Stuart Scott, the loquacious and suave ESPN sportscaster, died Sunday after a prolonged and public battle against cancer. He was 49.
As much as I wish otherwise, I can’t claim that Scott was a member of my immediate family or even a close friend. Doing so would be a stretch of the truth and dishonest to his memory. But that doesn’t diminish the sadness I felt upon hearing of his passing.
Scott was a broadcasting icon, a transformative figure who changed the way we watched and talked about both sports and athletes. In 1993, he burst into millions of American homes via ESPN2—an offshoot of the cable sports network ESPN—bringing African American panache and the flash and flair of urban, hip-hop culture into what had been a staid, white-suburban-targeted world of televised sports. Sports broadcasting has never been the same.
Scott’s on-air presentation blended a seemingly improvisational riff of pop culture and hip-hop references into the nightly highlights of athletic performances. His “Booyah!” catchphrase became a part of the grunting soundtrack of athletic competition. As if speaking of his own persona, Scott punctuated outstanding athletic feats with witticisms that praised a home run or three-point basket for being as “cool as the other side of the pillow.”
“You’ve got to be true to who you are and what you do,” Scott told XXL Magazine in a 2001 interview. “I’m more of a hip-hop feel person. Music is how you feel. The younger the mind, that’s how I want to be.”
Despite the fond recollections currently filling airwaves and pervading social media, Scott’s style wasn’t universally popular at first. As Time Magazine’s Sean Gregory notes in his appreciation of Scott’s life, there was a time when Scott had big-time haters due to his infusion of black-sounding references into his broadcasts. ESPN Senior Vice President Mark Gross—one of Scott’s first producers at the network—told Gregory that Scott received blistering hate mail. “Some of the viewing audience wasn’t used to it, wasn’t with it,” says Gross. “But Stuart never backed off.”
Good thing, too, for ESPN—and for Scott. As Gregory notes, “Over the past decade, every time Scott showed up to anchor an NBA Finals, or a Monday Night Football game, it was a reminder to those who watched his early days at ESPN, in the mid-1990s, that Scott’s style more than prevailed. It became the standard.”
Faithful ESPN viewers first learned of his illness in November 2007, when Scott became sick while covering a Monday Night Football game. It was later disclosed that doctors, upon removing his appendix, had discovered that he had cancer. In the subsequent years, we watched him on television as he fought the disease into remission, only to see it re-emerge in 2011 and again in 2013. In July 2014, he gave the performance of his career in a moving speech accepting the Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance. It was Scott’s last public appearance. Scott is survived by his teenage daughters, Sydni and Taelor; his parents, O. Ray and Jacqueline; his siblings, Stephen, Synthia, and Susan; and his girlfriend, Kristin Spodobalski.
Like so many of his sports-nutty fans across the United States—from President Barack Obama to NBA great Michael Jordan to golfer Tiger Woods—I was deeply saddened to learn of his passing. Scott’s presence—and presentation—on television was so unmistakable and unique that I came to feel as if he was a living, breathing member of my family.
To be honest, I do in fact claim a few familial ties to him. Scott and I both attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or UNC. He graduated in 1987 with a speech communications degree, while I earned a journalism degree in 1978. If you ever watched Scott broadcast ESPN’s SportsCenter or provide commentary for Monday Night Football, you’d know that, like any self-respecting Tar Heel, he never shied away from expressing his passion for all things Carolina blue.
During my time at Carolina, I helped charter the Mu Zeta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Scott pledged into Mu Zeta nearly a decade later and is undoubtedly the best-known Alpha man to graduate from UNC.
In 2000, our shared college and fraternity roots prompted me to invite Scott to speak to a seminar titled “Race, Media and Popular Culture” that I was leading at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He agreed to speak to a packed room of students, without asking for a dime in payment. Scott came, he said, to help out a fraternity brother from Mu Zeta.
Later, away from the crowds and autograph seekers, Scott and I enjoyed a private dinner. We talked about UNC, fraternity, and family. What I recall most from that singular meeting was how he said that hanging out with Michael Jordan, covering a Super Bowl, or making a rap song wasn’t nearly as important or special to him as being a father to his young daughters. And, as if to underscore that point, the only request he made of his appearance at Harvard was that the university provide a car to transport him back to Connecticut in time to tuck his girls into bed and kiss them good night.
No, we might not have been good friends, but Stuart Scott was definitely my brother.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.