I know I watched SportsCenter before Stuart Scott made his first appearance on the show 1993. I just don’t remember what it looked like or sounded like prior to him.
This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I did what I always do and turned on ESPN to watch SportsCenter, but this time I knew it would be an episode unlike any I ever seen. The tributes were bittersweet if only because they gave me a highlight reel of Scott’s best moments, a gift given to us due to unfortunate circumstances: On Sunday morning, Stuart Scott passed away due to appendiceal cancer at the age of 49.
If you watch ESPN’s flagship sports news program as much as I have over the years, you have kind of grown used to the various anchor lineups and Scott not being a part of them. Over the years, Scott’s physical presence on the show was becoming more of a special occasion than the norm, and we all understood why. But his influence on that show, his spirit, always remained.
It’s easy to say the reason for Scott’s influence on SportsCenter was because he was black, but there were black people behind the desk before Scott came along. According to the Historical Dictionary of African-American Television, John Saunders was anchoring SportsCenter in 1986. Robin Roberts was the first African-American woman to anchor SportsCenter when she made her debut in 1990. And though that SportsCenter anchor desk was very much a white man’s world, the network as a whole was better than most in regards to diversity. Seeing Scott, a black man from Chicago by way of North Carolina, in that position wasn’t necessarily special.
What made Scott special was more than skin deep, and had everything to do with his broadcasting style. You could turn on SportsCenter, close your eyes, and simply by listening to the way he spoke, tell a black man was behind that desk. That is, after all, what Scott was, a black man, but before him, I never ever heard a black man sound like Scott did.
Very few people will ever know what it’s like to have to say things in front of the camera, even fewer will know what it’s like to deliver news and information from that vantage point. I have done it a couple of times, and I can honestly say, the most challenging thing about being in front of the camera is being the exact same person you are off the camera. When that red light comes on, something inside many people turns off. This is especially true of black men who are anchors or hosts. Whenever I’m watching black men read the news or host a show, I often get the feeling they’re not giving me what I call their "barbershop selves". With Scott, I had no such feeling. So many mornings I left SportsCenter humming in the background even as it played the same episode over and over all because Scott was on and listening to him felt like I was hanging out with one of my boys at the barbershop. His style became so distinct that now I can’t even say he was influenced by barbershop talk. Barbershop talk about sports has been influenced by Scott.
“Cool as the other side of the pillow” is the best rap line that was never rapped. I remember the first time I heard it, and having the type of reaction to it that I usually reserved for some ill line I heard from an MC. It showed that Scott was something more than a hip-hop fan, he was a product of hip-hop culture. Instead of taking a rap lyric and incorporating it into his recap, he took a hip-hop ethos. He wrote his own rhymes. And even when he did want to sample others, he was so slick about it.
If my memory serves me correctly, every now and then, when Scott was calling basketball highlights he would say, “bounce up like round ball,” a very random line from Jay-Z’s “Heart of The City (Ain’t No Love).” No, it wasn’t one of his more popular catchphrases, and I’m not entirely sure it was Scott who said it. But what I am sure about, whether Scott said it himself or not, is that Scott made it okay.
As soon as Scott passed, the tributes and homages to Scott’s SportsCenter quotes and his beautiful, touching, tear-inducing speech about fighting cancer at last year’s ESPY’s were all over my newsfeed. This makes sense. Scott was a God on the microphone, but what I will always remember about Scott is the man behind the words, a man who truly was himself in front of the camera and became a worldwide treasure for the worldwide leader of sports.