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Stephen Anthony Smith desires your contempt. He is pleased by your hatred. � It is early in the evening on a recent Wednesday in Hollywood, and Stephen A. Smith is explaining the immaculate conception of his television persona. "I just walked on the airwaves and did it. It's me. I can't stand lying. I can't stand liars. I can't stand people who look into the camera and look into the eyes of millions of people and wax political correctness. I have an obligation to make sure that you know that what I say is exactly how I feel, and I don't care how you take it." � In fact, every shake of your head because you can't believe he said this or claimed that and each angry glare at his indefensible defense of an NBA superstar's misbehavior or dismissal of a preposterous, scandalous, absolutely and utterly ludicrous allegation that Allen Iverson's people are not only denying but vehemently rebuking feeds the media creation that is ESPN NBA analyst Stephen A. Smith. His obstreperous fulfillment of that obligation to "say exactly how I feel" has meant becoming to sports punditry what Rush Limbaugh is to political analysis and James Cramer is to business news: the final triumph of bluster and confidence over content, of point of view over facts, of opinion over objectivity. All Stephen A. has done is import all that noise from the cable commentary shows just a few remote clicks away from ESPN. Yet ask most sports fans or scroll through the sports blogosphere, and one take recurs regularly when it comes to Stephen A. or, as he has been dubbed, Screaming A. Smith or Stephen Anal Smith or Stephen X: He is the most despised sports personality on the air today. Why, then, is ESPN giving him his own show, Quite Frankly, debuting Aug. 1? How is it that you can't drive up or down the East Coast without seeing his smirking mug glaring at you from a billboard? Why did his arrival in 2003 spur a 17% ratings jump for the ESPN flagship basketball show NBA Shootaround? " Stephen A. Smith moves the needle on ratings," says Mark Shapiro, executive vice president of programming and production at ESPN. "Is he more liked or disliked? Who knows? Who cares? He leaves an imprint. People might come back because they hate him. The bottom line is, they come back."
Stephen A. is on the business end of microphones up to a dozen times a day, pontificating throughout the ESPN empire-- SportsCenter, NBA Shootaround, NBA Nation, NBA Fastbreak, Pardon the Interruption and his eponymous radio show. It is 11 a.m. on a Thursday in Los Angeles, and he pulls a microphone closer in a studio just south of Hollywood. As he launches into a long lambasting of Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez's decision to forgo a spot on the National League All-Star team, he is in typical form. There is the staccato flow of words. Much has been made of his hip-hop roots, his growing up in Hollis, Queens, home turf of Run DMC and a family friend, the late Run DMC DJ Jam Master Jay. His delivery, however, is more revival preacher than urban rapper, and his cadence and rhythm--and the white shirts, dark suits and ties--is the style and voice from on high on Sunday mornings, warning, imprecating and, always, scolding.
Then there is the moment he goes into a higher register, cuts off his caller or fellow commentator with a "Wrong!" or a "No, no, no!" or a "Please!" And then the Stephen A. sermon reaches its climax with a characteristic leap of faith: the unwillingness to back down in the face of a compelling argument. ( Martinez is starting the game before the All-Star break so he won't be available to pitch anyway, so why take the roster spot from another deserving pitcher?)
"Please!" Stephen A. says. "He owes it to Mets fans to be there."
As a half-dozen of those fans light up the phone lines--they would rather have Martinez rested and ready for the second half of the season than wasting his time in Detroit--Stephen A. brushes them off with a low-registered "I disagree."
Disagreement is his default setting.
His radio show wrapped, he stands, slips on a gray jacket, straightens his tie and shoots the cuffs of his SAS-monogrammed shirt. At 6'2" he is larger than he appears on television, in part because on-screen he tends to be partnered with former NBA players who dwarf him. On TV he seems almost to be crowding the camera, bending forward, into your living room, his skinny torso lost in suits that seem too big, giving the impression of a child who has just raided his dad's closet. His facial structure is sharp, angular, but his features, and the professorial goatee, all get pleasingly flattened out on camera.
In the back of a town car on the way to his guest-host gig on Rome Is Burning--that's why he's in L.A. this week--he checks his voice mail and listens to 11 angry messages criticizing his latest column in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Phillies outfielder Jason Michaels's legal woes. When he is between microphones, Stephen A. retreats into himself, a little like a puffer fish when a threat has receded. He is still Stephen A., opinionated, brash, outspoken and articulate, but the volume comes down, the posture goes from incline to recline. But even in his downtime he is prone to imperial proclamations. "I prefer turkey to other potential sandwich meats," he says when asked what he is having for lunch. " Turkey is delicious, and the turkey and cheese sandwich is my personal favorite. It doesn't upset my stomach, and I like to have it once or twice week."
Or, "I date African-American women. That's all I date. In my family it was never discussed--but I love black women. Nothing beats a sister. However, when you see a female like Jennifer Lopez, you have to acknowledge that there are many beautiful Latino women as well."
"He's always been that way," says Jeff Brown, a classmate from Thomas Edison High. "Stephen just says what's on his mind. He doesn't have any filter."