ESPN anchor Stuart Scott is in a production trailer by himself and he is in tears. It is days before the Jimmy V Perseverance Award speech he will give during the ESPYs that will become the pièce de résistance of his brilliant career; a career full of in-depth interviews, “boo-yahs” and well-timed, creative, black-folk puns like, “Pitch, don’t kill my vibe.”
The ESPN production crew dragged Scott into the trailer to watch the video montage that will play before he is brought onstage. He’s weak. In the 10 days leading up to this event, his cancer-ravaged body had gone through four surgeries. Only days before this moment, he had been in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of every part of his body, and he hadn’t been sure that he would have enough strength to fly commercial to get to the event. The cancer, which he beat back like Ali did Foreman—twice—was now on its third trip through Scott’s body, and this time it was hunkered down for a full-on merciless assault on his liver and kidneys.
The execs at ESPN flew him in by private jet. And because Scott knows the toll cancer takes on hundreds of thousands of lives across the country each year, and that his voice can have some impact, he is in Los Angeles ready to speak, even if he’s on shaky legs. He sits in the trailer waiting for the video to play because, for him, this moment isn’t about being afraid or feeling weak; it’s all about showing up.
Showing Up. That’s what Stuart’s posthumous memoir, Everyday I Fight, finished just weeks before his death, could have been titled. In it, Scott doesn’t feel like his work life was extraordinary; not his hip-hop-isms, or his swag, or his uncanny ability to get famous people to tell him things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. It was all just a part of his North Carolina upbringing and his unwavering commitment to be himself. How else was a Southern kid with a love of all things UNC, an Alpha Phi Alpha man raised on rap music, supposed to act?
“My industry seemed black-and-white in a Technicolor hip-hop world,” Scott wrote. “You think I was sitting around, saying to myself, ‘Self, you gotta represent hip-hop nation on SportsCenter tonight?’”
Nah. Scott was too busy being a fan of the sports he loved all his life and working in a dream environment that allowed him to be himself. That didn’t mean he didn’t have to fight for his brand of normalcy, but it’s hard to argue with success.
“I think that’s partly why what I was doing on-air caught on. Because it wasn’t calculated. I was just being myself, writing and talking about sports the way I would with Stephen or Fred or any one of my boys,” he wrote. “And that came through. Listen to rap music back then; hip-hop was all about authenticity. If someone ‘kept it real’—that was the highest of compliments. Viewers are smart, they can tell who is genuine and who is running game.”
And his trademark catch phrase, “Boo-yah”? Yep, a throwback to North Carolina days when he and his best friend, Fred, were hanging out in the garage of an old neighbor named Gilbert Shelton:
“One day Mr. G said, ‘Hey fellas, did you hear that thunder last night?’”
‘Nah, Mr. G, I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
“‘You didn’t hear it?’” he said. “‘Goodness, it was loud. It was like, Boo-yah!’”
Scott’s career was booming, and he was loving every minute of it. Then one day, in 2007, he began having severe abdominal pains while covering a Monday night football game in Pittsburgh between the Steelers and the Miami Dolphins. Doctors initially thought it was appendicitis; turned out to be the rare appendiceal cancer.
Scott was stunned. The word “cancer” hit him like a defensive end on an all-out blitz. His fight with the disease would be an epic battle, with Scott beating cancer into remission, only for the cancer to come back more viciously. This cycle would become a disjointed beat break through the last seven years of Scott’s life.
This is the crux of the memoir, and the most poignant takeaway of Scott’s battle: Having cancer didn’t make him a fighter. He was a fighter long before cancer, so trying to stay alive was natural, not extraordinary. He said he wanted to stay alive for two reasons: Sydni, 15, and Taelor, 19, his two daughters, who are the only two extraordinary accomplishments for which he gives himself credit.
Which is why the moment in the trailer with the video montage is too much: the faces of friends, their speeches, the cancer, the more than 60 rounds of chemo meds pumped through his body, the Wound Vac—which drained his scar—and the faint whisper of mortality’s train pulling into the last station stop. And then he hears his daughter’s voice, and the weight of it all is crushing him.
On the day of the speech in front of 7,100 at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, Scott could barely stand. He had to steady himself on the seat in front of him before he walked to the stage. What he intended to say was, “You beat cancer by how you live while you live,” but in front of the audience, thinking about his daughters and the life he had lived up to that point, it became, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live.” He even ad-libbed the last bit, “ … by the manner in which you live.” Clutch.
He would spend Christmas 2014 surrounded by his girlfriend and daughters and the rest of his family. On the morning of Jan. 4, Stuart Scott, the man who introduced the sports world to hip-hop-speak and who lived his life out loud, took his last breath.
As his casket was carried out of the Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., it was fitting that “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang boomed in the background.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.