For a sizable stretch of Stuart Scott’s 22 years at ESPN, his place in the sports network’s lore could be narrowed to one contribution above all others. His legacy was in the lexicon.
Scott’s talent for coming up with catchphrases that stuck with the audience was established not long after he joined ESPN2 for its launch in 1993.
If you remember that far back, you’ll recall that in its television infancy, ESPN2 — or espn2 — attempted to be an edgier version of ESPN. It went about this by doing such goofy things as using lower-case lettering on its graphics and putting host Keith Olbermann in a leather jacket. Eventually — thankfully –it shed the faux-cool and morphed into an extension of the parent network.
But in that fledgling phase, espn2 found future stars such as Suzy Kolber and Scott, the latter of whom became one of the featured anchors on SportsCenter. His creatively coined catchphrases such as “cooler than the other side of the pillow,” “call me butter because I’m on a roll” and the ubiquitous “boo-yeah!” as punctuation on a particularly impressive highlight made him a star during the highlight program’s ’90s heyday.
Scott’s fame and profile only grew through the years — he became an on-site anchor for various high-profile ESPN programs, particularly the NBA Finals and its NFL coverage. And for sports fans of a certain generation, his voice, or imitations of his narration, became the soundtrack for countless Wiffle ball games and basketball battles in the driveway. A broadcaster cannot receive much higher tributes than that.
Sure, Scott had his flaws — the slam-poetry phase seemed more indulgent than innovative. But he imitated no one, and a generation imitated him. Isn’t that the definition of an original?
Scott, who died Sunday at age 49 after a long battle with cancer, had a career to envy. Had his legacy only been those catchphrases he shared with us during those various high-profile gigs, it would have been a career well worthy of warm acknowledgement and retrospective on the day of his passing.
But as he allowed us to discover in recent years as he fought cancer through his original diagnosis in 2007 and recurrences in 2011 and 2013, there was so much more to the man beyond what we saw and heard as he narrated our sports highlights weeknight after weeknight.
Scott fought his cancer privately, and yet with remarkable candor too. A profile written by Richard Sandomir in the New York Times in March pulled back the curtain on Scott’s fight — and the incredible strength he summoned to fight — as well as the depth of his acknowledgments and denials in what he was facing.
After that article ran, we felt like we knew him better than television ever allowed. We knew that he was a doting dad to his two teen-aged daughters, Taelor and Sydni. We knew his peers’ respect and love for him was overwhelming and universal. We knew he was somehow engaging himself in mixed-martial arts training at the same time he was undergoing chemotherapy.
When he would not appear on SportsCenter for a while, you noticed, and you worried. You thought about him and what he was up against. You hoped for an optimistic update from one of his longtime colleagues such as Steve Levy, with whom Scott anchored the first program from SportsCenter’s new set early last year.
Mostly, you hoped to see him again soon. And when we did see him, looking gaunt and yet somehow as energetic as ever once the studio lights were on, you wondered how the hell he did it. Where does a man find that strength?
The night he answered those questions was the night his legacy changed.
The ESPY Awards are trite and trivial by nature, a celebration of sports and self-congratulations as funneled through the ESPN prism. But there have been moments of genuine, authentic emotion. Jim Valvano’s “Don’t ever give up” speech at the 1993 ESPYs as heartbreaking now as it was when delivered by the cancer-stricken former college basketball coach and analyst.
It’s a truly iconic moment, and one matched by Scott this past July 16 as he accepted an award named after Valvano.
Transcription of Scott’s words that night as he accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance will not do it justice. His love for his daughters, so apparent that night, gives us the truest measure of the man. The candor, pride and grace of Scott’s speech needs to be seen and heard, then seen and heard again.
There is one thing he said, however, that rattles around in my mind and maybe yours even without the accompanying video.
“When you die,” said Scott, the most poised man in the room that night, “it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
He sure had a knack for making words stick in our heads. Oh, sure, the catchphrases will last. But that quote — that is something else entirely. It’s the wisdom of a man who not only had a way with words, but had the heart and perspective to heed them. That is Stuart Scott’s truest legacy.