Stephen A. Smith lives on television. Morning, noon or night you can almost always find him on your flat screen somewhere on ESPN, chopping it up – loudly, rapidly, humorously but certainly intelligently, honestly and incisively.
His is a presence we have come to know and love...or loathe, depending on how you like your opinions.
Whatever your preference, this much is undeniable: Smith, 45, has become the most provocative personality on sports television – and perhaps all of TV.
He has not carved out a niche; he's gashed one as wide as your television screen with a brash, in-your-face, I ain't-scared-of-you disposition that is laced with unsympathetic candor, vast knowledge and a from-the-streets perspective.
All this after almost blowing it all.
Before he became the fixture he is on ESPN's "First Take" with Skip Bayless several months ago – and crafting features and exclusive interviews and random opinions on SportsCenter and hosting his radio show – Smith was not living on television.
He was living in a personal hell. For 18 months, he was off TV. In short, amid contract negotiations, according to Smith, ESPN had enough of his posturing and was unsure of his commitment and pulled the plug on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar offer. Told him to take his plethora of suits and valise full of opinions and kick rocks.
It was the clincher to a spectacular descent for Smith, who at one time was a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, had his own television show on ESPN, "Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith," was featured on the network's NBA shows and hosted a radio program.
One by one, all were snatched from him for one reason or another, leaving him in a place he never expected and was not ready to accept: not on TV. Jobless.
How could it happen to a talent that – whether you agreed with his loud delivery, occasional pomposity, piercing commentary, harsh criticisms – captured your attention? He was the most vocal and interesting voice on ESPN, and here's the thing: It was not an act.
People seem to think he created this character for television, that he is anything other than what you see on the air. He was even the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" skit this summer, the stamp of stardom, if ever there was one.
But Smith is who he is. Always has been. To be around Stephen A. is to be around a constant debate. When he covered high schools at the New York Daily News, he was just as loud and self-assured and know-it-all. And driven. He was immensely driven. And that, Smith told Atlanta Black Star in an exclusive interview, is indirectly the reason why he was not re-signed by ESPN nearly three years ago.
"I basically got in my own way," said Smith, who played basketball under the legendary Clarence "Big House" Gaines at Winston Salem State. "Particularly when you're a black man, you're constantly looking to diversify your portfolio. When I was doing the NBA, I also wanted to do the NFL. When I was doing the NFL, I wanted to host my own show. When I hosted my own television show, I also wanted to host my own radio show. Oh, and while I'm doing all that, I also wanted to dabble in politics.
"So when you're caught up in that mode, the very thing that should make you happy doesn't because you're constantly looking for the next thing to do. That's how I got in my own way."
If you are familiar with Smith, you know he was not done. "All that may have given ESPN the impression I wasn't fully engaged in this, that I was always looking for greener pastures," he added. "I understand ESPN's position when they had given me the platform to showcase what I do best and yet everything they threw my way did not seem to satisfy my appetite."
Off ESPN, Smith talked relationships on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," talked on politics on the radio and even on "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO. But he eventually came to a revelation that has served him well since getting a phone call from an ESPN executive asking him, "Are you ready to come home?"
"Home" was back to ESPN, and Smith returned to the network with a renewed approach. And the network seems committed to him. It supported him in the "N-word" issue of a few weeks ago, when Smith said he did not use the slur, although you could understand why someone might think he did, based on the replay of his words. But the network backed its star.
"Those 18 months off the air gave me the opportunity to look at things from the other side," Smith said. "Don't look at as if you got screwed, how you get screwed, did you get screwed. Instead focus on what I should have done better so that if the opportunity comes again – whether with ESPN or somewhere else – I would be more appreciative of what I have. And by doing that, I've been the happiest I have ever been in my career."
Rob Parker, an ESPN colleague and long-time friend, said he sees the change. "He had a rare, great opportunity and let it get away," Parker said. "And he beat himself up for not totally doing what he was supposed to. It was on him and he knew it.
"He's just as loud (now). This time, though, he simply has more of an appreciation of where he is. I seriously doubt he won't cherish every minute in the job he loves."
"That's true," Smith said. "I'm not worried about anything now. I looked at the average Joe who was going to work doing his job. It wasn't as glamorous as mine and he probably didn't make as much money as I did. But he was happier than I was. So who was living better?"
Garry D. Howard, editor-in-chief of The Sporting News and a mentor of Smith, said he sees his protégé as more determined. "The time away from ESPN made him even more focused," Howard said. "He is fundamentally strong on every level and has a desire to dominate. (That) combination, along with his work ethic, makes him one of the very best in the business."
Smith is aware there is a populace that considers him a self-promoting blowhard they'd prefer to not see. He hardly concerns himself with those folks; can't please everyone. But the most provocative personality on television – one of the few must-see talents – is concerned about his legacy.
"I don't want someone looking at me as I'm just blowing smoke or talking out of both sides of my mouth," he said. "I have been a reputable journalist of 20 years. And I don't want anyone to be able to take that away from me."
(Special to the NNPA from the Atlanta Blackstar)
(Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.")