“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
Stuart Scott, longtime ESPN personality and network sports analyst, died this morning at the age of 49 following a long and very public fight with cancer. Scott shared those words at last year’s ESPYs, after accepting the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. After it was revealed in 2007 that he was suffering from a rare form of appendiceal cancer, the SportsCenter mainstay became a beacon of strength and determination for those who suffer from cancer or who’ve watched loved ones suffer. He beat his illness twice, wrote about his battles with the disease, and continued broadcasting even as his health was failing.
Born in Chicago, but raised in North Carolina, Stuart Scott played wide receiver and defensive back for the University of North Carolina, before graduating with a degree in speech communication in 1987. He started out at WPDE-TV in Florence, South Carolina, and worked his way up the ranks to television stations in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida, before landing at ESPN in 1993.
Al Jaffe, ESPN’s vice-president for talent, wanted to recruit younger voices for the then-new sister network, ESPN2. In an interview with ESPN, Jaffe recalled his initial meeting with Stuart Scott. “One of the producers on a story we were doing on the Orlando Magic told me about this young guy he really liked,” Jaffe said. “I followed up and found out that Stuart’s contract was up soon. He sent me a tape, and even then, he had an amazing presence—I felt the viewer would sit up and take notice when he was on the air.” Once Scott was paired with Rich Eisen on the 1 a.m. SportsCenter, the two became among the most recognized personalities on the network. And Scott became a star.
ESPN had no shortage of big personalities in the early ’90s; particularly cornerstones like Chris Berman and Keith Olbermann. But Scott represented something entirely different.
This was a guy from the hip-hop generation and with a perspective that was inextricably linked to that generation. His catchphrases like “Cool as the other side of the pillow” and “Holla at a playa when you see him in the street” sounded like the kind of casual banter friends would use in barbershops in a thousand black neighborhoods across America. In being himself, he was also representing a community of people that talked how he talked and saw what he saw. He wasn’t trying to be Greg Gumbel or Ahmad Rashad—Stuart Scott was something else. While offering commentary on a Bulls-Knicks game, he could go from evoking a Baptist preacher riffing during Sunday morning service (“Can I get a witness from the congregation?!”), to quoting Public Enemy frontman Chuck D (“Hear the drummer get WICKED!”). And despite criticism and pushback from older sports fans and personalities (he even received hate mail), Stuart Scott didn’t stop being Stuart Scott. And the fans loved him for it.
By the early ’90s, hip-hop was beginning to enter the pop-culture mainstream. From Sprite commercials featuring Heavy D to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, there wasn’t as much fear and skepticism surrounding hip-hop aesthetics as there had been just a decade earlier. But Scott, in taking the parlance of the street to the SportsCenter desk, helped affirm its ascendance. His sly, cocky demeanor and quick turn of phrase made him a star at a network full of stars; influencing the next wave of personalities like Scott Van Pelt and providing a template for contemporary talking heads like Stephen A. Smith. When you watch ESPN in 2015, you’re witnessing the “Stuart Scott Effect.”
Scott’s initial bout with cancer was in 2007. It went into remission, but it would resurface in 2011; and Scott was able to beat it once again. In 2013, while battling cancer for the third time, he talked about working out with P90X and playing football with 25-year-olds to keep his body and mind strong in the face of what was becoming increasingly dire odds. He told Eric Spitznagel of Men’s Health: “Working out is my way of saying to cancer, ‘You're trying to invade my body; you're trying to take me away from my daughters, but I’m stronger than you. And I’m going to hit harder than you. I know you’re going to hit back just as hard, and I know sometimes you’re going to knock me down. But I’m going to get up, and I’m going to kick your ass.’”
I had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Scott several years ago. Just a few weeks before it was revealed that he was battling cancer, I traveled to the ESPN campus at Bristol and set up an interview with the guy who’d become one of the faces of the network. Even though we were running late, Scott was jovial and candid in his conversation. He talked about his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni, who were still very young at the time. We chatted about music (he was really impressed with “this new guy” Robin Thicke) and he walked me around the campus, showing me the famed SportsCenter desk and introducing me to colleagues like Trey Wingo.
In our conversation, I asked him how proud he was to see a network with ESPN’s visibility that has so many people of color as on-camera personalities. Scott smiled at me and pointed upstairs to a production room; before revealing that his proudest moment had nothing to do with what people saw on the air; but everything to do with what goes on behind-the-scenes. His proudest moment was the day he looked up and saw SportsCenter being produced by an all-black production team for the first time.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation and it was in that moment that I realized that Stuart Scott always had bigger ambitions than just being “the cool black guy” on ESPN. He understood what it meant for African Americans and all people of color to have a voice on a network that showcased black athletes and, as such, often found itself at the forefront of racial issues—from the O.J. trial to the Donald Sterling scandal. Stuart Scott understood the responsibility every one of his colleagues in sports media carries; and he understood why black voices must be heard.
One can’t help but think that’s why he made sure his voice was so unapologetically black.