A letter of gratitude to Stuart Scott
Scott was beacon of light for the athletes he covered and the North Star for aspiring black sports reporters
“See,” my Uncle John said in the summer of 1998. He pointed toward the television in his Washington, D.C., apartment. “That’s gonna be you one day.” A fluorescent light from his fish tank dimly lit the apartment. My uncle and I were up watching Stuart Scott on SportsCenter. Scott talked about sports the way we talked about sports. Scott wasn’t just relatable. He was us. My uncle said, “I’m gonna be watching you do that.”
I loved the way Uncle John approached life. The way he interacted with people and made them feel comfortable. He never came off lame, or corny. My parents had divorced when I was 2, and John treated me like a son. This was when I had no memory of my biological father and didn’t care to know who he was.
John and I loved sports. He was a Washington fan, and I was a diehard Cowboys fan. The last conversation we ever had was about just that. We both loved Michael Jordan, Shaq and Penny, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. But SportsCenter was our drug of choice. We loved the infectiousness of Linda Cohn; same for Dan Patrick’s and Kenny Mayne’s dry humor. But our favorite combo was Rich Eisen and Stu Scott.
I played basketball as a kid, and my uncle and I decided early on that going pro wasn’t my calling. I was 9, and I purposely moved in the chair so the barber would take a plug out, forcing him to shave my head. Talk about taking “be like Mike” to the extreme — I also purposely got myself sick hoping to mimic Michael Jordan’s “flu game.” My mom was rightfully pissed. She yelled at me — and said I looked more like a light bulb than Jordan. “She’s right,” Uncle John said with a laugh. “Let’s be more like Stu than Mike. That’s our route.”
Uncle John died of colon cancer on Jan. 2, 1999. We were in what used to be known as MCV Campus Hospital at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It’s unclear how the room was cleared of everyone except for him and me. John alternated between looking out the window and looking at me. It was as if he had prepared his entire life to deliver his own eulogy. I couldn’t talk, for fear of crying. That winter morning remains the single most important moment of my life. I felt childhood end, and adulthood arrive. John knew death waited around the corner: the cruel reality of dying at the age of 42. He seemed at peace. With life. With death. With everything. But he made me make a promise.
“I’m still going to watch you on SportsCenter one day,” he said. “Make sure you keep your promise.”
July 19, 2017, would have been Stuart Scott’s 52nd birthday. He should be here hosting SportsCenter. He should be here presenting teams with their championship trophies. He should be here making JAY-Z 4:44 references on SportsCenter, because that’s who Stuart Orlando Scott was. In the way that Marvin Gaye’s 1970 What’s Going On changed the direction of Motown, in the way Eddie Murphy altered the scope of comedy, in the way Gwen Ifill brought so much authenticity and excellence to her journalism, Stu was just that for ESPN, and for sports media, period. The way he spoke was the way so many athletes wanted and want to be spoken about: with unparalleled charisma and respect.
More importantly, he should still be here as a daily presence for his two daughters, Taelor and Sydni — although, even in death, he remains just that. He should be here congratulating Leah Still, who received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award a year after Stuart did. It’s been three years since most of us last saw Scott, who was transformed into an icon by his landmark and emotionally charged speech at the 2014 ESPYS, when he was honored for his inspiring fight against cancer.
It’s impossible to forget Stu. He brought swagger and rebelliousness to sports broadcasting — and he had more catchphrases than Ric Flair and The Rock. He came up in the same era as did cultural bibles VIBE and The Source, and in the vein of those magazines, Scott helped inject the culture, the cockiness and confidence we loved and cherished, into mainstream consciousness. It didn’t matter if America wasn’t ready for what he had to say and how he had to say it. His generation and the one following, mine, were ready to be heard. In our own voices. In our own skin. Stu did this on television, where the idea of diversity — not only in skin color, but also in train of thought — is ever more complex and necessary.
And it is absolutely impossible to forget Scott at the ESPN campuses, where his pictures remain on the walls — and even on the set of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s The Six, the 6 p.m. SportsCenter with deep roots in Scott’s meteoric rise and impact on the company. It’s impossible to forget about Scott at ESPN, because no one would dare.
Scott died Jan. 4, 2015. The very next day I moved to Los Angeles to start my career with ESPN. The night before I was to get on the first one-way flight of my life, my mother — the same one who told me I looked like a light bulb with a bald head — sat me down. “You may not realize it for years down the line,” she said at our kitchen table, “but this means something. You’ve looked up to this man your entire life. You’ve talked about ESPN your entire life. … It’s destiny.”
Working at The Undefeated, in the year since its launch, has been the most incredible experience of my life. My first television experience was when I went on SportsCenter to talk with Linda Cohn about O.J. Simpson. This type of stuff just doesn’t happen. These blessings are the gifts I fantasized about when watching Stu was as much a part of my routine as was brushing my teeth. I prayed for this while watching my ceiling fan twirl, while begging God for a chance to do something impactful with my life.
But if there are regrets? There’s the fact that The Undefeated never had the chance to work with Stu. There’s the fact that I never got a chance to buy him a beer, and tell him how his tweets to me after the Super Bowl in 2013 meant more than he could have ever realized. I never got the chance to chop it up with him about sports, music and his journey. Or tell him he was as important in the lives of myself and my Uncle John as Jackie Robinson was to generations before.
Or that when I had no memory of an actual biological father, nor any desire to acknowledge his existence, Scott helped to solidify my most critical bond with an older man. Had it not been for Stu being Stu that day in the summer of 1998 — and my uncle, growing more ill by the hour, pointing at his TV, predicting my life’s course and giving me a North Star — there’s no telling where I’d be right now. Not writing this, for damn sure.