News Sunday of Stuart Scott’s death — only 49 years old, after a seven-year bout with cancer — led to many wonderful tributes to his legacy. Having never met him, we’ll leave the universal platitudes about his work ethic and devotion to family to others who knew him very well. They are surely well-earned, as are the words about how gracefully and ferociously he battled an awful disease.
My experience with Scott is through the TV — similar to that of millions of others who, like me, came of age as sports fans just as he and his cohorts at ESPN were changing all the rules about sports highlights.
As a young sports fan in the 1990s, there was nothing more magical than ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” There was a giddy thrill as soon as the theme music came on. There was anticipation — leading to varying levels of excitement, and very seldom a letdown — over which anchors would be hosting that night.
It was, in short, appointment viewing. It wasn’t just the sports highlights, it was sports personalities. I remember rushing from Target Center the first time the Wolves defeated the Bulls — Dec. 30, 1997, history tells me, which means I had turned 21 just a couple of months earlier — to catch the 10 p.m. SportsCenter. Sure, the highlights were important. But more important was what the anchors were going to say about the Timberwolves.
Scott was at the forefront of that generation of “SportsCenter” anchors. While it would be untruthful to say he was my favorite — the dream pairing of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick was always the hope — the dynamic Scott, often paired with Rich Eisen, was an unmistakable force in those early days as well.
His trademark phrases like, “Boo-Yah!” and “As cool as the other side of the pillow” were pieces of the overall “SportsCenter” puzzle, making it great. He worked hip-hop lyrics into sports highlights — a huge risk, in retrospect — all the while seemingly reminding us that this isn’t hard news. It’s sports. Sports are supposed to be fun.
Roughly 20 years after the rise to prominence of Scott and others, sometimes that notion of fun is forgotten. Sports were big business even in the 1990s, but now there’s so much more at stake. A contract for $30 million used to be a huge deal; now $300 million is the jaw-dropping number, and so much of it is fueled by TV money.
If “SportsCenter” used to feel like MTV for sports, these days it can feel like CNN for sports — talking heads endlessly debating the same five recycled topics of the day, often accompanied by hand-wringing over moral decay.
But this isn’t a time to lament; rather, it’s a time to remember. “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer,” Scott said in July. “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
Scott started on the ground floor of something undeniably special, and that’s something we should never forget.