There were times when a trip to the ESPN website’s comment section made me want to (a) take a shower and (b) call the Southern Poverty Law Center to file a hate crime complaint whenever legendary anchor Stuart Scott was being discussed.
But Scott, who passed away at the age of 49, didn’t ever let the prejudices he was working against slow him down. On the contrary, he changed the game entirely.
By remaining true to himself despite calls for him to be less “urban,” Scott managed to connect African American sports fans — fans that most sports networks couldn’t be bothered to reach out to — to the games they love and educated all of us in the process.
When I got the news that the ESPN SportCenter host had finally succumbed to the cancer that he had been fighting like a boss for much of the last eight years, I thought about a trip I took in 1996.
A friend of mine was credentialed to cover the National Basketball Association Draft, and because he needed a ride to the Continental Airlines (now the Izod) Arena in the New Jersey Meadowlands, I got a credential too.
Everyone in Philly was paying close attention to this particular Draft for two reasons: one, the Philadelphia 76ers, a team whose ineptitude over the years is the stuff of NBA records, had a Lottery pick, which meant that they were going to get a player that would make an immediate impact.
And two, the buzz was that the Sixers were actually going to do something useful with their lottery pick and use it to grab a flashy, undersized point guard from Georgetown named Allen Iverson.
A.I. was the talk of the City of Brotherly Love. He won the Rookie of the Year award with a game more at home on a guy twice his size. He led the Sixers to the playoffs more often than not.
But Iverson — like sportscaster Scott and his urban language — also caused his share of “problems.”
For example, he refused to wear a suit on the team plane, opting instead for sweat suits and sneakers. He was covered in tattoos and wore his rather large Afro in cornrows on the court.
By the time he retired a few years ago, Iverson had inspired NBA Commissioner David Stern to create a dress code and put a few other rules in place to take some of this influence out of a game played by guys who grew up in urban areas.
But despite Stern’s best efforts to make the NBA a lot more palatable to a crowd that’s waiting for Larry Bird to come through the doors of the Boston Garden, the league’s parquet floors are still filled with men covered in tattoos, wearing cornrows and bringing the urban swagger that they picked up on the courts where they learned the game.
Kind of like the swagger that Scott brought to telling the stories of their exploits on “SportsCenter.” Like Iverson changed the game on the court, Scott managed to change the game for sports television.
For a lot of people, Scott’s phrases like “Can I get a witness from the congregation?!” or “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” or a whole host of other phrases heard commonly in the Black community were landmark and unapologetic.
And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone shout “Booyah!” to one another just the same way Scott did on TV, I would be writing this piece from my villa in Barcelona, Spain.
My relationship was like many Americans with the sportscaster. Scott was often the last voice that I heard as I fell asleep at night.
I say this because I live with a sportswriter.
ESPN and I became acquainted whether I wanted to or not. Before seeing Scott for the first time at a National Association of Black Journalists convention, I already felt like I knew the man because of that late-night version of “SportsCenter” that played me to sleep every night.
For me, Scott made the hours and hours spent watching “SportsCenter” (sometimes three times in a row, the 90-minute program played again and again) an unforgettable and entertaining and very real slice of television — because Scott brought the games to life in a way that you didn’t see elsewhere on television.
Just like any Black church in South Philly on Sunday, he spoke the words of the preacher: “Can I get a witness from the congregation?!”
He could and he did.
Scott also made it a point to reach out to another group that sports networks don’t often bother to reach out to: young, African American reporters. Every year, the NABJ Sports Task Force holds a Mentor Breakfast that’s sponsored by ESPN. He was a constant presence there and mentored in a way that’s become legendary.
We don’t even notice how much our language has changed in the years since Scott first presided over the network like a formidable, unflinching presence breaking the rules and ignoring the common parlance.
And that is his legacy.