Stephen A. Smith has always been a popular face and voice in the world of sports media, but over the past couple years the ESPN personality’s status has reached new heights. Whether it’s his rants on his daily radio show or outbursts on First Take or animated reactions that quickly get turned into memes, Smith has become the standard for sports debate. Whether you like him or not, Stephen A. has been one of the pioneers of sports debate and he’s still one of the best. Even if you don’t regularly agree with his opinions you still want to hear them because you feed off it.
Beyond the “stay off the weed” soundbites, Smith has put together a hell of a career in journalism and has helped pave the way for people of color to enter and thrive in the industry. First Take was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and Smith is obviously the main reason for that. Approximately 50 percent of the show’s viewers are African American, according to ESPN. As you’ve probably seen from jokes on social media, Smith is not one to rest and his work ethic is unmatched. The mindset behind being one of the busiest personalities in media is based on his approach toward life.
“I’ve never let go of that mindset that I still have a lot to accomplish,” says Smith. “There is no time to rest.”
We talked to the legend about being nominated for the prestigious award, his career as a black man in his industry, memes, and if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will team up and play for the Knicks next season.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Share your feelings on First Take being nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
I’m incredibly honored, it’s very humbling. I’m a mission-minded individual. That’s not just for the job that I have or my career, that’s for life. I’ve always inspired to make a difference and a positive impact in our community so to receive recognition via nomination for an award such as this, it speaks to the fact that there’s a whole lot of people who believe that you’re having a positive impact in your community and our society, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m really happy. I’m happy for myself, the show, my bosses, for ESPN overall.
Let’s talk about the beginning of First Take. How did the show come about and why’d you want to be apart of it?
The show was once called Cold P izza, it was created in 2005. A few years later, it was changed to First Take. Approximately 2009, it turned into an all debate format led by my buddy Skip Bayless. Skip held it down pretty much from two and a half to three years on his own. Skip Bayless and Jamie Horowitz ultimately took over the show and turned it into an all-debate format led by Skip Bayless. Skip came to me one day and told me “I’ve taken it as far as I can take it, I can’t take it any further without you. I know you don’t want to wake up in the morning and do this. You want to be out covering games, you want to cover NBA, etc.” But he said, “I need you to do this for me, will you do it?” I let him know that I would do it for him so I signed on to a three-year deal for First Take, basically because my buddy Skip Bayless asked me to. It took off and it ultimately went to No. 1, and it’s been there ever since.
Hard work and realness truly does pay off. Being real and true to yourself while busting your butt, it really can pay.
Skip Bayless was your first co-host until you guys moved to Max Kellerman. How would describe the dynamic between you guys and your relationship on set?
Max Kellerman is incredibly cerebral, highly intellectual guy. He’s an academic to the core. He brings a lot of substance to the show because he touches on a lot of different things from a lot of various angles that very few people are capable of doing. I often get on him because the very thing that is his strength can also be his weakness particularly when you’re debating you have to take a side. I have to let you [know] he’s one of the nicest guys that you’ll ever encounter and that’s the hard part about debating. The assumption is [that] you don’t like each other when you’re debating, and folks are right, you usually don’t like each other when you’re debating. But the minute the debate is over, whether it’s the next segment or the end of the show, you’re absolutely fine. Skip and I were that way all the time. It’s a just a mode and mentality you get into for show time, and once the show is over, it leaves you.
As a black man in your industry, you’ve paved the way for many other people of color in this industry. How difficult was your journey to achieve this status as a black man?
The journey is always difficult, it’s never easy for us. We all know that. That old adage “needing to be twice as good to get half as much” definitely feels true quite often. It’s par for the course, and you have to recognize it. I’d be completely dishonest and disingenuous if I just pointed to the system, the white man, or corporate America, as a cause for my struggles. From time to time, it wasn’t them, it was me. The reason why is because I was too busy thinking emotionally about what my value was. When I was let go by ESPN because of a contract dispute in 2009, it turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened in my career. The reason why is because it forced me to look in the mirror and look at the things I wasn’t doing that negated me from climbing the ladder and prospering in this business. And lo and behold, I discovered I spent far too much time talking about what I was worth as opposed to validating it. Which is why I came up with the saying that I wake up everyday thinking about two things: No. 1 is how do I make my bosses more money. No. 2 how do I get some of it. Tell me one single boss that doesn’t appreciate that.
What’s it like to know that you’ve paved the way for so many others?
To me, I’m proud of that, but it never stops. It’s not like I can rest on the laurels of saying I accomplished this. I’m still in survival mode. I’m still trying to survive and prosper for my own self, but my pastor said it best: “There’s no success without a successor.” If you never reach back to others then what have you truly accomplished? As much as I can be a shining example if I rise, I can be a shining example if I faIll, so I can’t rest on my laurels. I’ve never let go of that mindset that I still have a lot to accomplish, and there is no time to rest.
Switching to basketball, how bad does the NBA need Zion Williamson in New York?
They don't need him, the NBA is prospering without him. They’re certainly prospering without the New York Knicks being relevant. As a native New Yorker and a die-hard Knicks fan, I would love to see him here and I’d love to see the Knicks become relevant again, because it’s absolutely excruciating to watch them stink year after year after year. It hurts.
As a Knicks fan, do you truly believe the Knicks will land Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving?
They have a chance because they have enough cap space. Rather than begging for one free agent to come and play for them, they have the luxury to go one superstar and say bring whoever you want with you. So in the light of that reality, that’s a big, big, big deal.
What are your thoughts on the Odell Beckham trade?
Well, he’s a superstar wide receiver in New York City. You certainly don’t want them to give up superstars. You could’ve waited right before the draft and got better compensation according to what Adam Schefter told me. The biggest problem that I have with the New York Giants is that, you get rid of Odell Beckham Jr., but you could’ve saved $17 million also by getting rid of Eli Manning before March 17, and you elected not to do that. So that makes me you look at you and say what’s that about?
Meme culture dominates the internet nowadays, and you’re one of the faces of meme culture. If you didn’t know already, it seems like whatever you say or do is turned into a meme. Have you embraced that?
I don’t really pay much attention to it, bro. I do what I do. Whether it’s our social media department or people on social media, they take it and do whatever they want with it. I’m certainly not doing things to create memes, I don’t do all that. I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night fixated on doing the best job that I can possibly do so my show is a success and reap the benefits of it.
Do you have stories of people walking up to you and asking you to say one of your phrases like, “Stay off the weed”?
They do it at games all the time, but 99 percent of the time I don’t do it, because I save it for television. If I do it in person, why should they watch me on television? But every now and then depending on if I’m in a really good mood, I might but most of the time, I say “Hell no” to that.
Do you have a favorite phrase?
No. No, I just say whatever comes to my mind. I mean “Stay of the weed” has really stuck but I just say what’s on my mind.
Your old college photo was recirculating around the internet, and people were surprised that young Stephen A. had swag. What’s your response to them?
I don’t particularly care. I thought I was a good looking kid, thank God for my mama. I had good genes, but it what it is. I got alligator skin man. It’s nice that they liked it but if they didn’t like it so what? They’re are some pictures of me I don’t like. I look at me and I’m like “Damn, I don’t look to good.” Oh well, you know? I don’t worry about it. I really don’t.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during your career?
Hard work and realness truly does pay off. Being real and true to yourself while busting your butt, it really can pay. For the JAY-Zs, LeBrons, Shaqs, and others I don’t consider them the American Dream. I consider me the American Dream. They’re the American fantasy, you got a one in a billion shot if not more to be them, but you can be me. You can go to school, you can work hard, you can make it and be me. You can pull it off. You can stay on knees for 22 hours and pray, chances are you’ll never be them, but you can be Stephen A.
What’s next for you?
I’m not at liberty to say, but I anticipate that good things are coming down the pipe. I don’t stand still. I got goals to accomplish and my goals are far more than First Take. I love First Take. I’m honored to do the show, but I don’t want that to be the defining point of my career and I intend on doing just that.