ESPN’s most intense analyst: Stephen A. Smith


Stephen A. Smith speaks to students regarding adversity at the KIVA on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.

Stephen A. Smith’s opening line perfectly summed up his entire night at Kent State: “You asked for me, you got me.”

There’s no unedited or altered version of Smith — the real-life version is the same as the one seen on television. Smith’s boastful and confident-ranging-on-cocky attitude best compares to someone whose voice perpetually has caps lock on.

Smith has been a journalist for more than 22 years, 12 of which were spent as an ESPN analyst. Smith is currently a co-host, along with Skip Bayless, on ESPN2’s First Take. The show debates the hottest sports topics around the globe. This past September the show achieved its highest rating, and most-watched month ever with an average of 458 thousand viewers according to ESPN.

The Kent Stater and TV2 sat down with the brash, long-winded ESPN analyst to talk about his journey to ESPN, the obstacles he faced along the way life and the wide variety of relationships he’s developed over the years.

On objectivity vs. subjectivity:

Well, first of all, please understand that I have the luxury of not having to find that balance and it’s not just the position I’m in now, it because of what I earned. Before I was a columnist, I was a journalist. I was a reporter and I was a features writer; I covered high school; I covered college; I covered pro sports.

In print business understand that you earn your stripes through the reporting to elevate  yourself to a position where you have the right to editorialize your opinion. So, to me, that question, while very understandable and very respectable, is more suitable for somebody that is doing it now, that didn’t pay their dues.

Columnists, for newspapers, for example, you report, but what you do is you have the license to opine or to editorialize and give your opinion. Once upon a time, it was earned but with the advent of and ultimately social media, which elevated the blogosphere — or basically created the blogosphere to some degree.  You have people out there giving their opinions. It’s not a matter of not respecting them or whatever, but if you worked for two decades to earn your stripes, to earn the right to opine and give your perspective and you earned a particular stature, how would you feel if someone came along and didn’t have to endure any of that?

A blogger can be the greatest blogger on the planet, but they’ll never be me because they didn’t forth the due diligence working through the political terrain of journalism: copy editors and field producers and line producers, whether it’s television, radio or newspaper, you had to work your way up to all of these things before you were given the right to editorialize, up until about eight to ten years ago that was the way that you had to do it. That’s the generation that I come from.

So when somebody sits there and says ‘finding the line between one or the other,’ I don’t have to find the line. All I have to do, to directly answer your question is this: I need to be incredibly objective in the pursuit of the information, but I can be as subjective as I want once I present the information. In other words, somebody like Bill O’Reilly will give you facts, but then he’ll tell you how he feels about those facts. I have earned the right to do that. A lot of people have not.

On his feud with Kevin Durant:

It doesn’t even phase me. The fact of the matter is I only reacted to it because he called me a liar. It was a direct assault on my professional credentials and my personal integrity, and I will not let that stand.

Kevin Durant is a good guy actually, Kevin Durant is a very, very good guy. He’s a superstar player, one of the greatest players in the world. His family, his friends and all the people that I know are incredible people, but he lost his damn mind when he said that to me. And there’s no question about that. Not to mention the fact that he was the one lying.

I had spoken to Kevin Durant a few months ago. I was not aware of any issues that he had with me. I have interviewed his mother — she has been on First Take twice — I have talked to his friends and family members. The fact of the matter is that this notion that, ‘Nobody talks to Stephen A’ when did that happen? Kevin Durant and I were in 40/40, in Jay-Z’s club. ‘Oh really, you didn’t talk to me?’ I think that I’ve got about 30 witnesses that would say otherwise.

So this notion that we didn’t speak, or whatever the case may be, was a flat out lie. And his inclination to go that route just simply said to me that there was something to hide. He didn’t want everybody knowing that he’s been talking about going to L.A.; he doesn’t want the pressure of having to visit his contract situation prematurely; he wants to go through the season quietly and then walk into the sunset, become an unrestricted free agent and do what he wants to do.

He doesn’t want to be pressed to sign a lengthy contract extension prior to the February trading deadline, because if he doesn’t do that, it’ll put OKC (Oklahoma City Thunder) in a lurch because they can end up losing him for nothing. Sam Presti, in all probability, is too smart for that, and he’s going to try and put his foot to the pedal and pressure Durant into doing something before that trading deadline comes; otherwise, he may potentially look to move him because he doesn’t want to lose Kevin Durant for nothing. He could change his mind; he could sit there and take his chances because obviously Kevin Durant can’t go elsewhere and make nearly as much money as he’ll get from OKC.

But in the end, it’s disappointing because he’s a good guy. It’s disappointing that he went that route, and I sincerely hope there’s no residue of animosity or anything like that, because I certainly don’t have it.

But if somebody’s going to start something, I’m the type of person that’s going to finish it. And I’m not going to fight you or anything like that, but if you try and call me out based on your proclamations that I’m lying, I’m going to beat you down with my truth. That’s what I’m going to do.  It will never change, and I don’t know if anybody has noticed, but Kevin Durant is a star at what he does. Some would say I’m a star at what I do, and he won’t have the last word, I can promise you that. That will be me.

Stephen A. Smith from on Vimeo.

On getting into journalism:

I thought I could write and I loved sports. I cracked my kneecap in half as a basketball player at Winston-Salem State. I went home and had to go through 9-10 months of intense rehab. My mother asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life because I clearly wasn’t going to be a professional basketball player and if I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t good enough to be a professional basketball player even if I was 100 percent healthy. So with that reality staring me in the face I had to look at whatever requisite skills I had available to me.

My critical persuasive writing teacher at the time was a gentleman by the name of Mr. John Gates; he was the editorial page editor for the Winston Salem Journal. He said to me, after looking at an essay that I wrote for his class, “You’re a born sports writer lets go out to lunch and talk about this a week from now.”  It was a Tuesday, the following Tuesday I met with him in the classroom; I thought we were going out to lunch and unbeknownst to me he took me straight to the sports editor for the Winston-Salem Journal.

His name was Mr. Terry Oberle. He met with, talked with me for five minutes and hired me on the spot and started me that night as a clerk in the sports department at the Winston-Salem Journal. From that point forward guys like Terry Oberle, editors like Steve Mann, Dan Loman, Phil Hirshack and all of these other guys; they sat up there for two years and taught me the business of journalism. The sports editor Terry Oberle liked my tenacity and hard work and he asked that I go out and do a feature on Wake Forest soccer, which was number three in the nation.

I never covered soccer in my life. When I went and covered soccer I went up to the coach and I said to him, “I’ve never covered soccer, but I really want to be a sports writer, could you help me?” He called the whole team over and he said to them, “For the next three days you are to give Stephen complete unadulterated access. Whatever he needs you give it to him.” The team and the coach, who is now deceased, God rest his soul, his name was Walt Chyzowych at Wake Forest University; they taught me soccer over the next three days. Every position, what every responsibility for every position was, etc. The team and the coach taught me the game and I wrote a two-page end zone feature piece that was going to be published in the following week’s publication. That Monday morning Terry Oberle called me into his office and said, “Congratulations you’re the new beat writer for Wake Forest soccer. Everywhere they go, you go. You write on them everyday.”

As a result that is what enabled me to start my journalism career, accumulate the clips that I accumulated, but ultimately facilitated me getting a job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I remember their names to this very day Joe Goodman was the managing editor, Terry Oberle was the sports editor, Lenox Rawlings was the columnist, Dan Loman, Steve Mann, Phil Hirshack, all of these guys, all white. I can’t say enough about what they did for my career. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. I owe them an incredible debt of gratitude and I’ll never forget them.

On his big break:

The first moment is usually the biggest break because the hardest step to get is the first one. You’re pounding the pavement because you’re begging for somebody to believe you. Once you’re in there and you do the job, then you’re asking them to believe in what you’ve done as opposed to have faith, blind faith, and believe that you just do it. That’s why the first opportunity is so hard because you’re really usually devoid of a resume that validates what you can do. That’s why when you get that first opportunity you should always have an incredible appreciation for because it usually entails somebody giving you an opportunity based purely on faith and gut as opposed to knowledge based on your resume.

On his relationship with Allen Iverson:

Well, as much as I’m willing to acknowledge Winston-Salem sports department and its managing editor Joe Goodman of the paper for what they did to me. They’re not the only ones. The same debt of gratitude goes to Allen Iverson, he elevated my career to another stratosphere. His greatness as a player and his maverick mentality — doing things his way — you know bucking the system, per say and being a trendsetter and a trailblazer in different regards, good and bad, the fact remains that Allen Iverson, the debt of gratitude that I owe him is immeasurable.

Him and I still speak at least every two weeks, I mean we talk all the time. Sometimes he’ll call me at two in the morning to get the hell up. Sometimes I’ll call him at seven in the morning to get the hell up, because we know he’s out. OK? But I got a lot of love for him and the reason why is because he was a superstar, we had a lot of  back-and-forths.

One time we went eight months without talking. Another time we went almost two years without talking. I mean we’ve had some battles throughout the years, but the level of trust that he had in me: I would hurt him; I would disappoint him; but I never betrayed him. Only one time that he didn’t speak to me for two years, he thought I betrayed him until he found out otherwise. But it broke my heart in a way.

He’s a guy, he’s a professional athlete and he may be the only guy that I will absolutely, completely confess to you I have zero objectivity about. I love him. He’s like a little brother to me and it’s important he does well in life, that’s he always OK because in his own way, he truly cared that I did well. He truly wanted to see me succeed.

There were times where he didn’t talk to anybody and talked to me just because it was me and he didn’t have to do that. We can sit here as journalists and say, ‘Well, we cultivated resources, we built a level of trust and all that other stuff.’ Allen Iverson ain’t no dummy. He could see right through that nonsense. You got to be real, you got to be authentic, you’ve got to be somebody that’s dependable in terms of who you are and who your persona is. That who they see and who they think they’re getting is exactly who they’re getting. That you don’t misrepresent yourself. And not every athlete doesn’t have to do that and most of them won’t. But Allen Iverson did that for me and that’s why I have so much love for him.

Every chance I get when I’m on First Take I mention him,  always celebrate him. Even though he hasn’t always done the greatest things in life, I unapologetically state, ‘He’s like a little brother to me.’ I got him for life. Long, long, long from now when my career is over, when his career has been over for a little while, I’m going to still be there for him. You can bet the house on that because I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for him either.

On the “American Dream”:

I think that in practice you do try to follow us (Michael Wilbon, the late Stuart Scott and himself). What we have achieved is more attainable. You can be me, you can be Michael Wilbon and you can be a Stuart Scott at least in some capacity. As great as people may perceive us to be what we did was we went to school, we got an education and the opportunities that we got we elevated it to another level based on our performance; that’s achievable.

You can do the greatest things in the world; chances are you’re not going to make a half a billion dollars like Jay Z is, or Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) did or Kobe (Bryant) did. You’re not going to be able to do those kinds of things. So you revere and marvel at the greatness that they display and the fact that you recognize that they’re not the “American Dream,” they’re a fantasy having become reality. We’re actually the “American Dream.” I’m the “American Dream,” Michael Wilbon’s the “American Dream,” Stuart Scott’s the “American Dream.”

It’s about pounding the pavement, doing the best that you can, making sure that you don’t take any shortcuts, get your education, do what you have to do and somehow, someway you methodically climb the ladder of success as opposed, oh my God, you make up one morning and because of this gift and somebody’s ability to recognize it you are now damn-near a billionaire. That is not reality for 99.999 percent of the world, but it’s their reality. My reality, Wilbon’s reality, Stuart Scott’s reality, J.A. Adande’s reality the list goes on and on. There is a far more plausible- ours are far more plausible.

Ian Flickinger is the sports editor for The Kent Stater, Ian Klein is the news director for TV2 and Stephen Means is a sports reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact them at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].