Stephen A. Smith Gets Candid About Kobe Bryant, Confronting His Own Father, and Demanding the Respect He Deserves

Veteran sports personality also doesn't hold back while talking about the New York Knicks with Howard

January 18, 2023

Stephen A. Smith has never been known to hold back from speaking the truth, but as a young sports reporter covering Wake Forest University’s men’s soccer team, he found himself being critiqued for doing just that. “That was a bullshit article … You didn’t tell the truth … You’re getting along with these players, and you’re scared to insult them,” Stephen recalled then head coach Walter Chyzowych telling him after he’d read that day’s Winston-Salem Journal. “You’re not here to be our friend. You’re here to call it like you see it. Be humane, be respectful, be thorough, but call it like you see it.” It was an early lesson in what a journalist’s job is and one Stephen A. still hasn’t forgotten.

During his Stern Show debut on Wednesday and in the pages of his new book “Straight Shooter,” Smith is speaking his truth, detailing everything from his life and impressive career including overcoming dyslexia, his tumultuous relationship with his father, how he’s handled difficult conversations with some of the biggest names in sports, and the current state of the New York Knicks.

Standing up to (and Rising Above) His Father

Growing up in Hollis, Queens with a learning disability, Stephen had an encouraging mother but a father who openly expressed his limited expectations for his son. It wasn’t until Stephen was 17 that he discovered his father had a son no one knew about — a product of his dad’s relationship with another woman. “I get off the plane at LaGuardia Airport and some little kid comes up to me and jumps in my arms,” he recalled of the initial meeting with his younger half-brother. In the front seat of the car was his father’s mistress, but Stephen was asked to keep that detail a secret from his mom. “I walked into the house and the first thing my mother asked me [was] … ‘Was he by himself?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ … It was the only lie I’ve ever told my mother.”

Ultimately, it was his dad’s behavior towards his mom that troubled the younger Smith. “I’ve never harbored animosity towards him over me, it was the treatment of my mother that I could not take,” he explained to Howard before recalling the Christmas his father complained about Stephen gifting his mother a European cruise compared to the the Club anti-car theft system he gave him. “I said, ‘Cause you ain’t mom.’”

The exchange led to tough father-son showdown in front of Stephen’s uncle that saw him give a detailed list of grievances. “My father tried to tell me what kind of a father he was … and I went in on him and I said, ‘You did this in 1978, you did this in 1983, you did that in 1988, you did that in 1991,’” he noted. “My Uncle Freddie looked at him and said, ‘… shut the fuck up, your son is a journalist. He knows what he’s talking about. He can chronicle everything you’ve done. You’ve got no shot to win this argument — shut the fuck up.’”

Becoming the Man at the Top

Smith has been a columnist for 20 years, but he spent a great deal of time beforehand earning his stripes as a traditional journalist for several newspapers across the country — without the benefit of social media. “You could write features, you could be an investigative reporter, you could be a beat writer, [but] only columnists had the license to express their opinion … I had to work my way up,” he explained of his rise. “When I became a columnist in 2003, I was the … 21st Black man in this nation’s history, to become a general sports columnist … it was an incredible, incredible accomplishment.”

In that spirit, Smith does not take kindly to being compared to bloggers. “I worked my way up to get to this point,” he insisted before listing out some of his extensive résumé. “I was living off of tuna fish and Kool-Aid working in Archdale, N.C. I did four internships before I became a high school reporter. I worked for 14 months at the New York Daily News before I covered college. I got promoted seven times at the Philadelphia Inquirer before I became a columnist – and all of this was before ESPN ever came about. My opinion is earned, it wasn’t given to me.”

If Smith sounds defensive, particularly about the assumption that he “just screams” while omitting his accomplishments, he’s not just thinking about his career but those of future Black journalists. “If I let them forget my résumé, what are they going to do to your résumé?”

Remembering Kobe

Stephen’s résumé and success has led to friendships with some of the most important figures in sports history. Not that that has ever gotten in the way of how he covers them. “Before friendship takes place, the boundaries are set,” he insisted to Howard of his journalistic integrity. “Your personal life is your business, but what you do on the field or court of play in front of thousands in attendance and millions watching, that’s my domain, and what you’re not going to do is compromise telling me what the hell I saw.”

That was true even when it came to his friend, late NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. “I miss him so much,” Smith revealed before recalling an example of the sort of scathing voicemails he would get from the Laker great when Smith’s professional commentary would upset him. “‘You know who this is, motherfucker. Get your ass up, pick up the fucking phone, and call me back … And don’t keep me waiting for so long either. Your ass better not go on the air and say some other shit before you talk to me.’ That was Kobe.”

But when Stephen would maintain his position after they spoke, Bryant would soften. “We’d get into it … and then he’d go …, ‘I have no idea why I love your ass, I really don’t … but I love you … but you go on the air and you say that shit again, I’m calling you to curse your ass out.’”

Breaking Down the Knicks

When another NBA Hall of Famer friend, former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas, struggled as President of Basketball Operations and head coach of the New York Knicks — of whom Stephen is a diehard fan — their relationship was tested. “I pick up the phone and I’m near tears because I know what I’m going to do. I call Isiah Thomas and I said, ‘I’m so sorry from the bottom of my heart — I have to call for you to be fired,’” he remembered saying. “’It’s just too bad, you’ve got too much going on … you cannot be the coach of this team.’”

Thomas responded by saying he understood his friend had a job to do — something Smith still appreciates greatly. “When I tell you the level of love to this day that I have for him for that moment, I cannot put it into words because obviously he could have reacted so differently,” he noted to Howard. “We talk all the time — I love him dearly. And he was a lot like Kobe. Like, if he disagreed with me about saying something, he’d call and curse me out.”

As far as the current state of the Knicks, Stephen continues to pull no punches. “I don’t talk to them right now. They don’t talk to me right now because I’m disgusted,” he said matter-of-factly before detailing how the organization’s misguided approach to then-Utah Jazz player Donovan Mitchell caused him to go elsewhere. “My sources told me [Jazz executive] Danny Ainge was like, ‘The last thing I’ll do is give them bastards Donovan Mitchell. I don’t give a damn what they say.’ And he sent Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland … Here’s a guy that wanted to be Knick, that is from New York, that was literally packing his bags looking forward to coming to New York and you exacerbate the situation unnecessarily and you don’t get him.”

Though Smith spoke favorably of current Knick Jalen Brunson and the direction he’s steered the team in, he stopped short at saying they’re of championship caliber. “That’s why I won’t go to [Madison Square] Garden, because they piss me off,” he admitted. “If I go to the Garden now, they’re going to do something that pisses me off, and I’m going to go on ‘First Take’ on ESPN and I’m going to explode … I’m doing them a favor by staying away.”

Bringing Mike & the Mad Dog Back Together?

Stephen might have a great working relationship with recent Radio Hall of Famer and frequent Stern Show guest Chris “Mad Dog Russo,” but he spoke to Howard about Russo’s complicated relationship with former partner Mike Francesa. “I don’t know what the divorce rate is in this country but I’m sure it’s over 50 percent … I mean you’ve got people who are married and getting down between the sheets with each other … all of a sudden saying ‘I don’t love you no more, I don’t want you no more,’” he said in a comparison to the longtime radio duo. “I mean, damn, how you going to do that and then be surprised that two people who are arguing with each other for a living every day ultimately get tired of one another after 19 years?”

No matter how Francesa and Russo feel about each other, Stephen considers them both trailblazers worthy of his praise. “They are pioneers in this business … They made sports talk radio what it is,” Stephen boasted before dropping some rather exciting news for fans of Mike and the Mad Dog. “I’m going to bring them both in soon for an appearance on ‘First Take’ on ESPN. Together.”

 Stephen A. Smith’s memoir, “Straight Shooter,” is available now wherever books are sold.