Blue-Blooded Broadcaster

Stuart Scott passed away on Sunday at the age of 49. He became nationally known for his on-air personality on ESPN, and transcended sports during his battle with cancer. But to UNC and its fans he was, first and foremost, a Tar Heel. What follows is an article published in the Sept 2009 issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine, in which Scott explored his path to success and Tar Heel roots.

“Going home” is the simple description that Stuart Scott gives his annual pilgrimage to college basketball’s current Mecca—the Dean E. Smith Center—for the tip-off of each season at Late Night with Roy Williams. It is a journey back to where both his personality and athletic passion cultivated and his first successes transpired.

On a near nightly basis, Scott is welcomed into millions of American homes as the charismatic voice beaming from the worldwide headquarters of ESPN in Bristol, Conn. or perhaps on location from Monday Night Football, the NBA Finals, or the ESPY’s. In fact, if your television has been commandeered by a more youthful generation and repurposed for video games, you are likely to hear Scott’s voice emanating from the speakers still. In short, Stuart Scott is a true, full-blown North Carolina success story.

As an athletically gifted teenager, he ran track at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, a Carolina feeder school that has contributed to the last two UNC basketball championships via Reyshawn Terry and Mike Copeland. His specialty, however, was football, a sport in which he was skilled enough to entertain scholarship offers from a number of small schools in the area. His dreams, though, all ran through Chapel Hill. “Both of my sisters went to North Carolina,” he says, “but my brother went to Western Carolina and I was going to take a football scholarship and go there but my brother talked me out of it. He didn’t think I’d like it up there in the mountains. And really, I’ve been a fan of North Carolina since the days of Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak, Tommy Lagarde.”

Leaving a potential football career behind without so much as a glance back is, perhaps, impossible, but for Scott the reflection was unique. “It wasn’t so much ‘what would it have been like?’ but more ‘where and what would I have been?’” This isn’t to say, though, that it was easy for him to hang up his cleats altogether. In fact, 15 years later he had an idea for ESPN that allowed him another chance. At age 36, Scott laced ‘em up one more time as a minicamp player for the New York Jets. “You never lose a desire to play—never at all. I went to minicamp with the Jets just because I wanted to. I was actually a better player and a faster player at 36 than I was at 21.” Was he surprised at his skill level? “I didn’t surprise myself,” he says, succinctly. “I got hurt at the end of the first day. There were eight wide receivers in camp that day and the wide receiver coach said, ‘I had you rated about sixth or seventh.’ So, that means, maybe, I had skills good enough to be a scrub player in the NFL.”

As a 1987 graduate majoring in speech communication, Scott’s contemporaries in Chapel Hill were names like Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith and yes, Michael Jordan. However, his background as a high school athlete set him at ease with the North Carolina hardwood luminaries. “I was never a hyper fan. I played, so it wasn’t like ‘Wow. I’m in school here and Michael Jordan goes to school here.’ “

In fact, though basketball wasn’t his preference, he enjoyed a special opportunity early in his Chapel Hill tenure that few ever had. “I probably played about a half dozen games with MJ on the court in my freshman year,” he recalls. “A couple of times he was on my team; most of the time he wasn’t, but he and Buzz Peterson would light up the place. The interesting thing about North Carolina is that there were a lot of good players who probably had enough skill to play varsity basketball so the games were very competitive. He was clearly the best player out there, but, it wasn’t like some jaw-dropping, oh-my-god thing; it was just that he was so much better than everybody else so if he was on your team, good for you because you’re probably going to play for a while.”

As for any one-on-one battles with basketball’s future king, apparently, they were rare. “There was never a day where I played against him where I D’ed him up,” Scott says. “You know, if he is coming down the court on the fast break you might find yourself on a switch. It’s not like how a lot of people would think though, like you are going to be scared. There is nothing to be scared of. You aren’t getting in a fight with anybody. So, if someone is really, really good then you try everything you’ve got, you try to steal the ball and play defense.”

With the dream of being a professional athlete eliminated as a potential vocation, Scott set his course towards broadcasting. It was an occupation that was appealing because it allowed him to stay close to his passion for sports. “Originally it was about that,” he says. “Then I found out what was involved and I liked it. It was creating something and doing something that you love and being close to sports.”

Prior to his ascension to national status at ESPN, Scott had the opportunity to work close to home, in Raleigh at WRAL-TV. It was there that he developed a respect and admiration for a UNC rival, but friend to everyone, Jim Valvano. “I was a news reporter and I did a lot of sports related stories,” he recalls, “so when I was doing stories with Jim, they weren’t about the game last night. It was about the allegations and what was going on with the North Carolina State program at the time, so the interviews weren’t fun and folly. One time I actually went out to his house and sat down and did a long interview. Another time I was at his office and it was one of those days when the heat was coming down and he threw us out and I just remember thinking, even in the way he threw us out, he’s a good dude, he’s a cool cat and only because of his energy. He just had an energy. You didn’t hate him if you were a North Carolina guy or a Duke guy because there wasn’t a shred of arrogance or conceit about him. He was one of those rare people who could be an all out homer for his team but not show any type of arrogance or conceit.”

Without realizing the myriad of ways that ESPN would transform his world, Scott made the jump to Bristol in 1993 and became an instant success, leaving his imprint on the network, and, to a larger extent, popular culture. To be sure, his life has changed and according to Scott, he’s pleased he didn’t have the prescience to understand how different things would be. “I’m glad I didn’t know,” he states. “I grew up with guys who had that goal—to work at ESPN—but I just liked doing sports on television.”

There are drawbacks to be recognized from Seattle to Miami, though Scott maintains that they are very minimal and rare. “If I’m with my kids talking and somebody comes up and interrupts then I don’t think that’s cool,” he says, “but it’s not tough, though. Tough is fighting a war. Tough is teaching a classroom full of kids. It’s not tough, it comes with the territory. If I were to say, ‘this isn’t cool,’ then, really, that isn’t right. I can’t accept the good things about whatever level of fame there is and then rail on the negatives. It is all part of it. It all comes with the territory and if you add it all up together the good so far outweighs the bad that it is kind of ludicrous to think about.”

Chief among the items falling in the “good” category for Scott since his debut on ESPN has been the doors his work has opened for him. Not the least among these is his annual return to emcee the basketball tip-off. “I’ve been going to Chapel Hill regularly since 1975,” he says. “It’s part of who I am, so the ‘Late Night with Roy Williams’ is just going home and if you know what Roy is about, you know that he is all southern heart, southern charm and a southern gentleman. A friend of mine went to Kansas and he told me that they took our basketball coach and I told him, ‘No, we just let you borrow him for a while and then we took him back.’”

Every Carolina fan has a unique story centered on their viewing of the 2009 national championship game, but, in Stuart Scott’s case, there will never be another night like it. “I was actually doing the first SportsCenter out in Los Angeles at 1 a.m. Eastern,” he recalls. “The championship night was actually the first night of it. I was in one of the offices watching on a 4-inch screen. You know a lot of people have sports teams that they live and die with. I don’t have any professional sports teams that I live and die with. I really don’t have any teams that I live and die with at all—except for North Carolina. I don’t do this normally throughout the year, but when North Carolina is playing basketball, I’m just a nut. If I am watching, and we are getting hammered, I want to throw a shoe at the TV. The interesting thing about this year though is that I have never watched a Carolina basketball team as loose as I did this season. There was never a worry this year. In fact, someone said to me in the newsroom, ‘Hey Stuart, wouldn’t you at least like the game to be competitive?’ and I said ‘Nah man, I’m real good just like this.’ On that night to win a championship against Michigan State, I don’t need that stress. I’d rather go ahead and beat them by 60.”

In a world of equivocation on many levels, Scott is refreshingly direct when it comes to the burgeoning, fan-based question of superiority when evaluating a dream matchup between the 2005 and 2009 hoops teams. “I think ’09 would win,” he states without faltering. “Yeah, I think ’09 is the best team since ’82, but to be honest with you, the best team I ever saw was my freshman year—the ’84 team. You know, they would have given ’82 a good run.”

These are good times for Stuart Scott. His career continues to churn in an upward trajectory. The one team that he “lives and dies with” has him living the high life. And thus, in conjunction with a clean bill of health following a cancer scare in 2007, he has reason to celebrate.

This article is from the September 2009 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

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