The way Stephen A. Smith sees it, he’s always right, and he doesn’t give a damn what you think.
Smith, the outspoken host of ESPN’s First Take, has become a household name and one of the network’s most recognizable personalities thanks to his over-the-top bravado and unwavering opinions on just about every aspect of modern sports.
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Smith, a onetime Inquirer beat writer and sports columnist, will be returning to Philadelphia to cover the NFL Draft this week, bringing along his fellow First Take hosts Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim. The show will be filmed live at Chickie's & Pete's on Packer Avenue, and he’s already looking forward to hitting up some local spots he frequents anytime he’s in town.
“I’ll get my haircut at my barber shop [Classic Barber & Beauty] at Spring Garden and 15th Street,” Smith said. “Then I’ll grab a cheesesteak from my favorite place in town, John’s Place, just a few doors down.”
Smith wouldn’t reveal which of his former hangout spots he’ll be taking Kellerman and Qerim to when they’re in town (he said he liked to “roam in the dark” in that regard), but he did say it’s likely he’ll treat them to dinner one night at the Capital Grille on Broad Street.
“Me coming back to Philly is like me coming home, and that’s a big, big deal since I’m a native New Yorker,” Smith said.
To say Smith is busy these days is an understatement. In addition to his daily commitment to First Take, Smith also hosts the Stephen A. Smith Show on ESPN Radio, which is broadcast on ESPN radio affiliates 98.7 FM in New York and 710 AM in Los Angeles. The show can also be heard nationally on SiriusXM channel 80.
The outspoken sports-talker has heard it all, from critics who decry his “hot takes” to pundits claiming he was a failure when his ESPN talk show Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith was canceled. As a result, he’s developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to dealing with jabs and insults. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any weak spots.
“You can criticize me, you can crucify me, you can love me, you can hate me,” Smith said. “Just don’t make the mistake of calling me inauthentic, because you’d be a damn liar.”
Smith bristles at the notion that people think his passion for sports is somehow an act, and that hosts like himself and former First Take partner Skip Bayless are just faking outrage and trolling sports celebrities like LeBron James to garner better ratings.
“Go back and read my columns in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Get tapes of my interviews with (97.5 The Fanatic host) Mike Missanelli. Watch me on CNN/SI. Check out clips from Quite Frankly. I’ve always been Stephen A. Smith,” the outspoken host said. “I’ve been this way since the day I was born.”
Despite some early setbacks at ESPN, Smith is certainly a ratings draw for the network these days. Despite losing former co-host Skip Bayless (whom Smith still refers to as his “brother from another mother”) to Fox Sports 1, First Take’s ratings are up as much as 10 percent over last year, according to Nielsen. That’s partly due to the network’s decision to move First Take from ESPN 2 to ESPN in order to strengthen the show’s ratings against the Bayless-led Undisputed, which has come at the cost of ratings for both the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. SportsCenter.
One day look (Thursday) at ESPN Year/Year after moving First Take: pic.twitter.com/NNaj2PXz19
— Sports TV Ratings (@SportsTVRatings) February 13, 2017
ESPN made the smart decision to fill the vacant seat left by Bayless with Kellerman, who Smith personally convinced to join him in New York. Kellerman, who previously hosted SportsNation and launched Around the Horn, is a veteran of the debate show format who has strong opinions but can also offer context and subtlety in a way the show desperately needed.
“He’s completely different from me, which is why I think the show works so well. He wants to convince you that he’s right, but also wants to understand why you don’t see that he’s right,” Smith said. “I feel what I feel and don’t give a damn if you think it’s right.”
Smith spent several years working at the Inquirer before making it big on television. He started back in 1993 as a beat reporter covering basketball, eventually moving up to become the paper’s beat reporter on the Sixers. He eventually landed his own column, where he developed a reputation for offering outspoken opinions.
In a 2001 column, he ripped beloved La Salle coach Speedy Morris after Morris was forced to resign, calling him “abysmal,” and “dismal” and praised the school for letting him go, noting that an “affable demeanor shouldn’t camouflage ineptitude.” It was sharp, opinionated, biting … and he still regrets it.
After the column was published, legendary Temple basketball coach John Chaney, who used to call Smith regularly and use colorful language to complain about about his writing, sat the young columnist down and as Smith explained, "cussed me out." Chaney educated Smith about everything that went down behind the scenes at La Salle, as well as the contributions Morris made to the community.
“The article was career-altering for me,” Smith said, who personally apologized to Morris and his family for writing the column. “After that, I put more effort and due diligence in my work because I didn’t want to make a habit of having to apologize to people to their faces.”
Regardless of that lesson, Smith still teeters towards the edge with his opinions, which often earns him a strong rebuke from viewers and colleagues.
Back in 2014, ESPN suspended Smith for a week after suggesting that Janay Palmer, then the fiancee of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, could have done something to prevent being punched by Rice in an Atlantic City elevator. He also generated controversy when he suggested roster moves being made by then-Eagles head coach Chip Kelly were racially motivated, a claim Kelly vigorously denied.
“I work in a public forum, and all I can do is say what I honestly feel,” Smith said. “If no one hears you, and no one listens to you, it doesn’t matter how good you are because no one cares about you.”