I realize this isn’t OSU-related, but I know many (if not most) of you Cowboy fans are also Thunder fans. I interviewed ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith for our weekly “Collected Wisdom” feature in Sunday’s paper. You can read it here.
Smith spent 30 minutes on the phone with me on Saturday and offered some great insight on his journey to becoming one of the most recognizable national voices on the NBA, and sports in general. He told me he felt it was the right thing to do to grant my interview request so he could give Thunder fans an idea of who the heck this guy was that was talking about their team. There’s also some great advice in here for aspiring journalists, particularly when he talks about how he handled an assignment/sport that was completely foreign to him at the time.
I trimmed the interview way down for the paper. Here’s the long version.
On what first inspired him to go into sports journalism:
My family was heavily into sports. My father is from the West Indies, the St. Thomas Virgin Islands. My father was a baseball and basketball star and was drafted by the Giants 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. It’s amazing, if you make a little bit of money and you’re investing and all of that stuff, the first people I looked at was Merrill Lynch because Howard Cosell used to do halftime highlights and he’d say, “Merrill Lynch, a breed apart.”
My family, my friends, just growing up in the streets of New York City, being an avid sports junkie, watching football, watching basketball, playing basketball. I’ve always had a connection with the world of sports, so it was natural for me. That was basically my inspiration — my father, my upbringing, and as I got older, obviously the late, great Howard Cosell
On playing for Clarence “Big House” Gaines at Winston-Salem State and writing a story about him for the school newspaper that called for him to retire:
Coach Gaines wasn’t just a coach to me. He was a father figure. We were incredibly close. Everybody talks about how I played for him — I tried to play. I came here with tendonitis in my left knee, and he always used this line on me at least once a month: “I’m from Kentucky, boy. Do you know what we do in Kentucky with horses that limp? We shoot ‘em!” That’s what he would always tell me, to let me know that I can’t even mention (the injury). My attitude was on one leg, I was still better than most people on campus, and that’s why I had a scholarship and they didn’t.
One of the biggest misnomers that are out there, and it’s real sad, because he knew better, was this article that I wrote about him. I was writing for the school newspaper and I wrote about him 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. When Coach Gaines was on the sideline, it was obviously in latter part of his career, his health was not good. We had a very, very close relationship, and most, if not all of the guys on the team knew that his health wasn’t the greatest. In fact, there were a few occasions where he had a mild stroke and he would wear a patch over one of his eyes, and I said to him, “You need to retire. I understand how much you love this game, but you don’t need to be out here where you’re going to end up dropping dead on the sideline because you know you don’t take care of your health nearly as much as you should.” He would curse me out, because that was his definition of love. If he had nothing to say to you, that’s when you were nothing. I finally said to him, “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, and then you had a bunch of people there that was like, “How could you do this to him?” and 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.” And I didn’t get to tell them, because my attitude was if you don’t know how close he and I were and how much I love that man, then you don’t know me at all and it’s not even worth the time of day and I’m not even going to try to explain it.
On his “big break”:
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 sportswriter. 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, he 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 sportswriter and this is very important to me. Can you help me?” He said, “Come back tomorrow,” and I came back the next day and he 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.
On his time at the Philadelphia Inquirer:
When I was at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was promoted nine times in my first 13 years. I ultimately went from general assignment, to beats on St. Joe’s and Temple, to backup writer, to NBA writer to NBA columnist to ultimately, in 2003, to general sports columns. That was my ultimate dream, to be a columnist, because I always knew that I wanted to have the license to express myself, my opinion as opposed to be restricted to just reporting. I wanted to express my thoughts, my feelings, my opinions. At the time, that was my greatest achievement, becoming a columnist.
I was promoted to a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer in March of 2003 and ESPN hired me in October of 2003, so that was a very, very good year for me.
On his voice/personality:
No one on the planet Earth is going to be able to look at me on television and say that I’m a liar. It will not happen. Over my dead body. No one’s doing it. I believe in saying what I mean and meaning what I say, within reason. Here’s what I mean: As a reporter by trade, I always know considerably and significantly more than I say, particularly of a personal nature. But the thing about me is I don’t believe it’s my right to delve into people’s personal lives.
My attitude is what you do in front of 20,000 people in an arena, in front of millions of people watching on the ‘tube, oh, that’s right up my alley, because that’s public, that’s for everybody to see. 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. Because a lot of times, you look at people out here, and they just want you to cut to the chase. Just give it to us straight. Let us feel like we’re talking to somebody No. 1, who can relate to what we’re saying, who presents themselves in a fashion that we can relate to them because that’s how we feel about a particular situation and doesn’t waste our time being so excessively politically correct that we get the impression that they’re holding back significant pieces of information. Because if that’s the case, why should we watch them? Why should we listen to them? Why should we read their material? I get that, and I understand that.
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. I mean what I say. I say what I mean. I’m not looking for anybody that I cover to invite me over for Thanksgiving dinner or exchange Christmas gifts with me.
I am surrounded my loved ones — friends, family and others. I live a very, very wonderful life. And regardless of what people may think about whatever frown they see on my face or whatever the case may be, I’m an incredibly happy and blessed man. But when it’s time to work, it’s time to work and I’m going to show up. Everybody’s got their job. My job is to call it like I see it and to make sure that the American public and beyond know that I mean exactly what the hell I say and I’m not playing and I’m not changing in that regard. Never.
On the most enjoyable moments of his career so far:
ESPN is the greatest job I’ve ever had, because they show me an incredible amount of love, particularly in this second go-around. I’m incredibly grateful to the faith they show in my every day.
When I’m at the Finals for Oklahoma City, as my boss, John Wildhack (ESPN executive vice president, production) always says, “This is not work. This is the reward for the work that you do.” And he couldn’t be more right. While everybody’s home in front of their television sets getting ready to watch Oklahoma City and Miami, I’m right there, front and center, right in the middle of the action. Outside of the players and coaches themselves, I’m as close to it as anybody, and I love it. You grow up dreaming of the opportunity to be in that situation, if not as a player, in some other capacity.
These Finals, being in Oklahoma City, has been one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had. Watching Allen Iverson and his run in 2001 to the NBA Finals when they went against the Lakers, that was a sensational experience. I was courtside, up front and center, as the beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covering that every single day. Every trial, every tribulation. If I had to pick one (moment) that goes above all of them, I was there when Jordan crossed over Bryon Russell, pushed off and drilled the jump shot and posed in 1998 to deliver the world championship. To idolize Michael Jordan, in the way all of us basketball lovers have, and to be there at the moment he did that, I just can’t say enough about what that moment was like.
On his favorite interviews:
Allen Iverson is always at the top of that list. 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. Talking to Magic Johnson is always been thrilling. Charles Barkely, he’s just comical and is great to talk to because he’s very, very candid. And in a crazy kind of way, I always like to talk to Commissioner (David) Stern, because it’s always a challenge to get things out of him. But as a journalist, you know that you’re going to prod in different ways. You can’t approach him the way you approach everybody else, and you have to think about things differently.
On being parodied on Saturday Night Live:
It was hysterical, it was hilarious and I appreciated the fact that somebody was actually funny. He was really, really funny. But I don’t get into all that stuff, because I’ve been here. I’ve fallen. I’ve had to get back up. I’ve had things taken away from me, and I’m just not one of those people who take things for granted. That’s 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.
On how his job is different now compared to when he first started:
The social networking, the media world that we live in right now with Twitter, Facebook, things of that nature, it’s made our jobs incredibly more challenging, because it’s given people in the world of professional sports and beyond more outlets to hide from the media itself. When you go off on Twitter, that’s not the media. When you blog, that’s not the media. When you’re communicating with people and you’re taking questions on Twitter like Tiger (Woods) did, that ain’t the media. There’s this constant striving to avoid accountability by a lot of people in the world of professional sports, and it’s something that does not go unnoticed with me. A lot of them try to build their cache and use social networking outlets to shield themselves from accountability, from being able to have to answer for the things they say and do. And it makes our job that much more challenging, because the mentality is that “Because we have these outlets, we don’t have to speak to you, we don’t have to talk to you,” and it’s just something that I inherently reject.
On what he still wants to accomplish in his career:
One of the things that I’ve learned most over the last few years is don’t mess with happiness. Don’t sit there and look happiness in the face and worry about, “Oh, how long is this going to ask? Is this going to continue?” And because of that, you become a bit distracted, focusing on any and everything else because you’re scared of where the happiness is going to end. Instead, what I strive to do now, is make that happiness continue for as long as I can possibly get away with it continuing. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, I’m successful at doing it and I’m being paid well to do it. Why change?
I’ve always prided myself on being multi-faceted. 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. I can’t imagine a professional situation that would be more accommodating or happier than that, so why not ride the wave and see where it takes me?