In the world of sports, EBONY Power 100 2021 Game Changers awardee Stephen A. Smith is one of the most popular and polarizing personalities on the scene. His take-no-prisoners, in-your-face style of commentary has forever changed the motif of sports shows and has influenced so many who have come after him.
An accomplished journalist for over 30 years, his work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Daily News and the Winston-Salem Journal, to name a few.
Since 2012, he’s been a host of ESPN’s First Take which has become one of the premier sports shows on television. Also, he appears across various platforms on the network including NBA Countdown. He one of ESPN's most recognizable hosts.
Outside of sports, Smith is passionate about supporting HBCUs. He was named an ambassador for HBCU Week and alongside co-host Molly Qerim, First Take will air a live episode from ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
“As a proud graduate of an HBCU—Winston-Salem State University, '91—and being the HBCU Week Ambassador since 2019, I’m extremely grateful to ESPN and the First Take crew for assisting me in promoting the academic excellence of HBCUs along with providing scholarship opportunities,” shared Smith.
EBONY caught up with the First Take host and chatted with him about the impact of HBCUs, his new podcast Know Mercy, as well as upcoming memoir.
EBONY: How did you become involved as an HBCU ambassador?
Stephen A. Smith: I was asked to come aboard by Ashley Christopher, President of HBCU Week. She’s done a fabulous job of putting this together and pushing it forward along with politicians to get them to prioritize HBCU week. It’s an honor and a privilege to do it. Their efforts speak far more loudly than mine but I'm happy that they asked me to be an ambassador. I'm happy that I played a role in generating so many scholarships for so much money. So far, we generated over $12 million.
When I went to Winston-Salem, I didn't know anything about HBCUs as a New Yorker. A former player from the school who played in the 70s was a friend of my family, and he took me down for a tryout. I hit 17 straight 3-pointers. They gave me a scholarship on the spot and everything has taken off from there. I never shot that well before that tryout or since then. But that was the first time I ever heard of an HBCU.
I remember asking my boss Dave Roberts, the head of NBA & Studio Production of ESPN, if we could do the show at Delaware State University the first year and he instantly said yes. I also have to give a lot of credit to my manager Rushion McDonald because he was an integral part of all of this. It’s such a big deal to have this at Disney World. It's hard to put into words how appreciative I am and how appreciative Black America should be that Walt Disney has decided to put such a large spotlight on HBCUs.
At Winston-Salem, you played under the legendary Clarence “Big House” Gaines. How has his legacy inspired you?
Well, I’m trying to do what he asked me to do. As far as I'm concerned, he saved my life. He helped steer me in this direction because he knew that I wanted to be somebody. He knew that I wanted to be impactful and make a difference. He would constantly remind me of that. He would say, "What are you if you're not making a difference, particularly as it pertains to the lives of young African Americans throughout this country?" So he always made sure to remind me of what he expected of me and I always try to remember that. He's always at the forefront of my mind.
As a veteran in sports media, do you feel a responsibility to amplify other Black voices?
It’s pivotal. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Stuart Scott, John Saunders, Bryant Gumbel, Michael Wilbon and so many others who used their platforms to provide a voice for the voiceless. I stand on their shoulders. I don't give a damn about any caché I have career-wise. If I don't provide a platform for Black voices, I haven't done my job. I think about Dave Roberts, who's my boss and an African American. I think about Antoine Lewis, vice-president of production, and James Dunn, our coordinating producer, on the show. On First Take, our contributors are Monica McNutt, Kimberly Martin, Marcus Spears, Ryan Clark, Dominique Foxworth, and even Michael Irvin. We have a plethora of Black individuals in front of and behind the camera. That’s not an accident. From the moment I arrived, I made sure that everybody understood that was a priority if I was on the show. I've always been that way and I'm proud of it. That's the way I am.
You recently premiered your new podcast Know Mercy where you cover music, politics, pop culture, and more. How has it been to talk about so many other topics outside of sports?
I'm always going to be authentic. I'm not an aficionado of politics or the world of pop culture and entertainment. But I recognize that all of these things have an impact on society. I've been a journalist for 30 years so it's been my job to probe and find out what's going on so I can articulate ideas for other people. That way, they can take that intel and go with it however they choose. You have to be a conduit of dialogue and information. That's ultimately what my job is and that's what I'm trying to do with the podcast. I try to go down the middle. A perfect example is this week, I had Chris Cuomo and Sean Hannity as guests. Why did I do that? Because I'm a registered Independent. I don't subscribe to partisan politics. I think there are some things conservatives are right about and I think there are a lot of things that Democrats are right about. I go on a case-by-case basis. That's my mentality. That's not a political stance to me. That's me being a Black man that's cynical and skeptical about the things that I need to be cynical and skeptical about on behalf of what I perceived to be are the best interest of my community.
Not only are you a fan of soap operas but you had a recurring role in General Hospital. Will you be reprising your role this season?
Yes. I'll be back on in a few weeks. I just taped a few episodes. You'll be seeing me soon.
After all your years of being a journalist and sports media personality, you finally decided to write your memoir. What is the title and when is it coming out?
The book is coming out on January 17, 2023. It's titled, Straight Shooter. You can go pre-order it now. The memoir is about my trials and tribulations from the time I was a kid on the streets of New York and what I had to overcome up until now. I'm looking forward to sharing my truth with the world.
Lastly, what storylines are you most looking forward to in this upcoming NBA season?
I have three. Will the Golden State Warriors repeat? Or to say it another way, who's going to be the biggest threat to the Warriors? That's number one. Number two, how relevant will the Lakers be? And three, will the Brooklyn Nets led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving finally answer the call and meet expectations? Those are my top three storylines.
First Take at HBCU Week will air live from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. ET from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on October 7.