‘The Boy Just Ain’t Smart’: How Stephen A. Smith Overcame a Learning Disability to Become the Most Passionate Voice in Sports
In an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir, ‘Straight Shooter’, Stephen A. Smith, America’s most popular and tenacious sports media figure, looks back on a formative experience of developing grit in his hometown of Hollis, Queens, after he was held back in elementary school as the result of undiagnosed dyslexia.
From the time I was six, I thought I was stupid. Although I talked well — and a lot — and articulated my thoughts fluidly enough that some folks swore one day I’d become a lawyer or a public speaker, it was all a facade. I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading, a deficit that my oratory skills only served to hide.
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It got worse each year, stunting my ability and willingness to grow intellectually. Before long, I was in the second grade but reading at a first-grade level. Then I was in the third grade — still at a first-grade reading level.
I got decent grades anyway, mostly As and Bs. For much of the time inside the classroom, squirming at my desk with all those other squirming kids at PS 134, I don’t remember feeling like there was anything wrong. Then, at the end of each school year, we’d take a reading comprehension test to determine whether or not we should be promoted to the next grade. I was helpless on those tests.
That’s when I felt the profound shame of thinking I just wasn’t smart. When I was left back the first time, in third grade, a stint in summer school was enough to get me moved up in September. But my reading deficiency continued through the fourth grade, and when I bombed the comprehension test at the end of that school year, I was left back yet again, this time for the whole next year.
Had I not been so determined to get myself together and rid myself of the shame I felt, I truly believe I eventually would have wound up dead or in jail, like many of my childhood friends wound up, because without an education, the streets of Hollis were eager to claim me. I was lost. I was the only one I knew in the neighborhood left back, and the kids on my block — smart-ass New York City kids — were merciless. Donald, Mark, Willie, Billy, and Tony — practically everyone in Hollis within shouting distance of 203rd Street was laughing at me at earsplitting volume.
“Boy, you got left back again! Ha ha!”
Everybody laughed except Poolie, my closest friend. He lived right across the street. Big and tough and eager to show that he was both, Poolie took care of anybody who messed with me. He always had my back, always took my side in any argument, and never backed down from anyone.
Forty years later, I still remember all those kids’ names and faces and the things they said. But they were just kids. They didn’t know any better. I knew that even then and didn’t hold it against them, as much as it hurt — as much as it still hurts.
Instead, I held it against myself. I believed I deserved their abuse and absorbed accountability for it. But I also was convinced I’d get better. I knew that if I could stomach the embarrassment of that setback and still march forward, I could withstand anything.
But there was something else that caused me to let them off the hook, a bigger chip that was dropped on my shoulder: their laughter and taunts weren’t anything compared to the shame delivered by my father. I’d get over that, too, but I would never let it go.
The day I learned I’d be repeating the fourth grade, I sat on the steps of our back porch and cried. I was hiding from the world, too ashamed to show my face to anybody. But between sobs and sniffles, I overheard my parents talking through an open kitchen window. My mother had just told my father that I’d gotten left back for the second consecutive June. Her voice sounded worried, empathetic, in search of a solution.
My dad’s voice was the opposite: matter-of-fact, resigned, dismissive.
“Give it up, Janet,” he told her, like he was talking about a sink he’d never be able to fix. “The boy just ain’t smart. He’s not going anywhere. Accept it.”
My mother must have heard one of my sobs and peeked out the window. She cringed when she realized I’d overheard every word that my dad had said about me. She was so hurt by that knowledge that she looked as if she were in more pain than I was — something I wouldn’t have thought possible. That made everything even worse.
And my dad?
He did what he always did: retreated to the living room, sank into his chair, and read the paper or watched TV.
My mother became so consumed by the fiasco of my hearing my father’s cutthroat dismissal that it distracted her, for at least a little bit, from his other shenanigans. She did whatever she could to cater to my emotional needs. She knew I was a wreck.
For instance, a few days afterward, she shocked me by taking me to a movie theater to see Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. I remember that day so vividly because it was the only time that either of my parents ever took me to a movie theater. I knew we couldn’t afford it.
When I asked my mom, “What are you doing? You never go to the movies yourself, so why would you take me?” she said, “Because I love you and I want you to know that, always.” And she left it at that.
The fact is, the words my father had muttered about me did hurt like hell. They really did wound me deeply. Yet somehow I knew almost instinctively that blurting out those blunt, unthinking words was the best thing my father ever did for me. From the moment I heard him insult me, my determination kicked in.
My dad had counted me out. Not only that, he’d implored my own mother to give up on me too. Thank God she refused. His doubts were my fault, I thought. It became my responsibility to change his thinking. I didn’t go about it alone, of course. I wasn’t that damn smart. My sister Linda, working that summer before she went off to college at Stony Brook, on Long Island, leaped into action. As the oldest child, with my mother now working sixteen-hour days, Linda ran the house- hold and saw this problem as hers to fix. The second she heard about my struggles, she started helping me with my reading comprehension. Tiver, the brilliant older brother of my buddy Ronnie, who lived around the corner in a house I hung out at all the time, also took it upon himself to tutor me, which I never told Linda about. So I was getting massive help from two people who genuinely cared about me.
As bright as both of them were, they were flying blind, at least at the start. My problem wasn’t labeled dyslexia yet. Back then it rarely was. At school they simply called it a reading deficiency. But ultimately, as the weeks and months passed by, my sister and my friend’s brother were the ones who discovered that dyslexia was the cause of my problems. They tutored me day after day until, slowly but surely, I started to comprehend what I was reading.
To this day I have no idea how they did it. I just sat there and did what they told me to do. I do remember that my sister was big on repetition and made me do things over and over until they became automatic—like I was shooting jumpers in the park. And as I became more comfortable reading and writing, I gained more and more confidence. I became both smarter and more analytical in everything I did. One thing fed the other.
I never got left back again.
Just how far I’d come was underscored for me at a parent-teacher night a few years later, in seventh grade, at P.S. 192. I dutifully stood at my mother’s side, trying not to fidget as she talked with my social studies teacher, Mr. Caravan. Tall and thin, and extremely robotic and deliberate when he spoke, Mr. Caravan made a point of coming up to my mother after his general presentation to speak with her personally.
“Please allow me to tell you this, Mrs. Smith,” he began inside the no-frills classroom. “Your son is not a dummy.”
My ears perked up; my attention shifted from whatever was distracting me in the hallway or on the ceiling or outside the window and settled directly on Mr. Caravan. I never knew his first name; I don’t think any of us kids even thought teachers had first names.
“Sometimes he believes he’s a dummy, because he never fails to acknowledge that he got held back twice in elementary school,” Mr. Caravan went on. “It sticks with him. He never lets it go.”
My mother nodded. I don’t think she was sure where this was going.
Neither was I.
“But here is what I’ve noticed about him,” Mr. Caravan continued. “He gets extremely bored very easily. So, if there’s something he is not interested in, he drifts. He pays little to no attention and misses things. But when he’s interested in a subject, he’s as sharp as they come. Find out what he’s interested in and have him do that. You’ll have a star on your hands.”
As he spoke, I tried my damnedest not to get antsy, not to look around, not to break away and find something else to mess with. I wouldn’t have believed what Mr. Caravan said if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears. I still had minimal confidence, because I believed so little in myself.
But his words were one small sign: change was under way.
When Mr. Caravan said those words to my mother — words so different from what my father had muttered just a few years earlier — they lit up all kinds of thoughts and dreams in my head. I suddenly fantasized about being a lawyer, a profession I knew about mostly through watching TV murder mysteries and dramas like Matlock and Perry Mason. I pondered becoming a politician, because I loved watching presidential debates. As a young teenager, I watched World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Nightline with Ted Koppel. They defined credibility and substance, new concepts I’d learned about since my reading breakthrough, and traits I knew I would need if I was ever going to be taken seriously at whatever I chose to do.
Yet what I gravitated to most was sports. While I grew up practically in the geographic center of America’s sporting universe — two Major League Baseball teams, two NFL football teams, two NBA basketball teams, and two NHL hockey teams all played their home games within about twenty-five miles of my front door — I only experienced it from watching the games on TV. I had never watched a game in person.
My regular seat for any sporting event remained in front of the tube. I watched sports all the time. I’d even take breaks from playing touch football on the rock-solid concrete of 203rd Street to check in on the Yankees with my dad. He’d celebrate a strikeout from pitchers Ron Guidry or Goose Gossage, a home run from Reggie Jackson or Don Mattingly. I’d witness him yelling at the TV screen, applauding a demonstrative diatribe by manager Billy Martin or owner George Steinbrenner.
Other times, I watched games with my sister Linda, who always knew her sports. It was a joy watching with someone who was an even bigger fan than my father or me. Neither the NBA’s Knicks nor the New York Giants of the NFL had a bigger fan than Linda Laverne Smith. She knew the names of every single player. Screaming at the TV one minute, throwing something at it the next, Linda became so volatile when she got frustrated watching either one of them that we’d all just leave the room and let her watch the games by herself.
Conversely, no one was happier when the Giants won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990, led by Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler, respectively. In fact, I had actually forgotten that the Giants won Super Bowls in each of the last four decades (1986, 1990, 2007, and 2011) until Linda reminded me.
“What other team has done that shit?” she asked rhetorically. “Uh- huh. Try this answer: No Goddamn body!”
Most of the times, though, I’d watch games by myself. But there was a purpose to it. While my father, my sisters, and others watched the games for the sheer enjoyment, I appreciated the commentary just as much as the action on the court or field.
Although I was only five years old, I vividly remember Howard Cosell’s call of “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” when former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier got smashed by George Foreman in two rounds on January 22, 1973; there isn’t a year that goes by when I don’t watch the replay of that fight, along with the call from Cosell. Plus, my father laughed for the next forty-five years over Foreman knocking Frazier upside the back of his head, labeling it the funniest knockout in boxing history.
I sat in awe of Bryant Gumbel, marveling at his hosting ability. From NBC Sports to the Today show on NBC, to The Early Show on CBS every weekday morning, his ability to transition from sports to news was seamless. I viewed Gumbel as royalty, knowing that he was the standard-setter. And I admired the hell out of him for being a Black man, capable of putting himself in that position, swearing to myself that I’d never truly arrive in the broadcast business unless I received his stamp of approval one day.
I heard the language of broadcasters; from Cosell to Gumbel, to Brent Musburger, Jimmy the Greek, Bob Costas, and, of course, the late, great Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes. I absorbed the things they brought to the table — their interviewing skills, poignant delivery, and overall respect they commanded — just as I absorbed the run-on rhymes of rappers in the park.
From very early on, I just knew how to talk. I didn’t try to emulate anybody, didn’t try to create a distinctive voice. It all just got slapped together and came out in the form of a sharp tongue and a talent for rapid-fire, informed responses. I always had something to say and always had a comeback for everybody — everybody, that is, except my mom. When she talked, it was the beginning and the end of the conversation.
Maybe I absorbed some of that, too.
What I saw on TV seeped onto the playground. I played football in the street and baseball in a local police athletic league, but my real love was basketball. My brother, Basil, played on the neighborhood’s outdoor courts. So, when I was nine years old, not long before he moved out, I followed suit.
I tried to emulate what I watched, or what I saw others on the playground trying to emulate: Dr. J, then Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Filthy fakes, no-look passes, bombs from the outside — the must-see TV in our living rooms filtered down to the court at P.S. 192, on 204th Street and Hollis Avenue, a block and a half from my house.
I went there every chance I got, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Many times I felt as if that was the only escape from what ailed me, mentally and emotionally. I went there to get away from doing homework, to get away from my sisters’ telling me what to do, to get away from Mommy throwing chores at me, to get away from my father getting away from us. At night, I loved the solitude I often felt even as I stood in the middle of the country’s biggest, baddest city — the incessant sounds of honking car horns and ear-piercing police sirens were replaced by the squeak of my sneakers and the jazzy beat of my dribble.
The more I practiced, the better I got, until I was one of the best players in the neighborhood. We played three-on-three or one-on-one. When nobody was around, which was usually early evening, I shot by myself for hours—stepping back and shooting, sliding and shooting, head-faking and shooting. Or just shooting and then shooting again. I launched a minimum of two hundred jumpers every evening. The ball and the net were barely visible in the alternating flicker of the green, red, and yellow glow that emanated from a stoplight across the street. It was the park’s lone illumination. The late Kobe Bryant told me on many occasions: “When you’re in the gym alone you can do anything you want.” I was already developing that belief those evenings on that playground.
Early evening was also when the local drug dealers began to filter into the park. For me, they were saviors. They thought I had potential as a basketball player, and knew I wasn’t built for the streets — my one altercation, getting busted and held for two hours for jumping a subway turnstile at Forest Hills station when I didn’t have the fare, scared me straight and made me vow to never run afoul of the law again — so they not only left me alone but provided protection from anyone else who tried to mess with me. They only had one rule: I could shoot until the sun went down; then it was time for them to take over the playground and handle their business.
“Time for you to get home, lil’ man,” they’d tell me, and without another word I’d dribble down the sidewalk — bam! bam! bam! — all the way back.
If I walked into the house on a night when my father was home, I’d invariably sit and watch whatever game he was watching. As complicated and confusing as our relationship could be, he was still my dad — flawed, bullying, infuriating, but still my dad. To a kid that age, that was enough. He was it. It’s not like a friend you fall out with and replace with another friend. It’s your damn dad. He’s the person you have to answer to whether you like it or not — whether he believes in you or not. And if he doesn’t believe in you? You make him believe in you.
I would amount to something, damn it!
My dad had an insatiable appetite for sports, especially baseball. He was a die-hard Yankees fan who literally forbade us to watch the Mets before we turned eighteen — even though they were less than fifteen minutes away, at Shea Stadium in Queens. He’d sit there watching the Yankees day and night, no matter how late it was. He religiously read the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He loved the opinion pages, constantly gauging the credibility of the columnists, a determination he made by putting their opinions up against his own.
As I got older, I joined in. I mastered sports because I loved the sub- ject matter, just as Mr. Caravan had predicted. The more I read, the more I felt compelled to read, elevating my knowledge and adding substance to whatever came out of my mouth.
As I’d hoped, my father took notice.
“What the hell is going on with this boy?” he asked my mother once, after my thirteen-year-old self decided to debate him about wanting the Yankees’ then third baseman, Craig Nettles, traded. “You listening to him? He actually sounds like he has some damn smarts after all.”
I liberally stole sports opinions from him, the only thing I’ve ever taken from him in my life. He’d critique how managers handled pitchers, and then how they all failed in comparison to former Yankees’ man- ager Billy Martin, the brilliant, feisty, hard-drinking throwback who was his all-time favorite. He’d lament when pitchers were left in too long or taken out too hastily. How they’d throw sliders when they should’ve thrown fastballs and fastballs when they should’ve thrown sliders. He’d constantly complain about hitters swinging at bad pitches, or trotting to first base instead of sprinting all out, or foolishly attempting to steal when a power hitter was at the plate. But nothing upset him more than a third-base coach waving a runner around the bag only to have him be thrown out at home.
“That man is an ee-dee-ot, me son,” he’d blurt in his harshest West Indian–ese. “Fire his damn ass right now!”
My dad loved irascible Yankees owner George Steinbrenner precisely because of that: George had my dad’s impatience and fired anybody for the slightest reason.
Yet while my dad taught me about baseball and how to analyze the game, he indirectly taught me, without ever knowing it, things that I would use to my advantage throughout my career — things I use to this day.
He taught me that listening to what someone else wants could be a quick way to turn a foe into a friend. He taught me to develop a passion for what I do and never to be apologetic about it. And most of all —and this was absolutely not his intent — he taught me to recognize and appreciate the benefits of criticism, instead of folding to it.
Knowing that my father once considered me a lost cause and said as much to my mother, I could have avoided him and given up. He really was a damn bastard at times. But instead, I embraced the challenge of simply being around him, inhaling and dissecting what he said about me, and then figuring out ways to make those unforgettable words he once said to my mother as meaningless to me as possible. I’d have many tough editors and producers at newspapers and in TV during the years that followed, but never anyone as brutal as he was.
It took months of sitting in front of him, absorbing his looks of discontent and disappointment, but the longer I looked, the easier it got. Eventually, I began to challenge his opinions instead of challenging the very legitimacy of his having an opinion at all. The result: as I approached my sixteenth birthday, my father wanted to talk to me more, not less, and I wanted to listen more so that I could respond. I was put- ting myself in the lion’s den that was him, to help me sharpen myself and everything that I wanted to be. I was gathering intel about sports and life, even if he didn’t know that that’s what I was getting out of it.
Absorbing my father’s criticism and being able to take it constructively made me feel better about myself, which made me better at everything I did. It made me grow and feel more confident in verbalizing what I had studied and learned, which was incredibly important, because now the possibility of a college education was no longer merely a fantasy. This self-imposed learning I had undertaken with my father was allowing me to dream about one day being anything or anyone I might want to be, envisioning possibilities for myself I had never envisioned before. I became open to any and all possibilities, excluding one: becoming like him.
Yep! We finally reached a point where he would test me by asking what I had seen as we were watching a game — the equivalent of those reading-comprehension tests that once determined whether I could move on to the next grade. But I wasn’t fazed. I was a teenager now. I knew how to read now. And I had a passion for what I was learning, because it was sports. So, to me, my father was no longer intimidating at all, no matter how intimidating he tried to be.
I would watch the games intently, study the highlights, pinpoint what mattered most to him. Eventually, my father went from trusting my evaluations and soliciting my opinion to simply conceding that I knew more than he did about certain sports-related particulars. He made this concession because I actually watched more games than he did. He had come not only to depend on me but to respect me.
That’s as good as I ever got from him. Over the years that followed, right up until he passed away in 2018, my dad never called me once to ask about college, to check up on my career, nor to inquire about my personal life, even after my daughters were born.
Sports was the whole of our conversational relationship. If we didn’t talk sports, we didn’t talk at all.
And that appeared to be okay with him.
Before my sixteenth birthday, it was perfectly okay with me too.
From the forthcoming book STRAIGHT SHOOTER: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes by Stephen A. Smith. Copyright © 2023 by Stephen A. Smith. Published by 13A/Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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