In Mr. Smith, who is 37 and continues to write a twice-weekly column (sometimes on his BlackBerry from an ESPN studio) for The Philadelphia Inquirer, ESPN believes it has a franchise. “Stephen A. is ringing a bell,” said Mark Shapiro, an executive vice president of ESPN. “People like him and dislike him, but they still watch him. These days, it’s hard to find a talent who strikes a chord that way. Polarization is a commodity.” He added: “We’re in the hit-making business. And Stephen A. is a game-changer.”
A writer for The Allentown Morning Call argued that Mr. Smith’s report about the prospective departure of Larry Brown as coach of the Detroit Pistons deserved “a grade of C because he said nothing while acting like he knew everything.” Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has called him an entertainer, not a journalist. And two New York Post columnists, Peter Vecsey, a former NBC and TNT basketball analyst, and Phil Mushnick, have assailed him several times. Mr. Vecsey, who regularly flays Mr. Smith’s stories, called him a “multi-media fraud.”
Some of the complaints about Mr. Smith have to do with race. Mr. Mushnick said in a phone interview that Mr. Smith “speaks in two voices” to appeal to ESPN’s different but overlapping audiences: one that is straightforward and another than appeals specifically to “urban street blacks or white street wannabes.”
Mr. Smith does not deny that race figures prominently in his persona, or that growing up among rappers subtly influenced his idiosyncratic vocal cadences. But unlike Stuart Scott, another well-known black ESPN announcer, Mr. Smith rarely uses hip-hop terminology.
perhaps the most riveting part of almost any studio session with Mr. Smith is watching him not speak. He clearly suffers from the pain of anticipation. He sits in his custom-made suit, trying not to fidget as Mr. Saunders hands the verbal ball to Mr. Legler or Mr. Anthony. Mr. Smith stares through each speaker, a ticked-off, silent, impatient predator seeking his moment. Rage – or is it fervent hope? – seems to paint his stern face. When his time comes, his expression alters. He is relieved but energized, spitting out his words at high decibels.
“I’m struggling,” Mr. Smith agreed. “I’m struggling with the reality that I feel differently, that I have a minimal amount of time to express what I want to say. Somebody is saying something I don’t agree with and I have 45 seconds. I’m like, ‘Damn it, can I fit it all in?’ “
Anticipation is a funny thing. if you ever watch Skip Bayless paired with Smith on “Cold Pizza”, you’ll often see the former shaking his head in disapproval before the latter has opened his mouth.
Though I’ll resist the temptation to castigate Smith’s forthcoming “Quite Frankly” debut before having seen it, ESPN’s commercials for said program do little to bolster Stephen A.’s credentials as anything other than a basketball guy. Tom Brady is “all the Patriots need? “