Whether you love him, hate him, quote him or only know the Saturday Night Live Jay Pharoah impressions of him, everyone has a #hottake about Stephen A. Smith.
Smith is the senior host of First Take (after his longtime co-host, Skip Bayless, left the show earlier this year), the No. 1-rated sports show on the ESPN networks. On Jan. 3, “Stephen A.” and his new co-host, Max Kellerman, will be making the big move from ESPN2 to ESPN (10 a.m.-12 p.m. ET), taking their signature bombastic debate show to the flagship channel.
Stephen A., never short of opinions on sports and life, talked to The Root about the move, his old partner Bayless and, believe it or not … Star Trek?
The Root: What is your goal with First Take now that the show is on the flagship ESPN channel?
Stephen A. Smith: That’s for the bosses to answer. For me personally? I’m on the grind! I’m trying to make the show better. ESPN is the main channel. Anytime you’re on the main channel, it’s a plus. It shows the company’s faith in you; it shows what you mean to them.
I can tell you for me, all I care about is the damn quality of the show. If the show sucks, I ain’t happy. If the show is damn good, I’m very happy.
If you start thinking about [ratings] too much instead of the quality of the show—particularly when you’re us, and you’re black—and you drop the ball in that regard, then it ain’t worth it because you want to be recognized for being popular, but you also want to be recognized for being great.
TR: Has that goal changed now that you’ve switched partners from Skip to Max? [Writer's note: Skip Bayless hosted First Take with Stephen A. Smith from 2011 until June 2016, when he left for another network.]
SAS: It’s gonna be hard, if not close to impossible, to match the level of chemistry me and my man Skip had because Skip and I go back 20 years. And I never worked with Max before. We can develop it, we can cultivate it, we can still do a magnificent show that’s gonna resonate and sing. But at the same time, you don’t buy chemistry; nor do you manufacture it. It is what it is. It’s hard to imagine that either Skip or myself will ever be able to find the chemistry that we had with one another cuz we’ve known each other for so long.
TR: When Skip left and you had to find a new co-host for First Take, what was the process like? What were you looking for?
SAS: Let’s be clear: It wasn’t my decision. I could give my thoughts and my opinions, but at the same time, this was a call that was going to be made by management. But in the end, I’m still happy with the call that we ultimately agreed upon.
Whatever growing pains [Max Kellerman] is going to go through because he’s never been in a format like this, I’m confident that it will materialize into something very beneficial to him. You do not buy chemistry. We’re No. 1. But we ain’t what we were when Skip and I were together. Just like Skip isn’t what he was when he was with me. You can’t buy or manufacture or choreograph what we had.
If Max and I have a challenge, it’s that both of us are from New York and both of us are alike. So it’s great for conversation, but for it to be a debate, you have to work a little harder to discover what you’re disagreeable about. There are plenty of people out there that would manufacture feelings just to come across in a certain way so they could make this paper. I don’t play that game.
TR: How do you handle criticism—from Kevin Durant or Jason Whitlock or even viewers of First Take?
SAS: Man, it’s on a case-by-case basis. As resolute as I feel about my convictions, if I’m wrong, I’m man enough to say I’m wrong, because I find it a rare occasion anyway.
If I say you’re wrong, put on your big-boy pants and take it. If I call you a liar, that’s a character assassination, and I wasn’t having that. [Writer's note: Last year, Oklahoma City/Golden State Forward Kevin Durant accused Smith of “lying and making up stories.”]
Durant owes me an apology; I’ll never get it. But he owes me an apology. Because I’m no liar. I could have been wrong, but I ended up not being
. But I’m no liar.
TR: You are probably the most prominent African-American man on television next to Roland Martin, inasmuch as you are on TV five days a week and have the freedom to say what you want. What role or obligation do you feel, if any, to black people?
SAS: I’m so glad you asked that question. I absolutely feel a responsibility. But here’s where it gets tricky. I feel a responsibility to make sure that the voices from our community are heard. I do not feel a responsibility to agree with them. No one tells me what to think. I think for me.
I don’t consider myself just a black man. I consider myself a brotha. I love my people. I’m not anti-anything. I’m not anti-Jew or Gentile, I’m not anti-white, but I am pro-black. I am pro my people. And I love us so much that it gets on my nerves when we do stupid things.
I don’t speak for all of us, but I’m pretty sure that my thoughts and opinions and beliefs identify with most people who are black because that’s my soul. I watched Star Trek when I was younger. I remember that line, “The lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few,” and if you stupid or ignorant or selfish, I’m gonna remind the world, that ain’t black people, that’s yo’ ass. That ain’t us, that’s you. And if that pisses a few black people off, so what? The lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few.
[Writer's note: In classic Stephen A. form, he and I debated about whether he was quoting Star Trek right—and decided we were both right.]
TR: Who is the most conscious/woke athlete of our time?
SAS: LeBron James publicly … Carmelo Anthony privately. It’s not that Melo isn’t outspoken like LeBron is. It’s that LeBron’s comments resonate more publicly.
TR: Who is the most underrated athlete today?
SAS: I think it’s Serena Williams. We recognize her as the best tennis player ever. But we don’t recognize what she’s overcome. The trials and tribulations, the mocking, the insults, the pitfalls, how many times she’s gonna fall down and come back up. Because she is a female and playing the sport of tennis, we don’t realize that her heart is probably bigger than any athlete in the world.
TR: Any final words for The Root readers?
SAS: There’s no me without you all. Like I said, I’m not just a black man, I’m a brotha. I love my people. When I’m on the air, I am fully aware that I am not just representing myself but representing us. I’m not gonna succeed without your help. So keep that in mind when watching the show and they hate on Stephen A. Think about the alternative if I’m not on the air. Who’s gonna be on the air? You sure? You sure you want me gone? Just a thought.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.