Sports

A Day With Stephen A. Smith, The Hardest Working Man In Sports Television

ESPN

LOS ANGELES — “Oh. My. Lord. … Watching Duke?! I’m sensing UNLV back in the day.”

It’s 4:30 a.m. and Stephen A. Smith is fired up in his downtown hotel room. Scott Van Pelt opens every episode of his midnight edition of SportsCenter by saying, “I’m not tired yet.” The same can be said about Stephen A. at just about any hour of the day.

Smith is on a conference call with First Take producers, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim Rose to figure out the rundown for that morning’s show. While Stephen A. knows “you can’t go wrong with the NFL” in the A-block, he’s most passionate about Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils destroying Kentucky in their season opener the night before. Smith will talk about Duke on three different shows before lunch, never once getting bored by his full day that often involves repeating his opinions on multiple occasions.

A day in Smith’s life is never dull and always a bit hectic. After doing the production meeting from his hotel room — which only happens when they’re on the west coast — he arrives at ESPN’s L.A. studio a little before 6:00 a.m. PT to get makeup done, at which point he strolls over to the First Take studio to cut a promo for that day’s show. Shortly after that, he does a Get Up hit with Jalen Rose, appalled at Rose’s proclamation that Zion Williamson wouldn’t have cracked the starting lineup on the Fab Five at Michigan.


That performance sets the tone for the rest of Smith’s day, beginning with two hours of First Take. Smith and Kellerman open the show with Duke talk, then debate Dez Bryant potentially signing with the Saints. The show truly takes off, however, once Smith gets on the subject of the miserable play of the Washington Wizards.

The volume of his voice raises from “near yell” to “actual yell” (there’s always another level for Stephen A., even when you are sure he’s at full throat). He calls for them to blow it up, suggesting a possible trade sending Bradley Beal to Los Angeles for Brandon Ingram, but the main target of his outrage is John Wall. Smith calls out Wall’s effort and play, being sure not to question his ability, and mentions his soon to kick in supermax extension, rattling off the year-by-year salary he’ll receive with increasing appall. Stephen A. — who is not a Wizards fan and has no ties to Washington D.C. beyond loving the city and wanting more reasons to go there for work — seems personally offended by the Wizards.

There are probably Wizards fans who aren’t as bothered by the team’s start as Smith, which is one of his greatest gifts.

***

Smith can take a topic to which he doesn’t have a personal connection and make it seem like the biggest deal in the world. Two days before his Wall rant, Smith pushed Michael Irvin into an unhinged tirade defending the Cowboys during a live show in Dallas. That segment immediately went viral, with Irvin breaking into an intense sweat, standing and shouting at the cameras, at Smith, at Kellerman, at the crowd, and anyone who would listen.

Irvin was, understandably, the focal point, given the preposterous nature of his rant, yelling at Stephen A. about going into the history instead of your history, whatever that meant. That show and specifically that moment illustrated Smith’s evolution into the king of sports talk television. He lives on the edge of hysterics, but is almost always in full control of the situation. He’ll push a guest’s buttons, and the moment they snap, he immediately takes a step back to calm and collected, making it so they look like the one who is unhinged and unable to control their emotions.

Smith has become a larger-than-life personality and a celebrity in is own right. He’s the only person with a working media credential that you’ll find on Getty Images when they do their “Celebrities at Staples Center” shots for Lakers games. Walking through L.A. Live with Smith is a reminder that he is better known than some of the athletes he covers, with fans asking for pictures and kids rushing to the window to wave to him as he eats breakfast — Stephen A., as he’ll tell you, loves the kids.

Smith has embraced being sports television’s greatest heel, arriving in Dallas for every live show to do a WWE-style entrance surrounded by booing Cowboys fans.


In a rare moment where he lacks words, Smith can’t describe his ability to turn his personality up to 11 when on camera. His mother told him he’s always been that way, that when the lights are on, he’s on. His longtime producer on First Take, Antoine Lewis, simply calls it “performance art.” Smith idolized Howard Cosell growing up in New York, wanting to have that kind of distinct voice that always comes through as being authentic, even when over the top. He does stress, though, he’s a journalist first — a reporter who became a personality, sure, but someone who holds true to journalistic roots that go back to his days covering high school sports in Archdale, N.C., after graduating from Winston-Salem State.

Smith will proudly tell you he doesn’t care what people think of him. He thinks this makes for the great dichotomy he has with Kellerman on First Take, who, as Smith puts it, “thinks you just don’t get it because how could you possibly disagree with him?” He’s exceptionally proud, however, of his background as a journalist, rising from intern to high school reporter to beat writer to columnist before eventually finding his way to radio and TV. One of the few things that gets under his skin when people talk about him is when they discredit or ignore that background.

“All I ask is that you don’t forget my resume, because I’ve earned this,” Smith says. “I didn’t arrive here. I didn’t land on ESPN, and all of a sudden I’m talking and it’s some hit show. No, no, no, no, no. There’s two-plus decades of grinding that went into this before I arrived here, which is why when people have called and they’ve challenged me to a debate or whatever, one of my classic lines over the years has religiously been, ‘Maybe you could, for all I know. I have no problem with that. Just do me a favor. Come to me in 20 years after you’ve put in what I’ve put in to get here, and then come talk to me.'”

***

When Stephen A. drops a scoop or cites something he’s heard, it’s almost immediately written off as a talking head spouting off. While he’s not always right, Smith isn’t lying when he says he knows a lot of people close to a lot of superstars, particularly in the NBA. On at least two occasions, he’s spoken to the mothers of players, who have told him, “You are too soft on my son. He did this, he did this, he did that. Call them out.” He’s then been challenged by those players and directed them to the women that raised them for an explanation of why he did what he did.”

Smith continues. (Smith always continues.)

“I’m talking mothers, I’m talking wives, I’m talking coaches, I’m talking teammates, I’m talking best friends, I’m talking executives, GMs, owners, owners,” Smith says. “I’ve had it all and all I’m saying to you is that that’s what you call a reliable source. So to me, because I know that my sources are pretty damn reliable, that emboldens me because I’m not worried about being contradictory.”

The specific instance that sticks out in most people’s minds, and Smith’s, is his spat in 2015 with Kevin Durant over his reporting about Durant having interest in joining the Lakers in free agency. Durant fired back and called Smith a liar, saying he and no one close to him talks to Smith, which set Smith off in response, as he does not appreciate being called a liar.

“When I got upset that time about K.D. and he called me a liar. First of all, you know I wasn’t lying,” Smith says. “Secondly, what are you talking about you didn’t speak to me? We were together a few months earlier at 40/40 [Club]. What are you talking about? Thirdly, I know people close to you who will remain nameless and you know good and damn well they said it to me. What are you talking about?”

Durant, of course, didn’t end up a Laker, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t part of the conversation. Smith stands by his sources at all times, believing in the information he has received and knowing fully well that things change. Smith is a huge General Hospital fan. And, as he explains, sports are like soap operas in that, while we may know the ending of the story (like the Warriors winning a title), it’s still important to get invested in the plot points along the way.

“Listen, I tell this to people all the time, I say, do you know on General Hospital, Sonny Corinthos got shot one time?” Smith asks. “Do you notice that he might’ve been in a coma or whatever the case may be? Do you know all of this stuff? Guess what? Did you know he’s going to live? Course he’s going to live. He could be in a coma, he could have got shot in the head. It could be anything. He’s gonna live.”

The key point, for Smith, is that the story must be told, regardless of how messy or ridiculous it gets or how upset anyone seems to be along the way.

“It doesn’t stop the story from being told,” Smith adds. “And what a lot of professional athletes and teams don’t realize in this day and age, the story has to get told. What I’m seeing today might have nothing to do with what I’m saying a month from now, but today is what matters. Do you know if you’re going to be alive next month? I don’t. You tell the story as it’s going forward. And a lot of times, particularly on television, you’ve got so many people that’s getting caught up like it’s ending.”

This is, after his unrelenting work ethic, arguably the reason why Smith is the rock upon which ESPN’s desire to embrace debate is built. He’s able to find just as much importance in the Wizards right now as he will with the Warriors winning a title in June. When Golden State is interesting in the present, as happened with the Durant-Draymond Green situation, then he’ll happily spout off about whether the dynasty is ending this year. But the looming inevitability of the Warriors doesn’t affect him, because there will be time to get to that.

Right now, we have to talk about John Wall and these damn Washington Wizards.


***

Spending a day with Stephen A. Smith is exhausting.

From the pre-dawn arrival for the First Take production meeting through his radio show, I was spent. A quick nap was required before going to Staples to cover the Lakers game, where, of course, Stephen A. was still going strong. We’re both there to watch as the Lakers host the Minnesota Timberwolves in one of their final games with Jimmy Butler. At the front of the media section on the away baseline, Smith has a seat reserved for him in the front row, but he’s never there. Instead, across the way on the opposite baseline, he’s in a courtside seat, taking in the action next to two of LeBron’s four horsemen, manager Maverick Carter and agent Rich Paul.

The rapport Smith has with two of LeBron’s closest confidants is not that of a typical media member, even those who have covered James for years. The three spend the game talking, laughing, and carrying on as if great friends. At one point, Carter laughs hysterically while grabbing Smith’s shoulders, shaking him over something he said. It’s a brief glimpse into what makes Smith as unique a personality as there is in sports TV.

Fans of First Take or The Stephen A. Smith Show likely roll their eyes at how often Smith cites someone famous as his “good friend” or “brother.” He’s quick to name drop, but he rarely, if ever, is lying. Denzel Washington is seated courtside not far away from Smith, and the two catch up quickly during a timeout — Smith told me earlier in the day Denzel called in to his first radio show just to say hello.

On First Take that morning, another of Smith’s “good friends,” Steve Harvey, sat in as a guest for the entire second hour. Upon arriving on set during a break, the two shared a big hug and spent most of the show playfully bantering back and forth, with Harvey joking that Smith was “beyond therapy” with his anger to the point of “needing prayer.” During a commercial break, Smith asked Harvey if he’d caught any of the Duke game the night before and, upon learning he hadn’t, proceeded to stand up in an effort to demonstrate one of the moves Zion Williamson pulled against Kentucky.

After the show ended, Harvey explained that he’d known Stephen A. for about 15 years and that Smith gave him advice when he first got his own radio show, telling Harvey he needed to work on his ad reads. When asked for his favorite Stephen A. story, he hemmed and hawed, noting he didn’t want to endanger either of their careers, but ultimately settled on a story from one of Smith’s visits to Harvey’s ranch in Texas.

“I’ve had Stephen A. on a four-wheeler Polaris, cutting through the backwoods on my ranch,” Harvey laughed. “And Stephen A. Smith is such a city boy. Stephen A. Smith doesn’t know nothing about fishing, hunting. He don’t know nothing about wildlife. We were in the bushes. He was going, ‘What is that?’

That’s a coyote.’

‘Man, I thought that was a wolf.’

‘A wolf? In Dallas?!’

Harvey continues, “But you know, it was cool. I’ve seen him on my ranch. I’ve seen him in different settings. We’re really close friends. We talk a lot. We exchange business advice. He’s just a really, really great guy.”

There are plenty in the media that like to believe they’re closer to those with some amount of celebrity, but Smith is one of the few that has genuinely achieved that status. For Harvey, and perhaps many of the other athletes and celebrities that have become close with Smith, the thing that stands out about Stephen A. is his authenticity and the feeling like he’s a childhood friend, even if they don’t always agree with what he says.

“We don’t tune into y’all’s sports show for facts,” Harvey says. “We let you talk. But really, we just want your opinion. We want to be able to talk back trash with you, from our house, and we can’t do that if you’re just spewing off facts. I’m not kidding about that. He’s real. He’s a guy that, he’s not going to be any other way. This guy’s on TV live, and radio, too many times to come in here faking. You can’t be fake on a radio show, every day, and then come on TV, every day … You don’t think people can spot that?

“So he is what he is, and most people love it,” Harvey continues. “If you meet Stephen A. Smith and you don’t like him as a man, there’s something wrong with you.”

***

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First Take is a Stephen A. Smith-driven show and, as he notes, his top priority, but the time constraints of TV and the back-and-forth between he and Kellerman means Smith’s personality isn’t able to be put on full display. The Stephen A. Smith Show on ESPN Radio and ESPNews is just him, though, which is exactly what he wants. It’s the full Stephen A. experience, as he’s allowed more free reign in all aspects of the show. For example, Smith will break out a Love Doctor segment and offer advice to callers.

“I don’t have to debate [on radio],” Smith says. “It’s my show. I’m in complete control. We’ve got producers on there, whatever, but let’s call it what it is. I’m the talent and the executive producer of the show with Jon. Unofficially one could say the same about First Take, but you have to share it. It’s a debate show. So, you have to share the wealth on television, more so. So I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just that radio definitely brings that side of me out. It gives me an opportunity to put my talents on display even more so in terms of my personality, letting people inside, letting them really, really know all of me.”

With 15 minutes until the show, we hustle to eat breakfast at the hotel next door. Smith is having an English breakfast and hot tea, even though right now he’s trying to avoid carbs as much as possible. I ask if he has any guests coming on. Smith has no idea. As he explains it, the listeners are tuning in to hear him and what he has to say on the day’s biggest sports topics. So, if his producer has booked a guest to join him, so be it. If not, he’ll happily rip through two hours of radio by himself.

“I will not allow myself to put myself at the mercy of guests coming on the show to determine my success or failure,” Smith says. “That’s not who I am. Not if I can help it.”

Smith arrives in the ESPN L.A. studio with two minutes to spare. An audio engineer explains that they’re having some technical difficulties with sound between him and his producers in New York. Stephen A. seems unbothered, serenely settling himself and speaking in his typical, calm manner off the air. With seconds to spare, the audio comes through and they are fully operational, the countdown to showtime hits zero and, as always, Smith comes alive. The entire opening 10 minutes of the show are at full volume, before dropping into almost a whisper at times when he’s really making a point.

For most, getting loud is how they grab your attention. For Smith, that’s the default setting, so how does one emphasize a point when they’re already at a bombastic volume? They get quieter, forcing the listener to almost lean in and focus more on the words. This is the area he feels he’s grown the most as a TV and radio personality, and, again, cites soaps as something of an inspiration.

“I pace myself better [than I used to],” Smith says. “Like for example, I come out like a bat outta hell on purpose. I know exactly what I’m doing. Years ago, I didn’t. I was going that way, 100 miles an hour all the time. So now it’s somewhat like a rollercoaster ride. Like soap operas, up and down, up and down, up and down. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

The topics for his radio show are almost all the same as things he’s discussed an hour before on First Take, but this is a new audience and an opportunity to expand his talking points. He goes deeper into his thoughts on Duke. He offers a more concrete trade proposal for how the Wizards can move Beal to Los Angeles for a package centered on Brandon Ingram, and how the two young stars most important to the Lakers are Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma. He welcomes in callers, debating those that dare to disagree with him, and nodding along with those that call in to support his point.

Radio is something of a release for Smith, a passion project alongside the focal point of his career now, which is First Take. Smith feels it’s where he’s able to venture outside the world of sports and show “there are no limits to what I can do.”

***

Smith’s contract with ESPN runs up in 2021, and he’s already pondering his next move. While he’s not certain what that will be, three things are certainties in his mind. The first is to get away from mornings, because he hates waking up early. The second is that he wants to make a permanent move to Los Angeles – something he confirms to himself every time he walks outside and into the sunshine — and he thinks he’ll be able to get to L.A. in the next couple years. Finally, he wants to begin producing content beyond just being an on-air talent.

Still, he knows being on-air is his bread and butter and will try to figure out what makes the most sense for the next step in his career. Whatever that move is, it will be a calculated decision. Smith learned from when his first deal with ESPN wasn’t renewed, because he demanded too much. “I didn’t know my worth,” he says now, but aside from that misstep, he’s always been careful in curating his resume and ensuring he’s thinking about the long run. It’s why he turned down a gig on The Best Damn Sports Show Period before joining ESPN, because he was afraid people wouldn’t take him seriously being on a show with a comedian.

Harvey is trying to push him into doing more boxing, insisting the sport needs more “color,” noting Smith’s personality and passion is something desperately needed on boxing television — Smith currently does some boxing for ESPN, including work on the recent Vasiliy Lomachenko-Jose Pedraza fight. Smith, however, isn’t quite so sure sports are his future.

“I can host an afternoon show like Steve Harvey or Ellen [DeGeneres],” Smith says. “I could do a late night show if somebody writes [an] opening monologue, I could do a late night show like [Stephen] Colbert and [Jimmy] Fallon and those boys. Or I can host a show on CNN or Fox News.”

Whatever Smith’s next step is you can expect him to be the same as he is now, just on an even larger scale. He’ll bring his typical bravado and occasionally spark some controversy. What he hopes you remember is that, behind all of that, there’s a method to the madness and a career full of experiences in just about every position imaginable that’s led him to this point. You can question the takes and opinions, but never the work ethic.

Smith’s next move might be in sports or politics or a general talk show, but the ending to that story really is no matter. Just as General Hospital does he makes sure the day’s storylines will get told. And when the lights come on each day he’s always ready to deliver.

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