The untold truth of Stephen A. Smith
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Stephen A. Smith is a polarizing figure — cheered and booed as loudly as the sports teams he covers at ESPN. The leading voice at the Worldwide Leader in Sports is a triple-threat who has excelled as a columnist, radio host, and television host. The First Take frontman’s ability to both inform and infuriate fans, athletes, and colleagues with his high-volume “hot-takes” is a unique skill set that has made him the highest-paid individual in his profession. It’s also made him a star beyond the sports world with acting roles and a characterization on Saturday Night Live by master impressionist Jay Pharoah.
Whether you love or hate the wordsmith, who’s been called everything from a “carnival barker” to “The Black Howard Cosell,” you can’t deny that he’s made an impression. While we know a lot about his controversial and candid opinions on sports and pop culture, what do we really know about the man who seems to be on our airwaves 24-7? This is the untold truth of Stephen A. Smith.
His hot takes are sometimes cold
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Smith is the undisputed king of the “hot take,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a quickly produced, strongly worded, and often deliberately provocative or sensational opinion or reaction.” Slate was less subtle about the Digital Age term, deeming it “the most unfashionable thing in journalism.” Smith loves to make big, bold statements that fire up his audience and the world-class athletes he covers. This has made him a target when his opinions run cold, like when he speculated that then-free agent Kevin Durant would be signing with the Los Angeles Lakers (he chose the Golden State Warriors instead). “I report stuff weeks in advance and get vilified for it,” Smith told ESPN-98.7. (via the Daily News). “But when it comes to fruition, no one remembers they vilified me.”
Smith became a human highlight reel for all the wrong reasons when he incorrectly picked the winner of the NBA Finals for six straight seasons from 2011 to 2016. Total Pro Sports tweeted a hilarious video clip of his highlights (or lowlights) of NBA championship fails. SB Nation reported that the seventh time was a charm for Smith, who correctly picked the Golden State Warriors to defeat the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2017 NBA title, although Smith did predict that Durant, Stephen Curry, and company would win in seven games — not the five that it actually took.
He stirs up drama on General Hospital
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Stephen A. Smith is a drama king, so it’s only fitting that he’s been watching General Hospital for more than four decades. “I have four older sisters and when we came home from school, all the TVs in the house were on General Hospital,” he told ESPN. “Since I wasn’t allowed outside until I finished my homework, I watched the soap every day.” ESPN reported that the General Hospital super fan got a chance to appear on his favorite daytime soap when Maurice Benard (who plays Michael “Sonny” Corinthos on the show) was a guest on First Take in 2015. “Maurice recognized that I was a huge fan and said he’d have to get me on the show,” Smith said. “I received a call a few months later to play ‘Brick,’ a surveillance expert for Sonny and the Mob.'”
The exuberant television personality admitted that he felt out of his element on the long-running medical drama. “I operate extemporaneously,” Smith said of the “nerve-wracking” experience. “I research, do homework, lights come on and we go … I have to be ready and speak off the cuff. With ‘GH,’ you memorize lines in a script, bringing other people’s words to life. The pressure is immense. I practiced and practiced to make my lines conversational.” As of September 2017, Smith had returned to Port Charles five times since 2016, turning that cameo into a recurring role.
He was a volume shooter
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The NBA insider has a gift for gab, but does he have any game on the basketball court? According to The New Yorker, Stephen A. Smith spent a lot of his childhood “shooting hoops” at a playground in Queens that had “no working lights.” His mom, a nurse, encouraged his love of the game because it kept him away from unsavory characters in the tough New York borough. “I was not to be touched,” Smith said. “They knew I had a future.”
Smith earned a scholarship to play basketball at Winston-Salem State University under legendary head coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, but his hoop dreams were cut short by injuries. “I tried to play for coach Gaines, I just couldn’t after I got hurt,” the 6’1″ former guard told the Winston-Salem Journal. “I can’t say enough about that school and what it did for me and especially the late coach Gaines and all of those professors of mine.”
Ironically, Smith’s beloved coach also helped kick-start Smith’s sports journalism career when the player/columnist served up his first hot take for the college newspaper, urging the aging basketball Hall-of-Famer to step down amid alleged concerns over his health. “I told him, ‘Coach, I’m scared,” Smith recalled to the The Undefeated. “I’m not going to let you drop dead on the sideline.'” The controversial op-ed had the school’s chancellor calling for Smith to be expelled, but Smith claims that Gaines told them to “leave him [Smith] alone.”
He’s been burned for some not so hot takes
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Smith delivers so many hot takes that sometimes he gets burned. According to USA Today, Smith was talking fast and loose on a 2018 episode of First Take when he made a mouthful of mistakes, starting off by referring to the Los Angeles Chargers as “San Diego.” That’s a common mistake, considering the NFL team moved for the 2017 season, but Smith continued his word fumble in his comical Chargers versus Kansas City Chiefs preview by highlighting players who weren’t even suited up for the game. The internet “roasted” Smith for it, and the Chargers even piled on by tweeting an “updated” injury report that listed longtime retired team legends LaDainian Tomlinson, Dan Fouts, and Lance Alworth.
This wasn’t the first nor last time Smith has made on-air gaffes, but to his credit, he did address his verbal miscues, tweeting: “My Brother, it’s called a MISTAKE because I was think[ing] of Virgil Green, but mentioned Hunter because I was multi-tasking. That’s what happens when you’re doing a thousand things. But I don’t blame you if you told me to ‘Stay Off The Weeeeeeedddddddd.!’ That was a brain-lock moment”
The Sports Illustrated Media Podcast took the outspoken sports talking head to task, saying “at some point does ESPN say, ‘Stephen either watch sports or stop talking about the sports you don’t watch or because the rating are so good that nobody cares.'”
The accused sexist is a self-proclaimed bottom-feeder
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ESPN’s leading voice has been accused of being a sexist. In a SportsCenter highlight of a 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup match, he belittled a marvelous kick by Norway’s Maren Mjelde’s by saying that the German defenders gave up the dazzling goal because they “might not have wanted to mess their hair up.”
In another not-so hot take, Smith accused Ayesha Curry, the wife of NBA superstar Steph Curry, for “[stepping] out of pocket” when she criticized the NBA. “You can’t get caught up in your own individual emotions and having this zest to speak out to the point where it compromises your husband,” Smith said on First Take. He dug himself a deeper hole when he compared Ayesha to LeBron James’ “gorgeous” wife Savannah, praising the latter because “she doesn’t bring any attention to herself.” Ayesha tweeted back at Smith: “why are you putting two women against each other like that? You’re the one that’s out of pocket.”
Smith raised eyebrows again when he declared himself an “a**-man” on Snoop Dogg’s YouTube show GGN News, declaring: “I’m associated with Walt Disney, but dammit, everybody knows that I’m a bottom feeder.” According to Slate‘s rundown of Smith’s chauvinistic missteps — which include being a “major apologist” for “documented domestic abusers” Floyd Mayweather and Ray Rice — the longtime ESPN host takes “sexist, hacky sports commentary to another level.”
ESPN finally shut him up … for a week
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ESPN seemingly did the impossible. It shut Smith up (for a little while) when the network suspended its broadcast star for making controversial on-air comments about domestic violence when former Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was suspended for “punching Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée, and dragging her unconscious out of an elevator,” per CBS Sports. According to Sports Illustrated, the Worldwide Leader in Sports pulled “the First Take talker for a week from his ESPN2 morning show and ESPN Radio” after he delivered rambling, offensive comments that seemed to suggest that women “provoke” men into violence and that’s not “broached enough. ”
Smith’s tone-deaf monologue set off a firestorm of criticism on traditional and social media, including from Smith’s ESPN colleague, Michelle Beadle, who tweeted: “Violence isn’t the victim’s issue. It’s the abuser’s. To insinuate otherwise is irresponsible and disgusting. Walk. Away.” When TMZ Sports caught up with the suspended Smith, he told them he would not challenge ESPN’s decision. “It was my mistake,” he said. Upon returning to First Take, Smith issued a formal taped apology for the “most egregious error of my career.” He added, “My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say. Yet the failure to clearly articulate something different lies squarely on my shoulders.”
He’s paid like a star, but is he worth the price?
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According to the New York Post, Stephen A. Smith is “poised to become [the] richest talent in ESPN history.” After speaking with multiple executives and agents, the Post estimated in 2019 that the leading voice at the global sports empire would make a yearly salary in the “$8 million-to-$10 million range.” Smith is supposedly a favorite of ESPN’s top executives, who reportedly appreciate that he is always “willing to go on-air,” whereas other top ESPN stars have complained about being “overused.”
Smith’s success has rubbed some of his peers, such as Jeff Pearlman, the wrong way. The former Sports Illustrated reporter called ESPN out in an essay (shared via his Twitter) for laying off several respected sports journalists but holding onto Smith because he’s “really good at yelling. And screaming. And shouting. And barking. And stewing.” The best-selling author didn’t lay blame solely on Smith but labeled him as an opportunist who ditched real reporting and turned in his “integrity card” to go “full-blown Ringling Bros.” The Wrap reported that the First Take frontman responded to Pearlman’s criticism by calling him a “low-life” and suggesting that he was being singled out as a loudmouth because he was black. “I’m the only dude on the air that’s loud?” Smith quipped. “I know plenty of white dudes that scream … they’re called passionate. I’m called loud.”