By Connor Smith
Love him or hate him, almost everyone in the crowd for the spring lecture raised their hand when speaker Stephen A. Smith asked who wanted his job at ESPN.
“I stand before you as Stephen A. Smith,” he said. “Relatively popular. I look halfway decent. I dress quite nice. … You’ve seen me at the games, right? You see them $3,000, $4,000 seats courtside? I was there — for free. I flew to the game first class — for free. I stayed at five-star hotels — for free. I ate five-star meals — I ain’t pay for that. I’m living quite well, if I should say so myself — for free. Who wouldn’t want that job?”
Smith, a longtime sports writer, commentator and co-host of “First Take” on ESPN, gave everyone seated in the Brower Student Center Room 100 the kind of lecture his fans would expect — one that was loud, candid and full of flowery adjectives. At one point, he even repeated a claim that had he gone to law school instead of pursuing journalism, he would have beat Johnnie Cochran and “put (O.J. Simpson’s) behind under the jail.”
“I don’t mean I would have beat him, me some novice, but I mean if I were a lawyer with the same level of education and intellect as the late, great Johnnie Cochran — God rest his soul — there is no way in hell he would have beat me with the O.J. trial,” Smith explained in an interview with The Signal. “Christopher Darden or Marcia Clark? I would not have been them. I would have won that case. Because my attitude is, with that evidence and that level at skill that I just referred to Johnnie Cochran having, nothing would stop me. Because it would come down to my ability to convince 12 jurors to believe me more than to believe you.”
Though Smith’s stakes are far lower on “First Take,” he’s proven to be a powerful debater since joining the show full-time in 2012.
For his lecture, Smith gave personal and professional advice for 43 minutes, then fielded questions for another 42 minutes. A few students, almost exclusively male sports fans, even tried to debate Smith, but as he warned he would earlier in the night, Smith destroyed them without hesitation. He never really needed a microphone, and through all the speaking and hollering, his voice never seemed to strain.
Smith began by emphasizing the importance of healthy habits, then went on to discuss the myth that anyone can be anything they want.
“‘You can be whatever you wanna be!’ No the hell you can’t,” he said. “You cannot. You can’t be whatever you want to be if you’re not willing to put in the work. You can’t be whatever you want to be if you don’t know what your gift is. You can’t be whatever you want to be if you don’t have some kind of cohesiveness, some kind of connection between what you want and what you know your skill level is.”
Smith believes that many people need to face the harsh reality that what they want may not be compatible with what they are most suited for.
“Some of you might wanna be a doctor; you’re made to be a lawyer, or vice versa,” he said. “But nobody preaches to you about the importance of knowing what your gift is. And the reason why that’s so important is that the people that you’re competing against, some of them are going to know. They gonna have that connection. They gonna know what they gifts are and where their passions lie, all at the same time. And as a result, they gonna have an upper hand.”
He also emphasized the importance of knowing what your boss wants, and in his case, what your audience is looking for.
“No one has ever turned me away when I’ve used these words: ‘What can I do to help you make money.’ That has been my approach,” Smith said. “Some people will sit up there and they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, selling out. Oh, you’re selling yourself.’ Ignore these people — they’re broke. Pay no attention to them. I’m not talking broke in terms of monetarily, I’m talking spiritually.”
When the question and answer period began, Smith immediately fielded questions about his former “First Take” co-host Skip Bayless, and whether he’s “as dumb as he seems in person.”
Though earlier Smith joked about how some people never recover when he destroys them in a debate, he was sincere and respectful when discussing Bayless’ impact on his life.
“First of all: Respect your elders,” he fired back. “That’s one of the problems with the younger generation. Sometimes y’all don’t respect your elders. But they paved the way. You wouldn’t be you if it wasn’t for them. Number two: Skip Bayless is far from dumb. Skip Bayless is one of the most knowledgeable sports minds that you will ever encounter, it’s just that his perspective is different.”
Other questions ranged from general sports queries to hot topics like Lavar Ball. In his biggest dunk of the night, Smith responded to a Philadelphia 76ers fan who wanted him to acknowledge former General Manager Sam Hinkie for the team’s current success.
“First of all, you done lost the argument because there’s about three or four players that you said were great that had no business having great associated with their name,” Smith said.
When the fan tried to respond, Smith replied, “You had your chance to speak. Sit back and take it.”
Smith argued for several minutes, outlining exactly why losing games for draft picks is an embarrassment, though he pinned the blame on owner Josh Harris, not Hinkie.
Through the entire night, Smith emphasized that working hard, knowing what people want and knowing what he’s talking about are all keys to his success. If everyone there listened, the College might be a far different place — something Smith discussed in his interview with The Signal.
“The world filled with Stephen A.’s, for those with alligator skin, it would be fine,” he said. “For those, the faint of heart that have a tough time dealing with the truth, it would be nightmarish. Because you’re gonna get something close to the truth.”