “There’s no commissioner of news that I have to negotiate with for a story.” The first extended piece for Sunday’s “E:60” episode is on the Syrian national soccer team as it tries to prepare to qualify for the upcoming World Cup.
• Spectrum’s Dodgers-owned SportsNet LA rescheduled a recent rainout and will put the home game against Miami on May 21 on to the calendar for a KTLA-Channel 5 simulcast to finish a 10-game sharing plan for this season, but a company spokesperson added there were “no additional games planned at this time” for the rest of the season. Sure, it’s a charity move for the fans that doesn’t necessarily reciprocate financially, but goodwill gestures are needed more at this time. Why not sell off some games to over-the-air KTLA as most other MLB local cable rights fee holders do? Or, undue some of the financial burden, cut some losses, and consider selling off the whole package to Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket now that new ownership is in place with the Charter Cable-AT&T dynamic that isn’t going anywhere as it was when it was Time Warner Cable trying to get DirecTV on board. FSW/PT desperately needs the inventory as it becomes more and more difficult to fill two channels. It’s obvious SNLA needs income, or why else would it be selling off three hours of time overnights now for infomercials? Those don’t reduce the price of your monthly subscription fees.