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.
I always knew that I wanted to have the license to express myself, my opinion as opposed to be restricted to just reporting. At the time, that was my greatest achievement, becoming a columnist (for The Philadelphia Inquirer).
I'm not going to sit there and sugarcoat it. If you stink, I'm going to say you stink. I'm not going to say you struggled. If you were awful, I'm not going to say “Well, you know, you just struggled a little.” No. You were awful. It is what it is.
I don't worry about being liked. Nobody wants to be hated, and I certainly don't. But if you do hate me because I choose to tell the truth and I choose to be answerable to my listeners and my viewers and my readers, and that's a problem for you, you're going to have to get over it. Because I'm not changing.
If I had to pick one (moment I covered) that goes above all of them, I was there when (Michael) Jordan crossed over Bryon Russell, pushed off and drilled the jump shot and posed in 1998 to deliver the world championship.
Allen Iverson is always at the top of that list (of favorite interviews). When you get him going, he's not holding back. He's not going to cheat you with his answers. He's going to give it from the heart.
(Being parodied on Saturday Night Live) was nice. I appreciate the moment. It was a lot of fun. But I still have to get up and go to work the next day. I still put on my shoes and my pants just like everybody else. I don't really get caught up in all of that. But it was funny. I will admit that.
I've always prided myself on being multifaceted. I did sports. I did politics. I write. I do radio. I do television. All of those things are true, but at the same time, there comes a time where you have to lock in. For me, what I've been blessed and fortunate about is that I'm working for a company like ESPN that allows me to do all of those things. I don't have to sit back and wonder what I'm missing out on. All I have to do is tell them, “This is what I want to do,” and they usually have the outlet for me to do it.