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The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Stephen A. Smith

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Stephen A. Smith will comment on anything you ask him to. Well, anything other than his career. ↵

↵Since his departure from ESPN, Stephen A. has been dipping his hand in many a media cookie jar, including a uStream channel, a podcast, guest-hosting The Steve Harvey Morning Show, and most recently, MSNBC pundit. ↵

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↵It’s rather remarkable what Smith has been able to do in a short amount of time since he left ESPN on May 1. Sure, there have been some success stories for those who leave the World Wide Leader -- Craig Kilborn, Rich Eisen and Dan Patrick all went on to bigger, if not better things -- but Stephen A. falls into a different category. Stephen A. is more Sean Salisbury than Dan Patrick. There was no place for Stephen A. at ESPN. His act had worn thin and when his contract was up, so was his time in Bristol. ↵

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↵His act wore thin at the Philadelphia Inquirer before that. Smith was a great reporter at the Inquirer because he worked hard to establish his contacts. People, most importantly players he covered, knew they could trust him. He was never the best writer, but he almost always had the story. It’s interesting to talk to people who knew him before he became a national pundit. Like most of us would undoubtedly fall victim to, Smith saw the bright lights of television and forgot where he came from. He was a good reporter. His value on television was an extension of his value as a journalist. He got good, timely information, be it on TV or in print. ↵

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↵Somewhere along the way, Smith started getting paid to give his opinions. You’d see Stephen A. less and less at courtside filing a report and more and more in the studio giving his over-the-top sermons on the basketball aptitude of Slava Medvendenko. ↵

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↵And ESPN loved it. Well, from those inside the iron walls of Bristol, it seems not everyone loved it. But enough people in corner offices loved what Smith brought to the table that they put him all over the family of networks. He was on SportsCenter and NBA studio and draft coverage and even a few guest spots on PTI. He was given his own talk show on TV and his own radio show in New York that was picked up on the national feed for an hour per day. ↵

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↵The SAS star was shining bright. Until it burned out. Quite Frankly was short lived and didn’t get the ratings ESPN anticipated, or needed for the show to survive. His column at the Inquirer was then taken away and he was reassigned as a general sports reporter. Then the Inquirer fired him, citing job abandonment. Then his New York radio show was taken away. Then his NBA studio responsibilities were taken away, in favor of a much more reasonable (and skilled) reporter-turned-pundit Michael Wilbon. ↵

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↵You see where this is going. ↵

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↵Stephen A. was out on the media street. His profile had severely diminished when the people at ESPN realized the market for ‘yelling heads’ had been supersaturated in the five o’clock hour on their network. ↵

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↵So what was Stephen A. going to do? Well, that was the point of this exercise, really. He’s managed to land on his feet. After starting that uStream channel during the NBA playoffs that got a smattering of viewers, SAS took to the fast-paced world of podcasts, and immediately used his name and ESPN notoriety to shoot himself to the top of the charts on iTunes. Oh yes, and he joined Twitter, famously calling out nearly everyone of color for not supporting Quite Frankly. It seemed insane at the time, but maybe it was foreshadowing. Could Stephen A. Smith be the next Al Sharpton, without the religious leanings? Could Smith be the next great political pundit who uses his verbose dialog and pastoral cadence to both galvanize and polarize the nation whenever the issue of race comes up? ↵

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↵Quite frankly, it’s possible. ↵

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↵At least MSNBC thinks so. The Place For Politics has featured Smith throughout their coverage of the Michael Jackson death and subsequent funeral. Smith was on the network three times Tuesday alone. And that’s after he was on a panel earlier in the week to discuss the job Barack Obama is doing in the black community. ↵

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↵Forget about the top black voice in sports. Leave that job for Jason Whitlock or William Rhoden or Wilbon or the more-poignant-than-ever memory of Ralph Wiley. Stephen A. Smith might be angling to become the top black voice in America. And if you’ve gotten as far as Smith has on style over substance, why stop at ESPN or the occasional guest spot on cable news? Having seemingly burned all bridges in sports, could Smith, who was featured on CNN during the election as well, be shifting away from the basketball arena and into the political one? ↵

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↵These are things I would have loved to ask Smith. But when I reached out to his assistant with the understanding that I was writing a story on Smith for this very site, I was told, "Presently, Stephen is not available for comment regarding his career. Thank you for the follow up inquiry." ↵

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↵No, thank you. (Note, for full disclosure, she refers to ‘follow up’ because many jobs ago, Smith had agreed to come on my podcast to talk about these issues. The interview never took place.) But while Stephen A. is not presently available to comment regarding his career, he is more than willing to comment on, say, whether or not Michael Jackson is black: ↵

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↵⇥[T]ake away the allegations of child molestation that ultimately -- because he was acquitted, he was exonerated, he was acquitted on all charges -- but you have one of the greatest producers of all-time in Quincy Jones, who was just on the record quoted as saying Michael Jackson didn’t want to be black. Michael Jackson didn’t have, you know he didn’t have vitiligo or anything like that. In my opinion, this is what Quincy Jones said, he did not want to be black, okay? This is a guy that bleached his skin for crying out loud. This is what Quincy Jones said, this is not me. ↵
↵Which part was Quincy Jones, and which part was him again? Because in the interview with Quincy Jones that Smith referenced, the term ‘for crying out loud’ does not appear. Nor, to my understanding, does the term ‘bleached his skin,’ but at this point who's really counting. ↵

↵Okay, so quoting people is not his forte. Let’s try, hmm, the music industry (while sitting at a table with a top recording artist and music mogul): ↵

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↵⇥You look at the music industry and you got people selling (chuckles), you know, DVDs and what have you. That’s just the way the world works. But the reality is that whatever assists in your popularity, it assists in your popularity. So, then make sure, you know, as an artist, you’re not going anywhere. If people are listening to you and you’re popular, you’re going to get noticed no matter what. Just because people are selling singles as opposed to albums your popularity is your popularity. ↵
↵Good thing he didn’t let Ginuwine handle that one. And I can’t wait to pick up my DVDs of my favorite bands at Sam Goody this week. Instead, let’s try a response to the question posed about Jackson being so famous he was forced into relative seclusion: ↵
↵⇥I think, to me, what I get out of it is the importance of family. I don’t care what I have -- I don’t care what I go through, there’s a tremendous foundation I have. I have a wonderful mother. I have a wonderful father. I have wonderful sisters and nieces and nephews. I mean, I think about that. And I say that because the saddest thing about all of this is that Michael Jackson never had a chance. ↵
↵Gee, that seems oddly personal, Stephen. Got anything else you’d like to share about your family, while comparing yourself to the most famous man on the planet? ↵
↵⇥When you’re in the public eye, you have to have somebody that you trust in your private life. Somebody that you know you can talk to and confide in and you don’t have to worry about it being in the tabloids. You don’t have to worry about it being circulated all over the world. And somebody who is not a yes-person and will tell you the truth. I can assure you I have that. And I know you do. I don’t have a problem with people looking me in the face and telling me about myself. And I don’t have to worry about it being publicized all over the world. And that’s really, really important because Michael Jackson clearly didn’t have that. A lot of these stars that have faded -- I mean Elvis Presley, he died at the age of 42. Marilyn Monroe died at the age of 36 if I remember correctly. It’s that isolation factor that kicks into high gear, and unfortunately these stars suffer from that. ↵
↵If Stephen A. has reached a new chapter of his life, and does want to become the next Al Sharpton, or as some are more aptly suggesting, Tavis Smiley, he’s going to need to work on being a bit more succinct and on-point with his social commentary -- and realize that when talking about the death of a global icon, he should focus more on getting his quotes right and less on giving shout outs to his sisters’ kids. If he’s moving on from sports, or sports has moved on from him, he’s gotta watch out. If this political and social commentary thing doesn’t pan out, that isolation factor could start kicking into high gear real soon.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.