"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.