Stephen Anthony Smith desires your contempt. He is pleased by your hatred. ¬∂ It is early in the evening on a recent Wednesday in Hollywood, and Stephen A. Smith is explaining the immaculate conception of his television persona. "I just walked on the airwaves and did it. It's me. I can't stand lying. I can't stand liars. I can't stand people who look into the camera and look into the eyes of millions of people and wax political correctness. I have an obligation to make sure that you know that what I say is exactly how I feel, and I don't care how you take it." ¬∂ In fact, every shake of your head because you can't believe he said this or claimed that and each angry glare at his indefensible defense of an NBA superstar's misbehavior or dismissal of a preposterous, scandalous, absolutely and utterly ludicrous allegation that Allen Iverson's people are not only denying but vehemently rebuking feeds the media creation that is ESPN NBA analyst Stephen A. Smith. His obstreperous fulfillment of that obligation to "say exactly how I feel" has meant becoming to sports punditry what Rush Limbaugh is to political analysis and James Cramer is to business news: the final triumph of bluster and confidence over content, of point of view over facts, of opinion over objectivity. All Stephen A. has done is import all that noise from the cable commentary shows just a few remote clicks away from ESPN. Yet ask most sports fans or scroll through the sports blogosphere, and one take recurs regularly when it comes to Stephen A. or, as he has been dubbed, Screaming A. Smith or Stephen Anal Smith or Stephen X: He is the most despised sports personality on the air today. Why, then, is ESPN giving him his own show, Quite Frankly, debuting Aug. 1? How is it that you can't drive up or down the East Coast without seeing his smirking mug glaring at you from a billboard? Why did his arrival in 2003 spur a 17% ratings jump for the ESPN flagship basketball show NBA Shootaround? "Stephen A. Smith moves the needle on ratings," says Mark Shapiro, executive vice president of programming and production at ESPN. "Is he more liked or disliked? Who knows? Who cares? He leaves an imprint. People might come back because they hate him. The bottom line is, they come back."
Stephen A. is on the business end of microphones up to a dozen times a day, pontificating throughout the ESPN empire--SportsCenter, NBA Shootaround, NBA Nation, NBA Fastbreak, Pardon the Interruption and his eponymous radio show. It is 11 a.m. on a Thursday in Los Angeles, and he pulls a microphone closer in a studio just south of Hollywood. As he launches into a long lambasting of Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez's decision to forgo a spot on the National League All-Star team, he is in typical form. There is the staccato flow of words. Much has been made of his hip-hop roots, his growing up in Hollis, Queens, home turf of Run DMC and a family friend, the late Run DMC DJ Jam Master Jay. His delivery, however, is more revival preacher than urban rapper, and his cadence and rhythm--and the white shirts, dark suits and ties--is the style and voice from on high on Sunday mornings, warning, imprecating and, always, scolding.
Then there is the moment he goes into a higher register, cuts off his caller or fellow commentator with a "Wrong!" or a "No, no, no!" or a "Please!" And then the Stephen A. sermon reaches its climax with a characteristic leap of faith: the unwillingness to back down in the face of a compelling argument. (Martinez is starting the game before the All-Star break so he won't be available to pitch anyway, so why take the roster spot from another deserving pitcher?)
"Please!" Stephen A. says. "He owes it to Mets fans to be there."
As a half-dozen of those fans light up the phone lines--they would rather have Martinez rested and ready for the second half of the season than wasting his time in Detroit--Stephen A. brushes them off with a low-registered "I disagree."
Disagreement is his default setting.
His radio show wrapped, he stands, slips on a gray jacket, straightens his tie and shoots the cuffs of his SAS-monogrammed shirt. At 6'2" he is larger than he appears on television, in part because on-screen he tends to be partnered with former NBA players who dwarf him. On TV he seems almost to be crowding the camera, bending forward, into your living room, his skinny torso lost in suits that seem too big, giving the impression of a child who has just raided his dad's closet. His facial structure is sharp, angular, but his features, and the professorial goatee, all get pleasingly flattened out on camera.
In the back of a town car on the way to his guest-host gig on Rome Is Burning--that's why he's in L.A. this week--he checks his voice mail and listens to 11 angry messages criticizing his latest column in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Phillies outfielder Jason Michaels's legal woes. When he is between microphones, Stephen A. retreats into himself, a little like a puffer fish when a threat has receded. He is still Stephen A., opinionated, brash, outspoken and articulate, but the volume comes down, the posture goes from incline to recline. But even in his downtime he is prone to imperial proclamations. "I prefer turkey to other potential sandwich meats," he says when asked what he is having for lunch. "Turkey is delicious, and the turkey and cheese sandwich is my personal favorite. It doesn't upset my stomach, and I like to have it once or twice week."
Or, "I date African-American women. That's all I date. In my family it was never discussed--but I love black women. Nothing beats a sister. However, when you see a female like Jennifer Lopez, you have to acknowledge that there are many beautiful Latino women as well."
"He's always been that way," says Jeff Brown, a classmate from Thomas Edison High. "Stephen just says what's on his mind. He doesn't have any filter."
Spending a day with Stephen A. means constantly revisiting each of that day's stations of the sports cross as he is called upon to opine and spew on the television and radio airwaves. Today's topics are the Pedro Martinez issue, the Red Sox' announcement that they will be using Curt Schilling out of the bullpen, the Milwaukee Bucks' re-signing of Michael Redd and Larry Brown's slow-motion jettisoning by the Detroit Pistons. But only on the last story does Stephen A. have enough time between his many broadcasted takes to work his sources, correctly predicting that Brown will leave the Pistons after speaking with both Joe Dumars and Brown, no small feat considering that every sportswriter in the country is trying to get them on the phone. On the other issues he opines in his patented style but with very little substance. His strength, however, is that he can riff without much hard data. He always has a take, as his friend Jim Rome has said, "and he doesn't suck."
It's easy to imagine this skinny, 37-year-old man in his big suit as a young boy who would eagerly explain to you in precise detail--as he still will, when called upon--why he loves Captain Crunch. Or extol the virtues of Count Chocula. He was always talkative, his mother, St. Thomas native Janet Smith explains in her Caribbean accent: "Even in P.S. 192 his teachers always told me I should send him to school to be a lawyer because he liked to argue so much."
The youngest of six siblings, Stephen A. says he grew up poor; his father, Ashley, was manager and part owner of a hardware store. Stephen A.'s greatest gift--besides gab--was playing ball. Nicknamed the Pedestrian "because he never drove to the hoop," says Jeff Brown, Smith was a shoot-first, pass-never point guard who played college ball first at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology, of all places, and then at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State, where the 5'10" 20-year-old won a scholarship from legendary coach Clarence (Big House) Gaines by hitting 17 straight three-pointers in a tryout. "If I were as tall then as I am now, then who knows," Stephen A. says. "I might have played D-I."
While in college he wrangled an internship at the Winston-Salem Journal. Their Charlotte Hornets beat writer then, John Delong, recalls a young man who probed him with endless questions about the NBA. "I remember this kid asking me, What do you do on the road? When do you go to shootaround? How do you deal with the players? What's Larry Johnson really like?"
Delong also recalls being impressed by the young Stephen A. "What stood out was the ambition and the attitude. I knew he was probably going to be a success, because he was so ambitious and so full of s---."
After graduating with a communications degree, Stephen A. landed an internship at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, then, one year later, a job covering high school sports with the New York Daily News before catching on with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994 as the Temple sports-beat writer. Three years later he was the Inquirer's 76ers beat writer and finally, in 2003, a full-time sports columnist for the paper. His move to television began in 1998 with the NBA lockout, as he made a name for himself on TV with his pro-player stance. He has since made a steady climb up the TV ladder, from CNNSI, the former television arm of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, to Fox Sports in 2000, to ESPN in 2003. "We liked the attitude," says Steve Robinson, his executive producer at CNNSI, where he was an NBA analyst. "He was very telegenic, but we wanted him to be more of a reporter."
The media moment that revealed the value of Stephen A. Smith was Rush Limbaugh's offensive September 2003 claim on ESPN's NFL Sunday Countdown that the liberal media was overpraising Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because he was black. Stephen A. appeared in the next 24 hours on Good Morning America, Fox News, MSNBC and ESPN as the anti-Rush and seemed to find his voice. He deftly deflected an accusation of bias by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC, for example, by saying, "The fact of the matter is that sometimes I am going to come across not just as being a columnist but as being a black columnist, and the reason for that is the paucity of black columnists in this country.... The fact is there haven't been many blacks in a position to give their opinion. So who has been formulating and implementing these opinions about black athletes all these years? White folks."
When ESPN's Shapiro, looking to improve the network's NBA coverage, brought up his name at a production meeting in July 2003, he was shocked by the negative reaction. "We wanted a game changer. Charles Barkley is a game changer," says Shapiro. "We brought up Stephen A. Smith. There were 28 people in the room, and they were all vehement: 'No way, never, never!' I said, 'We've gotta get this guy in here.'"
Three months later ESPN hired Stephen A. What it got was an African-American who is not afraid to be, as his fellow Philadelphian Schooly D might say, "black enough for ya." No way, never, never again would comments like those made by Limbaugh go unchallenged on ESPN.
Yet for all his voice-of-conscience moments, when he defends Barry Bonds, for example, by making the interesting point that a black athlete's arrogance may be the only shield he has against the "venom that is spewed" at him or criticizes the NBA age limit as being inherently racist--"Who does it affect? Young black males. Period"--he occasionally takes that perspective too far, such as the night Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest went into the stands after Detroit fans and Stephen A., on the air, spoke out in his defense.
"For the first few minutes I didn't have the proper perspective," he now concedes. "I know that it is never acceptable to do what Ron Artest did. But my initial response: I'm a black man, and I see black players getting beer doused on them.... There are too many people, particularly those in the black community who raised me, who went through what they went through in the '60s. Marching. Getting hosed down, getting dogs sicced on them and all that stuff. And I spoke to so many people from that generation who told me that's exactly what they thought about when they saw those players getting doused with beer."
Does that take make you angry? Are you disgusted by Stephen A. equating the civil rights movement with Ron Artest attacking fans? "That's what listening to Stephen A. is all about," says his NBA Shootaround colleague Greg Anthony. "One minute you're agreeing with him, and the next minute you think he's insane."
He lives in a 4,000-square-foot house near Cherry Hill, N.J., and commutes to New York City in his 7-series BMW or his Yukon Denali past those billboards on the New Jersey turnpike bearing his face. He is earning, he says, "something like" NBA-minimum money now (the league minimum is $800,000) but still files his column twice a week. In his office, across the street from Madison Square Garden, he sits in a leather chair and talks about buying a gun. He feels he needs a pistol--properly licensed, of course--because of the death threats he says he receives. There is, apparently, a downside to the hatred.
But this office, paid for in part by that public anger--with its glass-topped coffee table, refrigerator, shag carpeting and leather furniture, just downstairs from a TV studio being custom-built by ESPN for Stephen A. in a converted hotel ballroom--represents the desired destination of more and more sports journalists today. Increasingly, the goal of sportswriters is to become on-air pundits because TV money and fame far outweigh the paychecks and bylines of most print reporters. Stephen A. is just the latest and loudest embodiment of this transition, yet his print-to-pundit predecessors, such as Peter Vecsey, Mike Lupica and Skip Bayless, never generated this kind of resentment. Among his fellow Philadelphia sportswriters there is a steady drumbeat of anger at Stephen A.'s success. One hears dark, unsubstantiated rumors of sloppy sourcing, primarily regarding his television work. His repeated declarations in 2003 that Tubby Smith was being courted for the job as the next coach of the 76ers were mentioned by two Philadelphia colleagues. "They see a guy who is not writing as well as they are, who is not showing up at practice every day, who is not in the trenches, and suddenly he is a national figure," says Robert Rhys of Philadelphia Magazine. "There is some professional jealousy there."
Yet for all the anger directed toward Stephen A., to walk into a basketball arena with him is to see a vivid outpouring of respect and love from fans and some players--not quite the buzz that greets Jay-Z when he arrives courtside for a Nets game, but considerably more affection than, say, fellow ESPN reporter Jim Gray will ever generate. And as a reporter he breaks more news than most of his critics.
Stephen A. promises that Quite Frankly will not be just another talk show. He swears he will stay away from teleprompterized monologues and softball questions lobbed fawningly at guests. The show promises vast amounts of prime time to big-name athletes whenever they need it, so Quite Frankly could become a regular stop for many of the stars in Stephen A.'s vast web of sports contacts. If he can consistently wrangle the Terrell Owenses, Allen Iversons and Rasheed Wallaces in for extended sit-down interviews and call them out on their posturing or excesses of ego--pot, meet kettle--then the show may quiet the critics who claim, as one of Stephen A.'s Philadelphia rivals did, "that he lives up the player's butts."
"Please!" Stephen A. says of those who criticize him for being too cozy with his subjects. "I think these people have a problem with the way that I convey my thoughts and my opinions. They have a problem with the fact that I'm in their face and I'm not backing up. I don't necessarily think that it's because they are racist or it's because of quote-unquote racism. I think a big problem, when it comes to race relations, is people's unwillingness to talk about it. Well, I'll talk about. I'll sit down with the Ku Klux Klan, if they'll have me."
He stands up and walks down the hall, through his office suite, where two dozen young, predominantly white staffers are working on his show, then out double doors and through a service exit to an elevator, which takes him up to his new studio. There, he bounds up the three steps to the stage. He stands for a moment, amid carpenters pounding nails into the still unpainted set and grips taping down cables and technicians adjusting spotlights. Here is where the LCD screen will descend from the ceiling, he is told. A sofa will be over there. And from here, he can do his SportsCenter spots, his NBA Shootaround remotes.
The sports world, it seems, will now come to Stephen A. Smith when it needs a quote or a quibble. No more vagabonding from studio to studio. It awes him for a moment, this much work and effort on his behalf, for his show, which is built, after all, at least in part, on your hatred.
And, for the first time in a long time, he has nothing to say.