Above: ESPN’s Stephen A Smith (Photo: ESPN)
By Alexander Britell
Every morning at 10 AM eastern time, sports journalist Stephen A Smith goes head-to-head with colleague Skip Bayless on the set of ESPN’s First Take.
The debate programme features the inimitable Smith and Bayless, two of the sports world’s most influential commentators, matching wits on some of the most pressing and controversial issues of the day.
But when Smith isn’t across the desk from Bayless, writing his column for ESPN New York or hosting his daily radio show for 98.7 FM in New York, he finds a home in the Caribbean.
Each year, Smith returns to St Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, the original home of both of his parents and his older sister, a tranquil world that is the polar opposite of his daily verbal jousting on First Take.
“It’s a place I go to every year — it’s a place I consider my sanctuary when I want to get away and just relax and be at peace,” Smith tells Caribbean Journal. “I enjoy the beach, the sunshine, and at the same time, some family love. It’s home for me anyway — even though I was born in the Bronx and raised in Hollis, Queens, it’s like a second home for me.”
St Thomas is a far cry from Bristol, Conn., the home of ESPN’s campus, and New York.
“For me, personally, it’s always great — it’s always great weather, it’s never a bad time,” he says. “When you have a job like I have, multiple jobs, and you’re constantly on your grind, it’s good to get away and relax and to see my relatives there. So I still get some home cooking from my aunts and see my other cousins, and hang out with them, and get to have that family time together.
The family time is largely accompanied relaxation on the beach, he says.
“I’m usually near Jersey Bay, or going over to Red Hook to take the boat over to Trunk Bay [in St John], which is only 15 minutes away,” he says. “It’s always one of those two things any time I’m on the island. Because my life is surrounded by noise. In this business, if you’re looking for peace and quiet to dominate your life, that’s not the way this business works. So it’s incredibly beneficial to me, that I’m able to get away.”
After daily debating, it’s a different life on St Thomas for Smith, who says he prefers to listen and hold back from talking sports while on the island.
“I try to listen to the people. If they want to talk to me it’s fine, but I try not to engage in debate, he says. “But they never show me anything but love.”
That’s in part due to his public persona, and frequently bold opinions on the sport’s world’s most talked-about issues — which lead to adulation, criticism, and sometimes more.
“I get threats quite frequently — when you have that kind of life, and when your life is surrounded by that, you don’t invite dialogue that is going to be of a contentious nature, because that’s wasted energy and it’s not something I engage in,” he says. “People are entitled to their opinions, and obviously can think what they want to think, but I do what I can do avoid that, especially on the island.”
But Smith’s vast sports knowledge and bold opinions have helped to advance First Take, which brought in Smith to be the featured debater along with Bayless earlier this year.
In that time, the show has seen its audience grow even further. But he gives much of the credit to Bayless, his longtime colleague.
“They tell me the ratings continue to climb, and they tell me I’ve been a big part of that obviously,” he says. “But I give a boatload of credit to Skip Bayless. We rarely agree on much, we certainly never hang out together, but from the standpoint of being professionals and colleagues and friends in this business, he is somebody that is very important to me on both fronts.”
Above: Smith with Skip Bayless (Photo: ESPN)
Smith and Bayless have known each other for about 15 years, he says.
“He is a tireless worker — he is somebody that’s committed to this show, and it’s the most important thing that, I believe, that he’s done in his mind in his professional career,” he says. “He takes it incredibly seriously, and he’s been committed to uplifting this show from day one. What he does to prepare, the things he looks at, the things he wants to talk about, how he goes about the business, it just says a lot about him and he brings it.”
Some of the show’s most famous debates involve New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, with Bayless a major proponent of the former University of Florida star, and Smith, a critic — if only for what he says is Tebow’s inability to throw the football.
That has led to another partnership between the two. Bayless is now a weekly guest on Smith’s radio show to discuss the previous day’s New York Jets game — regarding the performance — or lack thereof — of quarterback Tim Tebow, perhaps the NFL’s biggest current lightning rod for debate.
“He comes on after the Jets game; you can’t find a bigger Tebow supporter,” Smith says. “Because of that, I have him on after each week’s game to chronicle what Tim Tebow isn’t doing — so that’s something that we have going on.”
It’s that competitiveness that helps Smith sustain his success on the show, which recently brought in Cari Champion as its new full-time moderator.
“I don’t mind it, because I know he’s crazy,” he says. “I know that he’s not going to say the predictable things, and it’s very rarely to have a boring moment with him. I’m the kind of guy that, I have to be excited about the things I’m doing. If I’m not, I’m not going to be looking for opportunities elsewhere. And Skip Bayless enables me to look forward to coming to work everyday.”
And it’s a professional collaboration which Smith seems to relish, and one that drives him.
“If you are going to debate him everyday, you have to bring it yourself,” he says. “It works so much so that I really would not be interested in being on the show, I would not have signed on to do the show unless he was on it. And it means a great deal to me. He asked me to come and do it every day — and if it were not for him asking, I don’t think I would have.”
But when the cameras dim, and the debates cool down, Smith manages to find his way to another, quieter home in St Thomas.