|Posted by M on January 28, 2015 at 2:00 AM|
ESPN's Stuart Scott Dies At 49
Stuart Scott didn't like what I wrote about him 17 years and three days before his death.
In one of those pithy, scattershot year-in-sports columns on Jan. 1, 1998, it went this way: "ESPN did a special on gangs in sports that was one of the most important pieces of sports journalism in the past five years. Its work on Jackie Robinson was equally important. But, then, ESPN turns around and puts someone like Stuart Scott on 'SportsCenter' — our national daily sports page — with a lame comedy act not deserving of even the WB Network. When the act supersedes the sports he allegedly presents, he becomes a national purveyor of foofaraw."
Scott didn't like it one bit. I don't blame him. The words were harsh. He called The Courant to complain, ostensibly looking for me, settling instead on an editor. When that conversation was relayed, it sounded as if he was accusing me of racism. When you are backed into the indefensible "Have you stopped beating your wife?" corner from the get-go, there is no return phone call. Never will be.
I waited for Scott, who lived in Avon, to cool down and call back. He did not.
Nearly a year and a half later, when our Desmond Conner spent a day with Scott in Bristol for an in-depth piece, the ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor revealed that he had never been more bothered by criticism. This was a guy who had been stung by Sports Illustrated and much bigger publications. It slapped me to attention.
"If you don't like my style, that's fine, turn me off," Scott said in Conner's article. "But that statement was ignorant. It was racist. And it was uncalled for. He took an unfair shot at me and my character. He dissed ESPN for putting me on the air."
This was my response in May 1999.
"I have considerable respect for 'SportsCenter' as our national sports page. As a result, their anchors have a responsibility beyond speaking loudly and carrying a big shtick. There is a line between journalism and vaudeville. When Stuart doesn't cross it, I enjoy his distinctive style. When he does cross it, I squeal. Begging him not to yell 'booyah!' 48 times in a row should not qualify me as a racist. Actually, I think he has toned it down a bit. Thank you, Stuart."
Looking at those words a decade and a half later, I wouldn't have changed any of them. I only would add to the last sentence, "and thank you for not toning it down too much."
When Scott died on Sunday, the outpouring of emotion was overwhelming. There were moments of silence at NFL, NBA and college games, including the UConn-St. John's women at Madison Square Garden, where I was. At his alma mater on Monday, North Carolina fans held signs during a moment of silence that read simply, "Stu."
Scott changed the game, Kobe Bryant said. He was a trailblazer, Michael Jordan said, a star because he refused to change his style. LeBron James thanked Scott for bringing swag to reporting, giving inner-city kids someone to relate to. Magic Johnson said that Scott's flair and finesse brought flavor and coolness to ESPN. Tiger Woods said that Scott wasn't covering heroes and champions, it was the other way around. They all called him a friend.
"Twenty years ago, Stu helped usher in a new way to talk about our favorite teams and the day's best plays," President Barack Obama said. "Over the years, he entertained us, and in the end, he inspired us — with courage and love."
I refrained from writing about Scott's passing at age 49 for the better part of a week. His public battle with cancer, tragic, heroic and ultimately spiritually uplifting for millions, deserved to be first and foremost in America's sporting conscience. The man fought it for better than seven years. He worked out like a demon, kickboxing cancer as if it were some small-time punk. Those who worked with him said he refused to complain. He took the chemo like a man, barfed, walked out of the bathroom and insisted that he was good to go on the set. All he wanted to talk about was his two daughters. That is the definition of being as cool as the other side of the pillow.
Yet, given the history, it would be disingenuous of me to write about his passing without trying to address his impact on the sporting public.
Some have told me I have given too much credit to "SportsCenter" through the years in calling it our nation's sports page. I disagree. Its presentation of the news is THE news. The replays become our collective sporting memory. Its experts' immediate reactions become our ground-floor perspective.
I make no excuses for paying homage to Bob Ley and "Outside the Lines." When Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were at the top of their games on "SportsCenter," it was genius. It's against that measuring stick, not the tragically hip ESPN2 milieu that brought Scott to Bristol in 1993, that I judge him.
I liked Scott's delivery. I liked the way he looked and the way he sounded. Yet through the '90s, I kept asking myself why was he trying so hard to be the coolest guy in the room? After a string of six successive hip-hop references, didn't he realize he wore out so many people trying to figure out what he was saying? And once they figured it out, wasn't the constant repetition cliche? The show was about sports, not Stuart, and he crossed the showboat line too many times.
According to "ESPN: The Uncensored History," executives asked Scott to cut down the volume of his slang. Those who are bent on canonizing Scott's career will point to racism in any criticism. So be it. For me, it was the difference between hitting a great percentage of three-pointers and gratuitous volume shooting. I would say the same thing if some Jewish sportscaster kept repeating, "Oy vey!"
Scott graduated from North Carolina, a prestigious university. Digging too deep and often in the well of street verbiage, I thought he sometimes missed the chance to elevate his gift for the language. It is not surprising that in a 2003 USA Today survey, Scott was selected as the "SportsCenter" anchor voters most wanted to get rid of and second behind Patrick as the one they most wanted to keep.
"I don't want to commit hyperbole here, but Stuart's delivery on 'SportsCenter' — his willingness to stick with it despite getting complaints, and the producers letting him stick with it — is one of the great cultural moments that African American culture has ever had," former ESPN executive Keith Clinkscales once said. A piece in Poynter this week also called Scott a hero of American speech.
I admit I was so preoccupied with Scott's crossing "the line" that it took me time to see some cultural boundaries he pushed for the better. He helped a looser, easier flow in the sports media. I also would submit that he matured his presentation. He wasn't the same Stuart Scott in 2005 as in 1995. As far as turning him into the ESPN Noah Webster for yelling "booyah," c'mon, let's be careful.
The bigger celebrity Scott became, the more he buddied with the big-time athletes. I've come to accept that as part of the sports world we live in now. The objective messenger hasn't been killed, but he has been severely wounded. In that regard, even in 1998, Scott admitted to USA Today that he wasn't going to be politically correct about it: "A lot of the black athletes tell me that I represent them, understand them. That it's good to see a brother out there. That's the way it is."
I was watching the ESPYs in July with my teenage son when Stuart accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. He didn't look good, but he never sounded more eloquent. "When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer," Scott said. "You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live."
I turned to my son, who greets me each day with 'sup' and, with a tear in my eye, said, "I ain't hatin' on Stu tonight."
At that moment, some middle ground was struck