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December 15, 2017

The Q&A ... with ESPN personality (and former Philly columnist) Stephen A. Smith

Sixers NBA

If you turn on ESPN on Friday, there's a good chance they're going to be talking about the Sixers.

Last week, the network announced that it would be unveiling a new feature called "Philadelphia All Access," in which they'll dedicate an entire day of coverage to the Sixers, with the team appearing across all the ESPN platforms, including SportsCenter, ESPN Radio, social media and more. It includes one-on-one interviews with Brett Brown, Bryan Colangelo, Ben Simmons, and others. 

It all wraps up at 7 p.m. when the Sixers host the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Wells Fargo Center. 

In addition to those interviews and features on things ranging from Markelle Fultz's recovery to the team's executive chef, Joel Embiid will make an appearance on "First Take" (10 a.m. - noon, ESPN) alongside Stephen A. Smith, who will be on-site in Philly for the show.

Smith, who spent the better part of 17 years covering Philly sports, is no stranger to the city, one he considers to be a second home. And while in town for Friday's special Sixers coverage, the Inquirer- columnist-turned-ESPN-personality was kind enough to carve out some time for our latest edition of The Q&A.

PV: You're obviously in town for the Sixers. What are your overall thoughts on the team, as currently constructed?

Stephen A. Smith: Well, I like the direction they're heading in. I think that Joel Embiid is a star in the making. But I also think that Ben Simmons is a superstar in the making. [If] this guy develops a jump shot, he's going to be sensational and unstoppable. He's got all the other requisite tools in terms of his size, his ball-handling and passing ability, his basketball IQ, etc. And then you've got the [Robert] Covington's of the world, the J.J. Redick's of the world, the T.J. McConnell's of the world. 

I like the way this team looks. It's young; it's feisty; it goes after it; it knows it's talented; it's not scared of anybody. And I like it. They've got a long way to go – don't get me wrong – they're certainly not worthy of championship contention, but this is a young team to be very, very excited about. 

That actually leads in perfectly to my next question. Realistically, how far – or how many pieces – away do you think they are from competing for a title?

Listen, I think if they get one superstar – if they get a star, rather – they're there. If they add a couple of nice pieces, they're going to – listen, they may make the playoffs this year as is. So [adding] another player is just going to buffer them, and I think we all recognize that.

I mean, you've got a 7-[foot]-2 center that may be the best big in the game. You've got a 6-10 guy in Ben Simmons, and the only reason we're not calling him the heir-apparent to LeBron James definitively yet is because of his lack of his jump shot and his youth. 

Tell me one African-American in the history of professional sports that had a license to lose and could tell its constituents, its fanbase, for years, we're losing on purpose...

So now that they have a legit roster – certainly better than it's been in quite a few years – what do you think of the job Brett Brown has done?

I've always though he got a raw deal. The [NBA] Players Association and Rick Carlisle, the president of the Players Association, Pat Riley and others, they've always spoken up very highly on the behalf of Brett Brown – along with Gregg Popovich and others – because of the things the organization was doing to him for years was nothing short of criminal. You were losing games on purpose; you were giving him close to nothing to work with. 

As far as I'm concerned, this is the first season we have seen Brett Brown actually get an opportunity to coach a real basketball team. And, so far, he's doing a decent job. 

As you alluded to there, and you've said publicly in the past, you're no fan of "The Process." But with that now in the past, does the fact that Embiid and Simmons have played so well together – and all the other promise you mentioned earlier – does that soften your stance at all?

No it has not. I'm fine. I have a job to do, and I'm going to do my job to the best of my ability. But on a personal level, people think that I'm just blowing smoke. I'm dead serious; I'm ready to cuss anyone out that brings up 'The Process.' 

It pisses me off. And the reason why it pisses me off is because – I've said it publicly and I'll say it again – tell me one African-American in the history of professional sports that had a license to lose and could tell its constituents, its fanbase, for years, we're losing on purpose, and still basically going about his business being able to do his job and keep his job.

I don't play that game. I despise it. Joel Embiid couldn't play for two years; Ben Simmons couldn't play for a year; Michael Carter-Williams wins Rookie of the Year, you trade him; you don't add veterans. You're losing on purpose because you wanted to stink up the joint, which I understand – it's one thing if it's for a few games, or if it would've been for a year. These guys did it for three years. And if it wasn't for intervention on the part of [NBA] Commissioner Adam Silver talking to owner Josh Harris and others and ultimately getting a Jerry Colangelo involved in the mix, change might still not have taken place. 

And that is the issue, for me. You're supposed to go out there as an organization and try to win every year or try to build every year. You don't sit up there and say it's going to take three or five years and we're going to lose on purpose and stink up the joint while still asking people to pay their money. You don't do that. I don't believe in that. Through the draft is not the only way to build a team. As an executive, you're supposed to be able to go out there and recruit and be an attractive enough commodity to get respectable talent to come to your franchise.

When Larry Brown took over the Philadelphia 76ers from Johnny Davis and Brad Greenberg was the GM, and Pat Croce replaced them with Larry Brown and Billy King, he had Allen Iverson. What else did he have? What else did he have? Not much. But he went out and got George Lynch. He went out and got Theo Ratliff. And he had Aaron McKie. And he got Tyrone Hill. Then he changed Theo Ratliff for Dikembe Mutombo. And it took Shaq and Kobe standing in their way to stop them. They built a team. They found a way to use the talent they had at their disposal, and you mixed in the Eric Snows and the others. Yes, Allen Iverson was a mercurial superstar on offense, but those guys were rough riders who played their role to perfection and it almost won them a title. That is what you do, not lose on purpose. 

I despise the phrase 'The Process.' – I always have, I always will. And I don't give a damn if the Sixers win a championship, I will still say that about 'The Process.'

What are you most looking forward to seeing on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center?

I've been to a few games already and I watch almost every one of their games. I just enjoy watching them overall because I think they have terrific young players with tremendous promise. The only thing that worries me – it's little things. Like the way they're introduced coming out of the tunnel, I think that's kind of whack. I see people getting to the games late, the arena is half-full, before they [eventually] pack the house. 

You've got to remember that when I was there covering them when Allen Iverson was playing that arena was filled to capacity before the introductions. [Imitating Sixers public address announcer Matt Cord] 'A six-foot guard from Georgetown...' and you could barely hear them say his name because the arena was roaring that loudly. I don't hear that yet for this team. That's not their fault. They're good enough; they're talented enough; they're exciting enough. So I wish the fans – I love Philly and I love its fans. It's a second home for me, but I wish those fans would get to the arena early enough to cheer these guys on, because they deserve it. Get them hype before the game is what I'm saying.

Let's switch gears for a second and talk about the Eagles. What did you think of Carson Wentz and the season he was having before he went down?

Generational kind of talent. Big-time quarterback. I believe he's going to win the Eagles a Super Bowl one day.

But I've got to give a lot of credit to Doug Pederson and Jeffrey Lurie and those boys because they've got a team that gets after the quarterback on defense and has a lot of talent and athleticism. And on the offensive side of the ball, what I've been seeing from Nelson Agholor has been very impressive. Alshon Jeffery is playing for a new contract. The pickup of Jay Ajayi out of Miami – I don't know what the hell Miami was thinking letting him go. But their loss is the Eagles' gain because he's a stud. And I can't say enough about the three-headed monster at tight end with [Brent] Celek, [Zach] Ertz and [Trey] Burton; those guys have been very, very impressive.

All the requisite weapons are there, but you never know. Last year they didn't have Lane Johnson for 10 games; this year they're missing Jason Peters, so you never know. But I thought before Wentz went down, they were a sure-fire bet to go to the Super Bowl. I'm still not ruling out the possibility, but I had no question in my mind midway through the season that the Eagles were going to the Super Bowl out of the NFC because of the way Wentz looked and the way rest of the troops followed.

You had Robert Griffin III on yesterday and he was petitioning for a backup spot on the Eagles. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, but should they sign somebody to back up Foles? RG3, Kaepernick – hell, Matt McGloin was with them in the preseason and he's available...

I personally think it should be RG3 or Colin Kaepernick. Preferably Kaepernick first. I definitely think it should be one of the two. I definitely don't think it should be Matt McGloin, I can tell you that. 

I think that Kaepernick, even though one might think he'd be a distraction because of all the issues, I think those guys [the Eagles] would rally around him and it would serve as an inspirational tool. Not that they need it, but they would definitely utilize it in an advantageous fashion, if he were to arrive on the team. And I don't think there's any question about that.

Philly fans helped make me who I am and I owe a great deal of gratitude to them for all that I've accomplished in my career.

You mentioned the fans earlier. As someone who isn't from Philly, but has spent a good deal of time living and working here ...

Seventeen years. 

Exactly, long enough to get to know the people of this city well. So what are your thoughts on the Philly fans?

I love them. I love them to death. Listen, a lot of them boo me. A lot of them cheer me. But that's in front of ya'll. When I walk the streets of Philadelphia – which is quite often because I've got family and friends in Philadelphia – Philadelphia shows me nothing but love. And I love them right back. I know it's hard to believe because I'm a native New Yorker, but Philly fans helped make me who I am and I owe a great deal of gratitude to them for all that I've accomplished in my career. Yes, Allen Iverson was there and I covered Allen Iverson, but people supported me every day by reading the material I wrote, by watching me on television and by listening to me on the radio. 

What do you like most? TV, radio, print?

All three, because I like the power – meaning that when I speak or when I have something to say, I know that everybody's going to hear it one way or the other. 

I'm about having an impact and trying to make a difference and my tireless pursuit of the truth. That's what I'm about. And whatever medium most effectively gets the job done, I'm all for it. And the fact that I've been blessed enough to be relatively decent in all three works for me.

You have to do a show every day, and every day you seem really passionate about whatever the topic is. Don't you and Max [Kellerman] – or did you and Skip [Bayless], back when he was on – ever agree on anything? Or does someone always have to take the contrarian stance?

Max and I are more agreeable than Skip and I ever were. But it's a debate show and sometimes you have to find where the disagreement lies. The objective is to debate one another, is to find what you disagree about. It's not that we don't agree, it's that we don't agree on some things. And what we don't agree on are the things we usually talk about because the show is a debate show. 

It's really that simple. Whereas with Skip and I, we were just diametrically opposed on everything. In the morning, Skip would be working out and I'd be sleeping. I'm eating Swedish Fish or Nestle Buncha Crunch and Skips drinking a Diet Mt. Dew. Two different worlds, just polar opposites. 

Max and I are not polar opposites. He's just more idealistic and intellectual, and I'm rough, rugged and raw. I'm far more simplistic than he is, but he's a highly intelligent individual with a lot of style and he's good people. He's a really, really good person. It's impossible to root against him sometimes, to be quite honest with you, because he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. 

It's nice to know that there's still that respect there, even though you spend a lot of your time yelling at each other.

I've always found such notions, the assumptions that people make, to be silly in regards to comments that people have made from time to time [about us not liking each other]. The whole objective of the show is to disagree. You could have family members, loved ones, whatever – and you're watching a sporting event and you disagree about what's going on. That's 'First Take.' 

'First Take' is a debate show. The theme that was established by Skip Bayless before I ever arrived was 'embrace debate.' What we do is, we are passionate about what we feel when we are on opposite ends of the spectrum. That's all. Anybody else that came on the show would be doing the same thing because that's what the show is. It's just that some people resonate and some people don't. I happen to resonate. 

What's your biggest "I told you so" moment, when everyone was telling you that you were wrong but you turned out to be right?

I wouldn't know. I really wouldn't know. You're asking me, I feel like it's like that every day. 

It doesn't matter. You know how many stories I've broken in my career? I've broken more stories in one year than most reporters have broken in their careers. That's just the truth; it's a fact. That's not to take anything away from anybody, but folks' definition of news in this day and age is blogging about something or going on the air or in print and talking about somebody that's newsworthy. 

When I was in the business, I actually had to break stories. I was going up against the great Phil Jasner at The Daily News, one of the best ever. And as it pertained with my relationship to him, he was an incredible man, a good man that was highly, ultra competitive. You had to be on your game or he would eat you up. You know, he was different, a little weird at times, but I say that with nothing but affection and love. He was a good man and I miss him. 

You're not supposed to be here to be liked... If you care about being liked or being loved, you don't belong in the business I'm in.

You talked about embracing debate. With Twitter, Facebook, etc., there's no shortage of people who want to debate with you. Or, rather, tell you that you're wrong. How do you deal with all the haters?

I pay no attention to it. It means absolutely nothing to me. Let 'em come, I was made for this. I don't worry about that. I could give a damn. It really doesn't matter to me.

It matters to me if someone says I'm unfair. It matters to me if I've been wrong about something, or whatever the case may be. But if I am right, I trust my moral compass. I know that I'm fair. I know that I'm a decent, God-fearing human being. I know my mother raised me right. And I don't intentionally attempt to harm, nor root for harm to come to, any human being. I'm not built that way. I'm not that kind of person. And so, knowing that about myself, if others have those kind of malicious feelings towards me, that's on them. They've got to go home and sleep at night, and go to church on the weekends and think about the kind of human being they try to be if they're having those kind of thoughts about me.

I don't worry about it. As long as I know that my heart was in the right place and that I'm accurate in what I'm saying, in terms of my perspective and my point of view, my man, I've got some alligator skin and I can take it. I can promise you that. It doesn't bother me at all; let them keep coming.

But having said all of that, as shocking as it may be, I get a hell of a lot more love than hate. And it shocks me. I'm talking about white, black, old, young, women, men, children, adults – it does not matter. I get an awful lot of love, the kind of love that I never expected in a million years that I would have. And I would venture to say that the love I receive, compared to the hate, the love outnumbers it 100 to one. Easy.

It may not be on Twitter, but everywhere else that counts.

Well, I'm not sure it exists for anyone on Twitter.

It's not just that, because sometimes people just pretend to hate you because they want a reaction. And sometimes, I give it to them just out of fun. But most of the time I ignore it.

I feel like you have to or it would drive you crazy.

It doesn't drive me crazy. I don't lose a bit of sleep over it, I can promise you that. I sleep very well over stuff like that. It doesn't bother me a little bit.

You've got to remember, I was raised professionally as a journalist. It's amazing how many people in this day and age forget that. I am a journalist by profession. It doesn't matter that I'm a personality now and that I'm in the entertainment business. That's not it. I was raised as a journalist. You're not supposed to be here to be liked. It's not supposed to happen. If you care about being liked or being loved, you don't belong in the business I'm in.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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