Late-night talk show host Stephen A. Smith?
“We were in the green room talking, and he was saying a lot of positive things,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports in a lengthy telephone interview on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Bryant’s death.
It was 2006, and Bryant would watch Smith’s “Quite Frankly” show on ESPN2 whenever time allowed, he told Smith.
“I said joking around, ‘Man, they’re telling me I can be the next Oprah,’” the ESPN personality recalled. “And he said to me, ‘Bump Oprah. Think HARPO. Don’t insult her or yourself by viewing yourself as just a television personality or viewing her as just that. She’s so much more. She’s an influencer, a difference-maker, because she owns her own stuff. That’s what you should be aspiring to do.’
“And I’ve held onto that all of these years in everything that I’ve done with that mission in mind, until right now.”
Smith became one of the biggest names in sports media and began his own production company, MrSAS Productions – with an eye on getting into the movie industry soon. “First Take,” the debate show he first cohosted alongside Skip Bayless and now with Max Kellerman, is a consistent ratings success and his own show, “Stephen A’s World” debuted this year and airs four times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) on ESPN+; Smith serves as the executive producer of the show.
Hollywood? More acting (he’s already appeared on “General Hospital”)? Producer credits? It’s all on the horizon. And from his perch at the top of sports media, Smith is aiming for the pinnacle of the entertainment industry altogether.
“My aspiration is to ultimately do late-night one day,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports.
“I think there’s a hole in late-night that I could help fill,” Smith said. “So when I think about Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon and those guys – I can’t forget Trevor Noah, who I think does a phenomenal job on Comedy Central – it’s something that I aspire to do as well.
“So I look at ‘Stephen A’s World’ on ESPN+ as me essentially getting my feet wet in that realm, where I have an opportunity to be myself, still talk sports, still give you my opinions. But in the same breath, bring people from the entertainment slash pop culture world and beyond, an opportunity not just to showcase their knowledge about sports, but to celebrate them and what they bring to the world.”
The debut of “Stephen A’s World” featured Snoop Dogg and Steve Harvey. Two days later, soap opera star Maurice Benard was on. In the future, Smith said, viewers may see someone like Sean Hannity on the show. He wants to show the public how diverse his “world” can be.
“I open myself up to different thoughts, different ideas, different perspectives and what have you,” Smith said. “That’s why I love the title of my show. You never know what my world entails.”
USA TODAY Sports asked Smith about his vision for the show, his relationships with Bayless and Kellerman, what his time away from the camera taught him and what challenges late-night TV host Stephen A. might face.
Answers and questions have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Who were your other media influences growing up?
SAS: “To me, personally, I idolized Howard Cosell. I loved him on ‘Wide World of Sports’ when he was doing boxing when it was on ABC. I loved him on ‘Monday Night Football.’ I just idolized him. His voice was very distinctive, knew exactly who he was the second you heard his voice. I just thought he was phenomenal. I also have idolized Bryant Gumbel and I’m honored to say he is someone I communicate with from time to time. He’s been a phenomenal individual in this industry for many, many years. I was watching Bryant Gumbel from the time he was on NBC doing NFL, not just their morning show later on. … He’s just one of the elder statesmen. He’s an institution.
“God rest his soul, I always loved watching Ed Bradley on ’60 Minutes.’ I was a huge fan of his as well. So to me, I’ve been influenced by a lot of people. I grew up in this business idolizing Mike Wilbon, who’s a dear friend of mine. … Ralph Wiley, God rest his soul, passed away years ago, I always admired his work.
“So there’s a lot of people that have had a profound influence on my career and my life in the world of sports.”
Q: Do you see that late-night possibility existing under the ESPN/Disney umbrella or is that something where that opportunity will come from elsewhere?
SAS: “I haven’t dissected it that way, in all honesty. But I could tell you there’s no limitations for me. I believe that opportunities are going to continue to come my way. I’m going to keep an open mind about a lot of different things, but I will tell you I’m a proud member of the Walt Disney family. The family has treated me great. They’ve exhibited a tremendous belief in me and I don’t intend to let them down. If opportunities take me elsewhere down the road, so be it, but if it takes me nowhere and leaves me stuck with the Walt Disney family for the rest of my career I can assure you that’s not something that I am going to complain about, based on the way I’ve been treated. This place seems to have a lot of love for me and a lot of appreciation for what I bring to the table and I try to reciprocate by honoring them and showing my gratitude by putting forth the best work and the best effort that I possibly can.”
Q: I like how you teased the new show by joking around with the infamous “Take a look at this, ya’ll” broken-link tweet from a few years ago.
SAS: “You have to know how to be self-deprecating sometimes. My nieces and nephews, they always laugh, because they say, ‘You’ve got the whole world fooled. Because everybody thinks you’re so serious. They don’t know how crazy you are’ – in a funny way. They think I’m hysterical and they say I’m very, very funny and that I make people laugh all the time. They say it’s a shame people don’t know that side of you.
“The one hiccup that I believe I have – no one agrees with me – that I believe I have – there are people who think I could actually be a comedian. And I always tell them, ‘No way in hell.’ I’m funny, right up until I try to be. Then it wouldn’t work. And that’s always been my number one fear. When I think about late-night, for example, the only thing I concern myself with is the opening monologue. There’s nothing else in the show I don’t believe I can’t do. It’s just the opening monologue that I’ve always professed would be a challenge for me, because I don’t know if I would be funny intentionally. But nevertheless, it’s a challenge I’m ultimately willing to partake.”
Q: What would you say to people who say “First Take” Stephen A. is just putting on an act?
SAS: “They know better. They don’t say that. I don’t believe that anymore because it’s been eight years. They’ve seen me enough. They’ve seen me in different venues to know that it’s truly me. There’s plenty of my boys that I went to school, my childhood buddies that I grew up with, people walk up to them all the time and they say, ‘Is that really him?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes, he hasn’t changed a bit.’ I’ve educated myself. I’ve become a bit more intellectual, a bit more (prescient). Age, maturation, kicks in and stuff like that. But the nucleus of who I am, what I am about, what I stand for, how I express myself, etcetera etcetera, that has always been me, and it will always be me. I remember one time a couple of guys was getting on me: ‘It’s the way you say things, Stephen A., it’s the way you say things.’ I just looked at them and said, ‘Would you prefer me to be phony? Or better yet, would you like to pay me to be different?’ Because I’m essentially paid for being myself. Yes, I can be loud. Yes, I can be demonstrative. But I could also laugh. I could also be funny. I could also have a good time. And more importantly, even if I feel passion that somebody believes is off the chart, I believe in bringing that authentic reaction to the equation.
“I remember one time, late commissioner David Stern was getting on me: ‘Why do you have to act this way? I don’t know what the hell to call it, why are you acting so crazy on television?’ I said, ‘Commissioner, may I ask you a question, sir?’ I said, ‘When you watch an NBA game, are you calm?’ He says, ‘Well of course not, I even throw stuff at my TV, my wife has to calm me down.’ I said, ‘I rest my case.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Sir, why to hide it just because I’m on television?’ You want to identify with the viewer. If that’s how they’d react, why would you react differently? Why must I be calm and composed? Now, I’m not cussin’. I’m not out there calling people names, doing all of that stuff. But the same level of passion that I have watching it, why would I disguise it just because the cameras are rolling? Why wouldn’t I showcase it to the viewer, when I want them to watch me. ‘Ahh, you have a point there, Stephen, you have a point.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Q: What were you up to during your two-year hiatus from ESPN (2009-11)?
SAS: “I was unemployed the first year. Nobody would hire me, from 2009 and 2010, nobody would hire me for television, nobody would hire me for radio. I couldn’t get a job.”
Q: What did you learn about yourself?
SAS: “It was tough for me. There were a lot of times – I shouldn’t say a lot of times – there were times that I felt, initially, that it was unfair. That I had gotten screwed over. I thought it was incredibly unfair that I woke up one day and went from having four jobs to no jobs. That was both at ESPN and the Philadelphia Inquirer, but ultimately what had happened was, I had to look at myself in the mirror. Because my mother, God rest her soul, passed away in 2017, she was like, ‘What did you do? What could you have done better?’ And then I thought about the way that I spoke and the way that I expressed myself when I disagreed with certain people in positions of power and influence and things of that nature. I just said if I was in their position, and they had spoken to me that way, they would have been in a world of trouble their damn self. I wasn’t insubordinate. I didn’t curse anybody out. But just the body language, the vibe, the vibrato, I played myself. I lost my way. Because I got so caught up in being denied, being marginalized, being minimized – in my eyes – that I didn’t appreciate that I was a part of a business. And in business, they use various mechanisms to measure your worth and your value. And what I thought my worth and my value was, was significantly different than what they thought. And I didn’t appreciate that. I didn’t act as professionally as I could have. As a result of that, you have to pay a price.
“It’s amazing to me, because some of the same bosses that I had then, are my bosses now. And our relationships are totally different. I still speak my mind. I still express myself. But the level of understanding that I have about the business, and what comes with being an executive in this business, are just things I did not know back then. So my level of appreciation for them and what their job entails has elevated so much so, that I find myself literally communicating with them more and more every day just to learn more, as opposed to challenge. It also allowed me to ultimately adopt the mentality that I have, that I’ve held onto to this very day, is that I wake up with two thoughts in mind. A, how to make my bosses more money and B, how to get some of it. Those are my two primary thoughts. Because when you wake up with those mentalities you don’t shortchange yourself by not being in pursuit of your goals and your dreams, but in the same breath, with just as much high regard, you hold their desires and their preferences in your mind as well. And when you talk to a boss about being more successful, about making more money or what have you, what boss on the planet Earth is not going to listen to you when you have that kind of attitude? Having that kind of attitude has opened the floodgates for me.”
(Editor’s note: Smith did leave ESPN in 2009 but was working for Fox Sports Radio until December 2010)
Q: If you could take one player from Knicks history and put him on the team today, who would it be?
SAS: “Take one player from Knicks history and put him on the team today?”
Q: Yeah, I was thinking maybe that would be a fun way of asking who your favorite Knick of all-time is.
SAS: “For me, for me, Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe. Black Jesus. He was something special. He was a showman. But he could make buckets. Plus, he came from my alma mater, Winston-Salem State University. He’s always going to be No. 1 on my list of Knicks — unless they got Kevin Durant. If they got Kevin Durant I would have changed that. But because they didn’t, dammit, I’m stuck with this.”
Q: What’s your relationship like with Max?
SAS: “Max is a great guy. He has his sensibilities and what have you, which mirror mine in a lot of ways. I’m incredibly appreciative of the man he is. But we are a work in progress as it pertains to ‘First Take.’ When I was doing ‘First Take’ with Skip, Skip had one position, I had the other. It didn’t matter whether we talked to each other before the show, during the show, after the show, it didn’t matter. We were never on the same page. Max and I are still a work in progress in that regard because Max is an intellectual. … Max is one of those guys who wants to convince you to see the error of your ways. It’s important to him that you side with him. So a lot of time is spent trying to convince you how knowledgeable he is, as opposed to simply taking his side and saying, ‘The rest of the world can kiss my you-know-what.’ I’m the kind of person who’s like, ‘This is how I feel and unless you prove me wrong, I don’t give a damn what you feel.’ That’s the difference between he and I, and that’s what makes it challenging at times, is the only thing. He’s incredibly smart. He works hard. He’s a good dude. I like him a lot as a person and he’s incredibly likable. The difference between he and I is that he cares a hell of a lot more about being likable than I do.”
Q: Do you miss Skip?
SAS: “Of course I do. I would not be on ‘First Take’ without Skip Bayless. I’m on ‘First Take’ because Skip Bayless brought me to ‘First Take.’ And at that particular moment in time, Skip Bayless was ‘First Take.’ So whatever I’ve achieved in my career since I’ve been on ‘First Take’ is a byproduct of Skip Bayless. Even though it’s my show now, and a lot of people viewed me in high regard when he and I were together, you don’t sit up there and bite the hand that feeds you. You don’t turn your back on somebody who’s done so much for you. He is my brother from another mother. He always will be. I don’t give a damn where I go or what I do. When you look at my success in this business, regardless of what talent people say I have, it really took off to another level when I got on ‘First Take.’ And there’s no way in hell that I would have ever been on ‘First Take’ if it weren’t for Skip Bayless. Period.”
Q: With the late-night aspirations, “Stephen A’s World” and everything else in the works now, have you ever thought about running it back with him? Maybe not in a consistent, daily format, but in some way, shape or form?
SAS: “Always. He knows that. I know that. Every time I’m out in California, we meet for dinner. We talk. We’re friends. He’s doing a great job over there where he’s at. They say I’m doing a great job over here. He’s making his money, more than he dreamed he would ever make. I’ve been very fortunate, doing a little something myself. But we always talk.
“And of course the hope is that one day we’ll reunite in some capacity. But neither of us can afford to think about because we both have contractual obligations where we are, and I have no desire to leave Walt Disney, that I can tell you.”
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