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.