Though you'd never know it, minutes before the 2004 NBA draft, on the floor of Madison Square Garden, the only person as tense as the high-school and college ballers waiting to hear their names called is Stephen A. Smith. As confident as Smith appears on ESPN — and in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in words that read like they've been pounded out on an anvil instead of a keyboard — you'd think his sweat glands had been surgically sealed shut. Yet here he is, Philadelphia's most talked-about journalist, anticipating the start of his live broadcast and getting reacquainted with his nervous system. This is one of those moments that can sink a career on the rise, and he knows there's a fine line between being opinionated and being annoying. Even his own mother says he's too abrasive, too angry, but when he's talking about how Shaquille O'Neal needs to lose weight, or how Allen Iverson faltered in the Athens Olympics — or even in college, when he wrote an editorial about how the school's basketball coach should retire, while Smith was playing on the basketball team — how's he going to smile through that? Please.
The 2004 draft rolls on, and Smith, impeccably custom-tailored, as he always is these days, does it all. Criticizes Orlando for its number one pick. Trades friendly jabs with windbag Dick Vitale. He even smiles once or twice. Then it happens. Portland takes a high-school kid with the 13th pick, leaving St. Joe's point guard and national player of the year Jameer Nelson to wonder when his name will be called. Smith, along with most other analysts, thought Nelson would be claimed by now. The 14th pick passes by, then 15, then up to 19, when Miami recruits yet another high-schooler over Nelson, who sits politely while ESPN zeroes in on his face to the tune of “I Want You to Want Me.” Unable to contain himself, with his microphone on and his words rumbling across the floor of the Garden and the nation, Smith does his thing.
“Now I know why so many executives are getting fired in the NBA,” he says, eyes wide and locked hard on the camera. “You're at number 19 and you need a point guard and you pass [Nelson] up for a guard that's going to be ready in three, maybe four years? Please. Please. I'm just tired of it.”
Smith isn't the first newswriter to train his laser-sighted viewpoint on a TV audience, but the passion and the theater in his performance — one part sports attack dog Jim Rome, two parts Jesse Jackson, with a pinch of LL Cool J — make him a pioneer of sorts. Columnists were once cigar-chomping shot-and-a-beer types, middle-aged white dudes who were better read than seen. The Mitch Albom types are younger, more polished and palatable, but just as removed from the sports they cover. Just look at the NBA and its gaping divide between stodgy white owners, the mostly white coaches, and the hip-hop generation athletes who play for them. Smith is the first writer-cum-commentator, ever, who relates to the guys who lace up their hightops for a living because he's like them — a black former athlete who doesn't just understand the game and the culture around it; he lives it. Think Joe Buck has a row of Air Jordans behind his couch and owns the Public Enemy back catalog?
“Stephen is from the new school,” says Bob Costas, whose esteemed career Smith says he hopes to emulate. “Bryant Gumbel has an edge, but he's more of the traditional style. Stephen comes with attitude, and he cuts through. He has a presence.”
And Smith's not about to pucker up and kiss ass. If he thinks your game is rusty, he says it. Steal a paycheck on the court every night, he calls you on it. He even ripped black athletes for disrespecting black coaches, saying it's “not the white man's fault” but their own, and suggesting that more than a few Sixers quit on Randy Ayers last season. Where the Alboms appear safe, Smith is consciously every bit the Malcolm X of sports analysis.
He's proving that on the floor of the Garden. Smith ends his soliloquy with a look of disgust, like a visual exclamation point. Cheers rise from the St. Joe's fans in attendance, and when the cameras fade to black, their hero is still incredulous. “It doesn't make any sense!” he says to his co-hosts. The next week, the Washington Post declares ESPN'S SMITH IS NO. 1 AT DRAFT, calling him “refreshing,” “a young talent.”
There are talkers, and there are talkers, and nowhere is the contrast so stark as in athletics, where running one's mouth is both a weapon on the field and an irresistible sideshow away from it. Some of the best talkers in sports call this town home: Eagles Terrell Owens and Hugh Douglas, Flyer Jeremy Roenick. Then you have the folks who make a living with the words these men spew. Most of them write. Some do television. Just a handful do both. In that clique, there's really only one talker — Stephen A. Smith, who, at 37, is one of only about 40 black journalists nationwide to hold the title of general columnist, who's so popular that other ESPN anchors do on-air impressions of him, and who fends off fans and foes everywhere he goes, in airports, in restaurants, coast to coast.
Foes? Yes, that's part of his appeal. The New York Post's Peter Vescey calls him a “fool.” Howard Eskin once compared him to disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. He's heard “Screamin' A. Smith” more than once, too. Love him or hate him, no one pulls a Switzerland when it comes to Mr. Smith, and he doesn't care either way. He explains this on a lengthy break during one of his latest gigs, Dream Job, ESPN's sportscasting version of American Idol, on which he plays the Simon Cowell role of tough judge. Inside a chauffeured town car as an otherworldly rainstorm pounds Manhattan, Stephen A., as he's known now, unfolds his long legs, rests his monogrammed cuffs on black leather seats, and explains that he's not out to make enemies. He's just being himself.
“I don't question myself at all on television,” he says. “I don't sound like anyone else. I have a level of confidence on television I've never had in newspapers.” In print, he's not like fellow Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon, who massages each line, decorating them with italics, with poetry, with sentences that read like sound effects. Smith's words bludgeon. (On Kobe Bryant's changing image: “Listen closely to the so-called experts: Because of a criminal arrest, Bryant and thug life ostensibly are now synonymous. Insulted yet? We should all be fuming!”) Sometimes his cadences are staccato bursts that ignore any sense of subtlety. Sometimes he uses four words where one would do just fine. (Again, on Kobe: “There will be no incarceration … nor probation for an inmate once draped in purple and gold. He will not be the sexual offender in the neighborhood nearest you, vehemently ostracized from city to city by those hell-bent on sullying his name.”)
When you're finished reading, though, you know exactly where he stands. The state of track and field in the drug-test era? “Is your blood clean? That is the prevailing question. … Have you used steroids? Forget about times … or world records.” La Salle University, in the wake of its rape scandal? “Attention parents: Do not enroll your children at La Salle University.” That one prompted the Catholic school to demand a meeting with the Inquirer, which defended its columnist. He's made his mistakes, too — among them, predicting that Tubby Smith would be hired to coach the Sixers, and ripping beloved La Salle coach Speedy Morris in 2001 with words like “abysmal,” “dismal” and “ineptitude,” which led him to apologize privately to Morris and his family, and on WIP, this year. But he also has respect — when Shaq heard the Los Angeles Times was running a story about Kobe talking trash to the cops about the big man's female “situations,” one of the first calls he made was to Smith. His broadcast style is like his newsprint come to life, a blunt aural weapon with the volume permanently stuck on 10. He made a career in newspapers, but TV has become his home. There's that swagger, that cocksure defiance, that … that …
“You want to say I'm arrogant?” says Smith, filling in the blanks from behind the town car's tinted windows. “Okay. My response is, are you called an affirmative-action hire? I am. Are you continuously questioned about everything from your morals to your skills to your upbringing to your intelligence? I am. I got two choices. I'm gonna either come across as arrogant, because I'm basically saying I don't give a fuck about what you think, or I'm gonna come across as a very weak individual, because you're insulting me and it's affecting me. I chose to fight back.”
I was among the haters. Reading his columns, watching his SportsCenter rants, I couldn't reconcile his substance with his style — I agreed with much of what he said, but was repelled by his on-air theatrics. It was like watching Al Sharpton sermonize on why the Sixers should dump Glenn Robinson. I met Smith once three years ago on a local sports show, and heard him berate a production assistant for snapping his microphone pack onto the back of his belt, not on his side — On the side! On the side! — where he apparently liked it. As we're driven out of Manhattan, I wonder if my first impression is actually dead-on. Stephen A. finishes his thought about himself.
“When you say, 'Stephen A., you don't know what the hell you're talking about, you're a shitty-ass columnist,' I choose to say, Fuck you too. I know what I am. I don't give a damn what you think about me.”
As a journalist, you know you've arrived when the competition is writing stories about you, and if the 2004 NBA draft was Smith's on-air coming-out party, April 19th of this year was his print coronation. That day, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a profile on him, assigned to writer Jim Nolan, who focused on Smith's television career while wisely sidestepping any awkward analysis of Smith's print work. The story did not sit well with the paper's sports department. “It was difficult to be in the Phillies press box and they're showing [our] story about the other guy's most popular writer,” says Marcus Hayes, one of Smith's only black sportswriting comrades in town. “But I understood why they did it. His visibility has gone up. He's newsworthy.” Daily News Sixers beat writer Phil Jasner is less complimentary when asked about his competitor. “A colleague mentioned to me that he liked Stephen a lot more when he was Stephen Smith, as opposed to Stephen A. Smith,” Jasner says. “I would agree.”
Ask those who know Smith — really know him, beyond sharing pressroom lunches and bullshitting between periods at basketball games — and you'll see that the old Stephen has a lot in common with the one featured in full-page Inquirer ads, where he stands above a banner declaring HOME OF STEPHEN A., hands deep in suit-pants pockets, legs spread, striking a stance similar in shape to and just as bold as that middle initial. The highlight reel of his journey to fame begins in Queens, New York, where folks in modest houses with wisps of front lawns cling to the middle class, and more specifically at the intersection where Jamaica and Hollis avenues collide. For those who live there, the path you take home defines you. Like rap pioneers Run-DMC, Smith is not just from Queens, but from Hollis, Queens. Nights spent hanging on the corner of 203rd and 111th, listening to hip-hop, that's where his talk was forged.
His mouth came in handy at home, where he was a youngest child with four older sisters and a brother. Arthritis forced his father to retire early from 20 years of managing a hardware store, leaving the family to depend on his mother, a registered nurse, to fill the role of provider and show Smith that all his yapping meant nothing without hard work backing it up. That lesson, and his mouth, were put to use during his senior year at Thomas Edison High, when Smith took all 135 pounds on his five-foot-10 frame to basketball tryouts. The year before, he was cut when star Frank Williams, whom he couldn't stand, kept him away from the ball in drills. Smith decided there was only one way to guarantee he'd get his hands on the rock this year, and that was to talk, constantly, about how he'd school that kid in tryouts this time. Williams knew if he froze Smith out again, he'd come off weak, like he was running from a challenge. Smith got his looks, posted 30 points, and made the team.
His career as a baller ended at Winston-Salem State, where he blew out his knee while playing for coaching legend Clarence “Big House” Gaines. That was when his mother asked one of those questions mothers tend to ask their sons — What are you going to do with your life? Her son's first thought was, “Everybody says I know how to talk. I'll do television.” Then his professor of critical and persuasive writing read one of his essays and said he was a born sportswriter. Smith landed a part-time job with the Winston-Salem Journal sports department in 1990, and a host of editors took him under wing.
“What was refreshing about him was that he was so willing to acknowledge his shortcomings,” says Terry Oberle, who is still the Journal's sports editor. “He's always had a little bit of bluster, but he was an athlete first, and all athletes do.” Though Oberle saw Smith as a work in progress as a writer, the kid never shied away from criticism or tough assignments, including his first, covering Wake Forest men's soccer — a sport he knew absolutely nothing about. After he graduated with a mass-communications degree, Smith knew that doors were opening thanks to newsroom diversity issues — minority reporters were in short supply and high demand, even as their bylines seemed to disappear as suddenly as they came. He worked for a few Southern dailies before getting his big break in 1993 with the New York Daily News.
Smith was determined to prove he deserved to be in the big leagues, and the diverse Daily News staff was a welcome change. After a year of covering everything from homicides to high-school sports, he came to the Inquirer in 1994 as a Temple sports beat writer. Today, he fields up to 400 e-mails a day, and is by far the most trafficked reporter on the Inquirer website, thanks to columns calling Penn State “insane” for extending Joe Paterno's contract in May and, in February, challenging Andy Reid to admit he needed a play-making wide receiver. (Few would argue either point today.) Still, his old mentor sees room for improvement. “If he wrote as well as he talked,” says Oberle, before pausing. “Guess it's just the editor in me that wishes he was more polished.” Jim Jenks, Smith's Inquirer editor, says that while he occasionally needs to rein in Smith's words, the emotional notes are almost always pitch-perfect. “He's a columnist because he has the loudest voice,” Jenks says. “Either through e-mail or canceled subscriptions, he makes people yell back.” Smith also speaks to black readers in ways other journalists do not, and perhaps cannot. “It's a cultural thing you and I will never understand,” Jenks says.
Television reentered Smith's game plan during the 1998 NBA lockout, when his reporting on negotiations and insights into the player perspective established him as an insider. Other print guys were management-minded, relating more to the suits who run the league (which may speak in part to why, one source says, Comcast chairman Ed Snider can't stand Smith). Smith connected with the players, and they respected that while he listened to them, he wasn't afraid to call them out when he felt they deserved it, and he never ran his mouth about their business away from the court. After developing an on-air presence on local cable and radio shows, Smith sprinted up the TV ladder, signing with CNNSI in 1999, with Fox Sports in 2000, and then with ESPN last year.
Last year was also when Jenks made the decision to promote Smith to general columnist. “I don't know how long this is going to last, but he puts the column first,” Jenks says, adding that on the night of the NBA draft in New York, Smith filed a story during breaks, on his BlackBerry: “He knows it gives credibility to what he does on TV.” And what he's doing on TV is unique among black sportscasters. Unlike Bryant Gumbel, he's too street to be thoroughly palatable to a mass — read: white — audience. Unlike ESPN's Stuart Scott, he's not over the top with slang. But that hip-hop attitude is there, and it's part of the reason he's found success. “His delivery is culturally affected,” says Daily News writer Marcus Hayes. “I call it 'jive journalism.' He's always been outspoken and opinionated. But he's accentuated the things that make him appealing as an analyst.” For all the viewers who watch because they relate to Smith, there are those who watch just because they can't stand him. (This is ironically similar to the local success of Howard Eskin, with whom Smith shares a mutual dislike.) “The goal of a good commentator is to get a reaction,” says Jim Nolan, who wrote the Daily News Smith profile. “He gets a reaction. If everyone loved him, he wouldn't be doing his job, and if everyone hated him, he wouldn't have a job.”
Smith rarely speaks about race on TV, but really, every time he speaks, race is part of the dialogue. You never forget there's a black man talking, and he doesn't want you to. You might not like the way he walks through a door, all strut and self-importance, or the stridency in his delivery, but he believes the opportunities he's been given are justified by hard work — at every free moment, he's pecking out text messages or adding to his cell-phone bill, which he says is “exorbitant” and covered by the Inquirer. Smith knows that in some eyes, he fills the role of “angry black man” on the air, and feels the burden of proving he's more than just a caricature. As the baby in the family, as a skinny kid trying out for the basketball team, as a black writer and as one lone face in the 800-channel universe, he has to shout to be heard.
From the backseat of his ESPN-sponsored town car, Smith directs the driver to Queens, and repeats what he's told me multiple times, as though he knows he's making a mistake but can't help himself: “No one has met my mother.” Like the athletes he covers, Smith prefers to keep his private life on the down low — he takes multiple calls from a woman who's heading to his house in Jersey, but won't elaborate on her. Smith has said that fame without fortune sucks, like when the Daily News dragged his personal life into public view by running gossip about his vacation with a girlfriend, who is now an ex. But considering he's got two jobs, including a six-figure deal with ESPN that provides a home near Cherry Hill with a garage big enough for his BMW and a Yukon Denali with 20-inch rims, not to mention the attention of at least one famous actress who, a broadcasting friend says, is “in love with that fool,” well, it appears that Smith is doing fine in both the fame and fortune departments.
We take the long way so Smith can point out the home of Jam Master Jay, Run-DMC's beat architect. Jay was a good friend of Smith's older brother, Basil, and when the tinted town car passes by, Smith does the unthinkable — looking out the rain-soaked windows, he goes quiet, just for a moment. The hip-hop world mourned Jay's death in October 2002, but as we pass his house, Smith thinks back to that same month in 1992, when Basil was killed in a car accident at age 33. On Smith's birthday, he buried his brother, and he hasn't celebrated on that day since.
For all Smith's new-school attitude, his mother's house is a shrine to old-school living. Orange couches covered in plastic sit near an upright piano cluttered with photos of grandkids. When Smith is told to show them off, his mother sits in an easy chair beneath a framed poster of “The Real Last Supper” — those aren't tans that Jesus and his apostles are sporting — and reminds him, in the rhythmic Caribbean lilt of her native St. Thomas, to be sure not to skip any of them. Sitting near her at a cramped dining room table are two of Smith's older sisters. They've stopped by to join their mom in laughing with, at, and about their brother.
In junior high, they said he should be a lawyer because he argues so much, says his mother.
He palms his face with both hands. Middle child Abigail leaves and returns with, oh no, is that a picture frame?
Here's Stephen in junior high school. Isn't he cute?
Mom, tell him how when Stephen was in Athens for the Olympics, he called you to go to his house and clean his refrigerator! And restock it!
First thing out of his mouth when he walks through the door is, Can I get some love? We say, Can we get a chance to miss you?
He comes home, walks into our parents' room, looks at himself in the mirror and says, Y'all didn't know it was going to look this good, did you?
There go his shoulders, usually pitched up as broad as he can make them, now arched toward the rust shag carpet. His head wilts. The swagger disappears, and Stephen A. looks just like the 20-year-old in the Knicks t-shirt with a flattop again. Don't mistake this for complete embarrassment — here, he's still the youngest child, and loving the attention. If anything's changed, it's that his mouth now runs on confidence, not just energy. “He's more arrogant,” says Linda, the eldest sister, who speaks in slow, measured lines that command attention. That statement nearly causes her little brother to snap his neck as he shoots her a look like, Whatdidyousay? She pauses, and reconsiders as only an eldest sister would do. “No, he's not arrogant. He's convinced.” Smith arches an eyebrow and puckers his lips, but doesn't open them to object, of course.
His mouth and the opinions that fly out of it were born here, and just as you can't separate the kid from Hollis from the columnist, from the commentator, you can't separate the hip-hop hoops fan from New York from the man he is today. Watching Smith at the dinner table, it's easy to imagine the Thanksgivings when he literally propped up his laptop between the turkey and potatoes to write a column, reading lines out loud for some instant feedback. Less than an hour later, he returns to Manhattan for dinner before he's due back at the Dream Job set, and as his car pulls up to the ESPN Zone in Times Square, Smith attempts to describe Stephen A. Smith in a nutshell.
“Before Malcolm X hit the scene the way he did, black folks are getting hosed down, getting beat with clubs. Malcolm X comes along and says, By any means necessary. Black folks start rising up. They start saying, 'Why can't you listen to Martin Luther King?' Before Malcolm came along, that wasn't the case. Now you want peace? That's what Martin Luther King was preaching about all day long! What I'm saying is, we got a whole bunch of mild-mannered people out here. You don't listen to them until you hear somebody like me. Then after you hear me, you'd rather hear them. I'm the rebel. That's me.”
With that, ESPN's resident renegade opens the door of his chauffeured ride and strolls into the restaurant, where he signs a dollar bill for a preppy-looking white dude who's all apologies for interrupting Smith's cheeseburger. When the marker Smith is given doesn't produce a satisfactory result, he reassures the kid: “I can sign the other side with a pen.” That's when I reconcile the autograph-giver with the guy I saw, a few years ago, dressing down a well-intentioned microphone-holding production assistant. Yes, he's arrogant, but when you see why — when you know he's been yapping all his life, and now he's getting paid for it — what, he's supposed to be shy all of a sudden? Please. People always said he could talk, and now, well, he's just convinced they were right. So keep loving, keep hating. 'Cause he knows you're watching. b
Stephen A.'s Greatest Hits
ON THE PERCEPTION OF JIMMY ROLLINS CHANGING FROM CLUBHOUSE CLOWN TO SERIOUS PHILLIE:
“Larry Bowa [was] concerned that [his] starting shortstop just wasn't himself anymore. … Well, listen up, please! If you learn nothing else about most young black men in today's world, please learn this: Excluding aspiring Macs and Rocks, the absolute last thing most black males want to be recognized as is a comedian.
— Inquirer, March 30, 2003.
ON THE LA SALLE RAPE SCANDAL:
“The La Salle mess has already gone on for far too long. Let us all stop pretending we don't know why. Leaders lead by example. They stand up, accept responsibility. … Those on [La Salle president Michael] McGinniss's level usually do so face-to-face instead of relying on websites and foolish support from uninformed students. … ” — Inquirer, September 24, 2004.
ON MICHAEL JORDAN:
“If Jordan's ability to instill heart in Scottie Pippen and keep the theatrics of Dennis Rodman to a minimum — all while being grossly underpaid — doesn't prove [his greatness], nothing will.” — Inquirer, September 25, 2004.
ON ENGAGING A TV AUDIENCE:
“The only thing that was missing was a pillow, because you were that boring.” — to a Dream Job contestant.
ON THE SIXERS AND ED SNIDER:
“[Pat] Croce needs to be an executive with Comcast again. He needs to be the man in charge of marketing the Sixers, the Flyers, and anything else Comcast has. Comcast-Spectacor owners Brian and Ralph Roberts need to come out of their cocoons and admit as much. Minority owner Ed Snider needs to bury his ego and admit he should have given Croce some control in the first place. Even if it means apologizing.” — Inquirer, February 16, 2003.
ON THE BOSTON RED SOX:
“They are sloppy, slovenly and rife with deficiencies. Their history is an amalgamation of infamy and misery.” — Inquirer, October 25, 2004.
ON SPURS CENTER TIM DUNCAN:
“Duncan, as great as he is, is just too boring and lacking in charisma for anyone outside of San Antonio to care.” — Inquirer, September 25, 2004.
ON PHILLY FANS:
“If Flyers fans are bitter, don't knock 'em. Don't bother messing with 76ers' or Eagles' or Phillies' faithful either. At some point, it's fair for a paying customer to demand a level of excellence, particularly when shining examples are in close proximity.” — Inquirer, June 11, 2003.
ON WALKING THE WALK:
“Style without substance doesn't mean a damn thing. … You've got this arrogance and cockiness you wear on your sleeve. I love it. Don't change it at all. All I'm saying is, back it up with information.” — to a Dream Job contestant.