I just received word this morning that Stuart Scott, longtime sportscaster for ESPN, passed away at the age of 49. While Steve Wulf wrote a wonderful tribute, I don’t think he fully captured Scott’s contribution. He hinted at it. But he didn’t quite get it.
This recent top-10 clip shows Scott doing what he’s done for more than twenty years, remixing black popular culture while delivering sports commentary. There’s well over a dozen catchphrases Scott brought to ESPN straight from North Carolina, catchphrases you’d routinely hear in one way or another if you’d gone to school with, hung out with, lived with, loved, black people, with people who played with language like kids play with Lego bricks.
If Wulf had the space, I’m thinking he probably would’ve started off with Ralph Wiley, who passed away (also at a relatively young age of heart failure) in 2004. Wiley, three years older than Scott, was the best sportswriter of his era. Take for instance this passage, written about Derek Jeter back in 2000 when he was at the top of his powers:
See, Jeet’s mom Dorothy is “white,” and his dad Charles is “black,” in the unfortunate shorthand by which Americans are accustomed to describing ourselves. These are unforgiving aliases, and they can and do often color who we root for — and against — and how we root for them. Whether this is sad or not, I don’t know.
But with Jeet, everybody gets some. He has that easy glide, that knowing gait afield that people often take for “black” style and athletic grace. But it’s actually the grace of the trained performer who possesses high abilities, and knows it. Cal Ripken Jr. had it. R. Alomar has it. DiMaggio had it. Mays, goes without saying. Andruw and Chipper Jones have it. A-Rod. Barry Bonds, Junior Griffey have it. Whatever color wrappers they come in, whatever attitudes that might come along with that, damn few have it afield like they do. With Jeet, the wrapper looks like his mother, at least in the face — the light eyes, the keen features … everybody gets a slice of some Jeet.
Or this, about Tracy McGrady:
It’s not disaffection, or laziness, or anything negative. It’s merely his habit, or his style, or his lack of style, which, actually, can be said to be the best style, for the long haul. For years people told me Rickey Henderson didn’t bust his butt. Now he has more of everything than anybody who ever played baseball, and people are begging him to please stop already. It’s how and where Frazier, Aaron, Henderson and McGrady were born and raised, and it’s effective over the long haul. So cool it seems to be effortless. In most trades, it is hard work, making something look effortless. Very hard work indeed. I don’t see why hoop would be any different.
Well, looks aside, T-Muad’Dib ended up leading the league in scoring this season, at over 32 points a game. He led the league despite what we saw Kobe Bryant do last February, averaging 40 for a month. In a league of Shaqs and Kobes, of Iverson’s Total Green Light, of Nowitzki-At-Will-From-Deep-Over-the-Top, of Duncan, of Garnett the Big Ticket, it is Tracy McGrady, T-Mac, T-Maud’dib, the Kwisatz Shaderac, who led the league in scoring, and now leads a No. 8 seed by a No. 1 for just the third time ever, and for the first time in four games, if it ends Wednesday night.
It’s simple. They can’t stop him. And he can stop them.
What’s his spice?
Or take this, about a world class little league team from Harlem condemned for “hot-dogging”:
Revel in your time. If you want to hate, hate, don’t hide about the skirts of “the right way” or “integrity of the game,” trying to be all moral about your fear disguised as good taste. I’ve watched Rickey Henderson. I watched the Harlem Little Leaguers. And after covering a thousand or so big-league games, having the Baseball Writers Association of America card for three or four years, after having done ball covers for the Illy, done books about it, coached in the county leagues, observed the Babe Ruth leagues, and seen the issue of the minor-leaguers, I recognize the game of baseball when I see it (and the foul racial delineation that goes down in the game, I see that too, and I’ve seen plenty along these lines), and, all jerks aside, the game they were all playing, from Harlem Little Leaguers to Reggie to Rickey Henderson, I’m pretty sure, was baseball. If you didn’t like it in the big leagues, then let Carlton Fisk handle it.
See, if you want to complain about “hot dogging,” you make a play. That’s the only reply to any on-field conduct. Make a play, unless our play-making days are over, if we ever had any. It’s no different than from any on-field action or celebration. The opposing player takes note, and if he doesn’t like it, if it inspires him to greater heights, somehow. That’s the answer. The looks on the Harlem Little Leaguers faces after Ryan’s three-run walk-off homer — that’s what all the “hot-dog” callers were after, isn’t it?
In piece about Jeter, Wiley transforms what is a sexist article about Jeter (read the beginning of the piece) into a modern day Ellisonian commentary on race and sports.
The piece about McGrady?
Frank Herbert’s Dune series is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written. The series revolves around one Paul Atreides (also known as Paul Muad’dib, also known as the Kwisatz Haderach), who over the course of three novels ends up becoming a demi-god in large part because of melange or “spice”–the most important mineral in Herbert’s universe. The comparison to McGrady worked so well because of the combination of McGrady’s sleepy eyes[foot]Wiley titles the piece “The Sleeper has Awakened” in reference to a key Dune quote, which represents the moment Atreides awakens a giant spice-generating worm as part of a rite of passage that establishes his status as the Kwitsatz Haderach.[/foot], his game [foot]McGrady was able to defend and generate offense effortlessly, as if he saw the game before it happened, the same way spice-addicted space farers were able to navigate the dangers of faster-than-light space travel by seeing the dangers before they appeared in real-time.[/foot]and Wiley’s ability to make such an outrageous comparison appear commonsensical.
And then, understanding the racial politics of sports, he writes what is perhaps the definitive piece on race, sports, and sportsmanship.
Wiley did things with the sports essay that I didn’t think think were possible. Who comes up with nicknames for a basketball player who didn’t even go to college based on a series of science fiction novels about charisma, interstellar political intrigue, and institutional decay? Who does that? A bibliophile–someone who reads broadly and deeply. Someone who lives in books. But who then comes up with these comparisons and then effectively communicates on the written page? A logophile–someone who loves words and writing. But not just a logophile, but someone who also loves being around people–to be excellent at writing the types of essays Wiley did you have to somehow be conversant enough with everyday people to write essays they read and say damn. There aren’t that many of these folk, truth be told. There are people who love books, but don’t love writing. There are people who love writing, but don’t really love reading. And then there are people who love writing, love reading, but don’t really love people.
This puts Wiley in rare air.
But then, what made Wiley even more special is that Wiley didn’t just love people. He loved black people. He loved the way black people talked, the way black people wrote, the way black people performed on the court.
And then…on top of ALL that…Wiley was willing to put all of that on the page. All of that. Without self-censorship, or rather, without the extra self-censorship black[foot]And female. And gay. And Latino. And…you get the point.[/foot] writers are consistently expected to exert if they want to make sure that the “universal” (read: white, heterosexual, middle–sometimes working–class male) reader can understand and connect with them.
In an arena that relies heavily on black excellence[foot]The National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball between 1955-1995 or so, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association make billions off of black players, coaches, trainers, and World Wide Wes-type handlers[/foot], Wiley was perhaps the first modern black sportswriter to integrate sports journalism. And by this I don’t mean to imply that Wiley was the first black sportswriter–he wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. But I think Wiley was the first to be black on the page, so to speak. You read Wiley, you know you’re either reading the work of someone who is black, or you’re reading the work of someone who spends most of his time imbibing black life and culture. Unrepentantly.
Wiley paved the way for Jason Whitlock, Scoop Jackson, Bomani Jones, and a range of other black male sportswriters.
What Wiley did on the written page, Scott did on the television screen.
Scott begins at Sportscenter when ESPN is a strong cable network, but nothing like the behemoth it is now. [foot]They’d just started broadcasting Major League Baseball the year before, and National Hockey League games that year, but were decades away from broadcasting NBA and NFL games. Similarly neither ESPN2 nor ESPN Classic existed at the time, and it’d be almost two decades before series like 30 for 3 aired.[/foot] He arrives two years after the Fab Five[foot]Here I refer to the University of Michigan’s storied 1991 basketball recruiting class of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose–now himself an ESPN analyst, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson.[/foot] arrive in Ann Arbor, two years after NWA releases Efil4zaggin.[foot]NWA’s last album, it was by far their most successful.[/foot] Like Wiley, Scott had mastered his craft, as had dozens of black television journalists before him. However unlike all those other black television journalists before him, Scott chose to employ black idioms in his sports reporting. What the various journalists interviewed for ESPN’s tribute aren’t explicit enough about in their praise of Scott is racism. It wasn’t just that Scott was reporting the news in a way that didn’t quite reflect the king’s english, it was that he chose to report the news in a way that reflected black popular culture. And they weren’t explicit enough in talking about the convictions Scott displayed in fighting attempts to edit him.
To quote Wiley, it wasn’t “hot-dog” it was “black dog”.
After Ferguson, someone, I don’t remember who, asked me whether it made any sense to get a PhD and to try to be a professor post-Ferguson. I understood the question, kind of. I’ve a friend who still hasn’t really put pen to paper in the wake of 9/11, because living in Brooklyn at the time and witnessing (and responding to) the horror first hand took the writing life out of him. So I get that.
But I want you to take a look at this.
“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.”
I do believe we lose something when we see politics everywhere. And I also believe we lose something when we see a range of rebellious acts as forms of political resistance. We lose something intellectually, we lose something politically. With that said though I also believe we gain something when we see people like Ralph Wiley and Stuart Scott be black in public. That decision to act black publicly, as Bomani Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brittney Cooper, and Kirsten West Savali and other contemporary black writers can attest, can change lives.
Can give life.