When Stuart Scott died on Jan. 4, 2015, at the age of 49, he left behind many lasting gifts from his career at ESPN and from his courageous seven-year fight with cancer.
Here is another of those gifts: His memoir, "Every Day I Fight," which he co-authored with Larry Platt. The book, published by Penguin Random House, is on sale now.
In the following excerpt, Scott discusses the origin of some of his signature catchphrases and how tirelessly he worked to make everything look like he wasn't trying at all:
Remember, the roots of Boo-yah! were back in Winston-Salem, when Fred's neighbor, Mr. G, the oldhead who made bamboo chairs, used it once to describe how loud the previous night's thunder had been. From then on, we'd say it when someone brought a different kind of thunder on the field or court. A slam dunk in your face? Boo-yah! A blindside flattening of the QB? Boo-yah!
Someone once told me I got "cool as the other side of the pillow" from a movie, but that's not the case. Back when I was in Florence, South Carolina, barely staying afloat on all of two hundred bucks a week and trying to soak up as much knowledge as I could at my first job in TV, I was so poor, I had no air-conditioning in my apartment. Guess how I used to cool off at night? I'd flip that pillow to the cool side and get a momentary rush. I started working it into my scripts on the air. It was a way to have some voice, to say something in an original way.
One day, we were watching some baller light it up in a game somewhere when my former brother-in-law said, "Call that dude butter 'cause he's on a roll." I cracked up and took ownership of it and can now offer props to Calvin, my former bro-in-law.
A lot of my catchphrases came from my life as an African-American -- and they were things other black people could relate to. "That's so good, make you want to sop it up with a biscuit," I'd say. I'd look for ways to play off current pop-culture happenings, like when Michael would go off from downtown: "Michael, Michael, Michael, can't you see, sometimes your threes just hypnotize me," I said, sampling Biggie Smalls. Sometimes I'd be speaking straight to the African-American viewer: "Lawd, he done made his kinfolk proud: Pookie 'n' dem, Big Mama 'n' dem ... " or "He's got more flavor than Kool-Aid and cocoa." One of my home-run calls came from Sunday morning, in my best Southern Baptist preacher voice: "And the Lawd said you got to rise up, we gonna open the doors of the chutch" -- not "church" but "chutch." Those ones are just for us, okay? If you grew up black and in the South, you knew what I was talking about. You had an Uncle Pookie and Big Mama at your barbecues, your fridge was always stocked with Kool-Aid or Hi-C, and the voice of the preacher man would always be renting space in your head.
I guess I didn't realize how much all of it was resonating out there until 1999, when Saturday Night Live aired a parody of me -- and my catchphrases. It was eye-opening for me. Wow, I remember thinking, I guess I am this thing called a "celebrity."
The skit starred Tim Meadows as me and Ray Romano as new, overenthused anchor Chet Harper on the set of SportsCenter. "Shaq-Daddy with 37 points -- he sends an invitation to the Finals party, and it says 'B.Y.O.B.': 'Bring your own Boo-yah!'" Tim Meadows, er, I said over footage of Shaq throwing down.
Then it was the newcomer's turn, and he took things further into the weird than I'd ever go. "Latest talk is that David Robinson is over the hill," Romano's Harper said, over clips of the Spurs. "But in my book, you gotta get to White Castle before the weirdos show up! Tonight at the Alamodome, he gets happy-go-Jackie on the big white guy like a donkey eating a waffle! Sweet sassy molassey! Get out the checkbook and pay Grandma for the rubdown as the Spurs beat the Heat, 86-79!"
Harper's catchphrases grew increasingly out-there: "John Stockton says, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a little teapot; I'll run right up your dress'"; a hockey goalie says, "Hey, try not to shoot that puck up my pooper!"; a goal-scorer "celebrates like a slave who made it to the North!"
It was funny and brilliant. It was a parody of me, but, in the sketch, my character was actually the straight man. Ray Romano's character extended what I do to the hilariously absurd. More than a decade later, I'd run into Romano at Michael Jordan's golf tournament. I'd become a fan of his TNT show, Men of a Certain Age, the story of three best friends in their late forties dealing with the onset of middle age, also starring Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula. And Romano is part of the ensemble cast of Parenthood, another of my favorite shows.
So I was psyched to meet him. Before I could find him, he found me -- to tell me his son was a fan of mine. "Before I came here, he asked, 'Is Stuart Scott going to be there?'" he said.
Then he tripped me out. He started apologizing for the SNL skit. "You know, I didn't write that thing," he said.
"You kidding, man?" I said. "That put me on the map. I loved it!"
Clearly, SNL had tapped into something. The catchphrases were popular, but they weren't my focus. Writing great copy was the priority. I'd spend hours writing each night's show -- only you had to write in such a way that it looked like you didn't spend any time writing it. I knew that as a loud, young, African-American anchor my work was going to be put under a microscope. That's when I determined that, alongside the catchphrases, nods to urban life, and pop-culture references, I needed to give you more hard-core sports information than anyone else. I got me a notebook and kept running tallies of which among us on-air personalities gave out the most statistics. It was usually me. My own personal edict became "I'm going to tell you more": more points, more rebounds, more batting averages, more home runs, more touchdown passes. I knew I was going to be judged differently, so I wanted cold, hard data to show that I was providing more information than anyone else doing this job.
There are great researchers at ESPN, and I wouldn't leave them poor boys alone. I'd call them up and be, like, "How many times did A.I. score 40 this year? Is that more or less than Jordan?" Ten minutes later, I'd ring back: "Yo, man, Steve Young -- how does he compare with Elway on fourth-quarter comebacks?" Very few people pay attention to good writing on TV broadcasts, but it's one thing that sets ESPN apart. I'm not saying I'm the best writer in Bristol, but even in my earliest days at the Worldwide Leader I knew I could write with anybody on that campus. Now, I'm not talking about writing the King's English, about using ten-karat words to show off how smart you are. I'm talking about writing that doesn't sound like writing. I'm talking about writing that sounds like you're sitting right there in the viewer's man cave, having a conversation.
I spend hours writing my intros -- the pieces that set up the highlights, where anchors are looking directly into the camera. That's when we have the most freedom to be creative. Last year, for example, when the lowly Philadelphia 76ers visited the great San Antonio Spurs, I wrote a "two neighborhoods, two teams" setup that talked about how they were teams from the opposite sides of town. In talking about the Spurs, I was dressed in an immaculate suit; when I got to the Sixers -- thanks to great editing -- my suit became torn and disheveled and I looked like I was down and out on the street. It was a creative, dramatic way to get across the theme of that night's game: two franchises going in two very different directions.
But even during the highlights, SportsCenter anchors are not satisfied doing the same-old, same-old scores and highlights. Here's a snippet of me doing a highlight of a touchdown pass and then a sack in a game between the New York Giants and the Jacksonville Jaguars: "The very next play, Collins gets silly-nutty with Ron Dixon -- 8 yards. Dixon -- talk about nibboo! -- Baryshnikov! -- oh! Just getting both feet in -- 14-zip G-Men. Third quarter, 17-nothing Giants -- uh-oh -- Michael Strahan about to put the beat-down clock down on Mark Brunell. Yeah, dawg --we know that." This is something I always stress to broadcast students: It may not read or sound like it, but as many hours of thought and re-writing go into my SportsCenter scripts as, say, Peter Jennings would put into his for World News Tonight.
What I do might not appear to be journalism, but it is. Sometimes other journalists don't even get that. Early on, there were detractors of mine who would say I was buddies with athletes and that you can't be a good journalist if that's the case. Sports radio talker Mike Francesa once said that I'll "slap hands with [a player] or have some little cute response with him or something that almost in some way hints at friendship as much as I'm here to cover you."
Now, what Mike Francesa thinks of me is none of my business. I don't know how I developed it, but even in my early thirties, I had an "I don't care" attitude when I heard stuff like that. Because I knew what the criticism was really about. Yes, I am friends with some athletes. The people I admire and respect who are athletes are people I'd admire and respect if they weren't athletes.
But I think a couple of other things were going on. One was that the athletes I covered were of my generation; they'd been tuning in to SportsCenter for fifteen years, and maybe now they were finally hearing someone speak like them. It stands to reason they'd be more open and comfortable with me, that we'd have more of a connection.
But I also think the criticism I got early on really came from not getting our role as journalists. You've heard me say it before: I'm interested in explaining, not judging. And athletes get when they talk to me that I'm not playing "gotcha." The rapport I have with athletes comes not from slapping hands with them but from having played sports. It helps to have competed at some level -- not because I know what it feels like to catch a touchdown pass but because I know what it feels like to drop it. If I can ask a question that gets across that I get it, that I know what you're going through, the answer coming back is going to be more open and interesting. That's what happened last year, after Miami's only win of the NBA Finals against the Spurs. At the end of the game, LeBron had driven and dished to Chris Bosh for a big shot. When I got Bosh after the game, I could have just asked the pro forma "What were you thinking when you hit that clutch shot?" Guys are so used to that question, they tend to pull out a tried-and-true cliché.
I decided to ask two questions. The first: "We all know that athletes see plays before they actually happen. When did you see that play happen?"
"First, after we called it," responded Bosh, who is a really thoughtful guy. "But then when I saw LeBron driving and he drew two guys, I knew it was coming to me."
Then I asked: "What were you thinking when you let it fly?" "Nothing," Bosh said. "I know a lot of guys say, 'I was thinking this' or 'I was thinking that.' I wasn't thinking anything. I just let it fly."
I love that exchange, because it was simple and true. The first question got at, from an athlete's perspective, how things really happen out there. I've talked to LeBron and others about this: All say there are times when the game slows down for them and they know what's going to happen before it actually does. That enabled the second question -- and I love Bosh's answer because it's so true. Shots go in because you were able to shut down the distracting thoughts of your own mind. To me, that's journalism that serves the viewer's understanding of the game.
There was only one time that an athlete got on me for something I said about him on the air. Remember big Oliver Miller of the Phoenix Suns? We played a clip of him dribbling out on a fast break and dunking. I said, "Look at Big O -- he can eat all them Twinkies and still get up!"
Four months later, I saw him in the locker room and he wasn't happy. "Man, you were talking smack about me!"
"What'd I say?" I asked, even though I thought I knew. "I don't know, but you were talking 'bout me," he said.
"I remember what I said, man. I said you can eat all them Twinkies and still get up. I wasn't busting on you for being a big dude, I was saying you're a big dude and you can still throw it down! Man, your nickname is the Big O."
He kind of smiled and we hugged it out. There's only one other confrontation I can remember. Brian Williams was drafted out of Arizona by the Magic when I was in Orlando. (He later changed his name to Bison Dele and died mysteriously at sea, presumably killed by his brother.) One day in Orlando's locker room back then, he walked over to me and said, "Why'd you give my address out?"
I didn't know what he was talking about. He was towering over me. "I didn't give your address out," I said. "What are you talking about?"
He grabbed me. "Why'd you give my address out?" he said, harder now. I just reacted. "Take your freakin' hands off me," I said through gritted teeth, staring up about eleven inches.
I grabbed his wrists and said it again. He turned and walked away. I never did find out what in the world he was talking about.
See, I think it's pretty good that I can think of only two times when an athlete has been ticked off at me -- and one wasn't even for anything I actually did. That's because I don't think my role is to be antagonistic. My role is to help the viewer get who these guys are, and to understand the game better.
In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter -- Tar Heel! -- was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn't. "I gotta drop some knowledge," I said, while footage of Vince's slam played on the screen behind me. "Vince Carter's late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. Let me show you." At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. "Most guys do a true 360 -- they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it."
Now we played Vince's. "Vince basically did, like, a 450 -- he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim."
It was a little thing, and it wasn't going to win any awards. No broadcast journalism professor was going to show it to his or her class. But it was helping the viewer see something in a new way. It was me, doing what I saw as my role. Droppin' knowledge.
"Every Day I Fight" by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt, published by Penguin Random House, is on sale now. To learn more, visit the book's web page here.