Stephen A Smith is set to bring his TV show, ESPN’s First Take, to Winston-Salem State University on Tuesday. It will represent a true homecoming for the reporter-turned-media entity that started with one man — Clarence “Big House” Gaines.
Smith came to Winston-Salem State to play basketball and get an education. Gaines offered Smith a chance to leave New York and head to North Carolina. He did, and the rest, is history.
“All the man ever asked of me was to make sure that I never forgot Winston-Salem-State and never forgot HBCUs and that I would do what I could to uplift and really, really carry the mantle of really bringing attention and notoriety to HBCUs. And that’s what I’ve strived to have done,” Smith told Fox8 in a recent interview. “That’s where my focus has lied ever since I arrived. It was Winston-Salem State, and Clarence ‘Big House’ Gaines had a lot to do with that.”
A knee injury severely hampered Smith’s career on the court at WSSU. Meanwhile, another talent of his was discovered elsewhere on the campus.
“I think it started with my critical and persuasive writing professor, who also happened to be the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal,” Smith said. “His name was John Gates. He passed away years ago. God rest his soul. But he told me he looked at an essay that I wrote and felt I was a natural-born sports writer. Those were his words.”
Gates connected Smith with Winston-Salem Journal sports Editor Joe Goodman, who literally invested in his growth.
“Ultimately, hiring me as as an intern as well, keeping me there, taking care of me and hiring a tutor for me behind my back, I didn’t know,” Smith said. “I thought I was paying for the tutor because the tutor was only charging me $5 an hour, but she charged $50 an hour, but Winston-Salem Journal, led by Joe Goodman, had picked up the $45.”
Smith, a 1992 WSSU graduate, eventually went on to work for the Winston-Salem Journal to officially start his career as a journalist. Within a decade he became a general sports columnist and eventually landed a spot on ESPN. But had it not been for the involvement of Big House Gaines and the recognition of his professors, there’s a very good chance history would have been re-written.
Stephen A Smith is, undoubtedly, a lightning rod for controversy. That’s what his job is now, and he does it very well. He’s a figure that has many critics within the sports world, the African-American world, the HBCU world and even the WSSU world. What can’t be denied is that the investments made in Smith by his coach, professors and mentors are the kinds of investments many of us in the HBCU world can relate to.
First Take will visit Savannah State University on Nov. 6 and then head to Winston-Salem State on Nov. 7.
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