When ESPN debuted its revamped SportsCenter last June — inside an immaculate $178 million facility built just to house the broadcasts — it turned to Stuart Scott, its most recognizable personality to inaugurate the new set. And why not? Since joining the network in 1993, Scott had become the face of its flagship program, outlasting and outshining other star talent who came and went, and in some cases came back again.
But while christening the gleaming new set, Scott was in the midst of a private struggle with cancer. Yesterday, ESPN’s Hannah Storm battled tears as she announced on-air that he had succumbed to the illness. He was 49.
Inside ESPN, Scott was regarded as more of an institution than a talent among the network’s numerous stars. He’d grown from a young broadcaster who some executives doubted over his unorthodox delivery into an icon, known for the very catchphrases and cool stylings that initially made them nervous. But it was that very style that helped propel ESPN as a network, and SportsCenter in particular, to the heights they would reach during Scott’s tenure. Put simply, Scott’s on-air aura was unapologetically Black. He related sports metaphors by quoting rap lyrics and peppered in slang for dramatic punctuation. He name-dropped clothing brands that had yet to be embraced by the mainstream. He was one of us.
While that gave some executives jitters, it made him relatable to the Black athletes he covered and their peers in ESPN’s audience. “ESPN executives didn’t know what to make of him in the early to mid 90’s. The hip-hop slang. The catch phrases the bosses didn’t get. BOOYAH! What the hell does that mean??” ESPN anchor Bonnie Bernstein posted on her public Facebook account. “I always admired that about him and hoped the bosses would come to understand what I saw when Stu and I were on the road together covering the NBA Playoffs. The guy was a superstar. The black players and the fans would flock to him. His star was as bright as Jordan’s. Or Shaq’s. Finally, there was someone on the air who spoke their language. It was incredibly refreshing…Stuart Scott brought a culture and diversity to sports broadcasting that resonated with a long-neglected demographic.”
Nearly everything Scott did on or off camera became sportscasting lore. He injured one of his eyes in 2002 participating in a workout with the New York Jets, causing him to miss time on-air. But he returned and never allowed the visible remnants of the injury to impact his broadcasts. His catchphrases — “Boo-yah!” and “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” were as recognizable to sports fans as his face or voice. He fought his disease with the same zeal as he prepared for interviews, tweeting about his battle and famously continuing with tough mixed martial arts workouts while going through chemotherapy treatments.
As popular as he was among fans, Scott was known in his industry for helping others, especially young Black sports journalists, make names for themselves in an industry that is still struggling with diversity. “Very rarely does someone come along who moves the bar for the entire profession,” said Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
“Stuart had this incredible knack for telling you what you needed to hear exactly when you needed to hear it,” said Jemele Hill, who co-hosts ESPN’s “His & Hers” sports debate show and is among of a small number of black women on air at the network. “I don’t know if he could just mystically tell that you were lacking in self-confidence and the Batman signal would go up, but here would come Stuart with some advice.”
Hill’s co-host, Michael Smith, says he’s been saving an encouraging voicemail he got from Scott three years ago, after Smith and Hill worked together on a different show.
“That night I get this unsolicited call. Stu left this minute-and-15 second voicemail telling me how much he enjoyed that conversation. He finished it off by saying, ‘Yo, man, you’re killing it. You’re so good at what you do. I just want to work with you. You’re one of the best people at this network,” Smith said.
“To get somebody of that caliber to call you unsolicited and tell you how much he enjoys you, to get that kind of seal of approval, was unbelievable.”
In his last ESPN appearance, Scott gave a rousing speech as he accepted an award the network’s annual ESPY’s fete last July.
Scott was born in Chicago but moved as a child to North Carolina where he attended high school and college, at the University of North Carolina. A collegiate athlete himself, he played wide receiver and defensive back there and became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated.
He leaves behind daughters Taelor, 19 and Sydni, 15.