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Collected Wisdom: Stephen A. Smith, ESPN analyst

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith has become one of the most polarizing figures in sports journalism because of his strong voice — both in volume and in style — across several media platforms.
INTERVIEWED BY GINA MIZELL Published: June 16, 2012
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ESPN's Stephen A. Smith has become one of the most polarizing figures in sports journalism because of his strong voice — both in volume and in style — across several media platforms. He previously worked for outlets such as the New York Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox Sports Net before his current roles at the Worldwide Leader as the co-host of “First Take,” the host of his own show for ESPN Radio New York and a columnist for ESPN.com. Last week, he was in Oklahoma City to cover the Thunder in the NBA Finals.

My father was a baseball and basketball star and was drafted by the Giants for baseball back in the (19) 50s. He was an inspiration. In terms of journalism, the late, great Howard Cosell was an inspiration for me, as well.

I was writing for the school newspaper (at Winston-Salem State University) and I wrote about (coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines) and how he needed to retire — while I was playing for him. Everybody's like, “Stephen A.'s crazy,” but they don't realize what was going on. … I finally said to (Gaines), “I'm an aspiring reporter, and I have to call it like I see it. I'm telling you right now — it's not like I'm divulging any secret — everybody knows that your health isn't the greatest. You're over 70 years of age. You need to step away from this. And if you don't, I'm going to write about it.” He said, “F you, man. Go ahead and do it.” And I did it. And then you had the chancellor of the school, he wanted me expelled. Then you had a bunch of people there that was like, “How could you do this to him?” Nobody picked up on the biggest part of the story — Coach Gaines was the one that stepped up and said, “Leave that boy alone. I told him it was OK for him to write.”

There was an editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal named John Gates that was my professor at Winston-Salem State for a semester. He taught critical and persuasive writing, and he read an essay of mine and told me I was a born sports writer. He said, “I want to take you out to lunch next week,” and I said, “OK, fine.” Come to find out, I had no idea, lunch was with the sports editor of the Winston-Salem Journal (Terry Oberle) and it was in his office and there was no food there. I was just going to meet him, and five minutes later, he hired me on the spot as a clerk in the sports department.

Approximately three weeks later, (Oberle) sent me out on an assignment to do a story on Wake Forest soccer, which was ranked No. 3 in the country. I had never covered soccer in my life. I walk out there and the coach's name was Walt Chyzowych, who has now passed away from cancer, and said, “I don't know a damn thing about soccer. The only time I've ever watched soccer in my life was the 1980 Olympics with Pele. That's it. I don't know anything about the sport, but I'm trying to be a sports writer and this is very important to me. Can you help me?” He said, “Come back tomorrow,” and I came back the next day and gave me complete, unadulterated access to him and his team for three days and instructed every player on the team to give me whatever I needed, to explain the sport of soccer to me. They gave me such incredible access that the Winston-Salem Journal turned it into a two-page, pullout piece on the Wake Forest soccer program. After I wrote the piece, Terry Oberle called me into his office the next day and said, “Congratulations, you are now the beat writer for Wake Forest soccer.” From there, my career took off.

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