When anchor Hannah Storm announced during the 9 a.m. hour of “SportsCenter” that longtime ESPN personality Stuart Scott had died Sunday morning after a long battle with cancer, her poignant words, delivered while fighting back tears, were the first confirmation his colleagues were not prepared to say goodbye even as the network had prepared a goodbye.
“Those of us here at ESPN fortunate enough to work with Stuart saw how he lived,’’ said Storm. “And in the past seven years, as he fought cancer, we saw why he lived. For his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And so today we choose not to say that Stuart lost to cancer at the age of 49. Instead, we’ll simply say we all lost Stuart.”
It was fitting that the sad news was delivered on “SportsCenter.” That was the program upon which Scott made his name in the ’90s by coining such lasting catchphrases as “cool as the other side of the pillow” and “booyah!’’ which served as punctuation on a particularly impressive highlight.
What was impressive, and perhaps a little jarring too, is that ESPN had Scott highlights ready to go Sunday morning in the form of a 15-minute tribute narrated by Robin Roberts, a cancer survivor and longtime colleague.
The segment, which served as a bridge into the network’s “Postseason NFL Countdown” program, featured anecdotes and recollections from friends and peers, a tribute to a life well lived. But it must have been strange for them to record such a farewell and to speak of Scott in the past tense before he was gone.
Scott received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2014 ESPYs in July, delivering a heartwarming and heartbreaking speech that will be remembered longer than any of his catchphrases. But his recent prolonged absence from ESPN — his employer for 22 years — and an unexpected tribute during “Monday Night Countdown” led by anchor Suzy Kolber in early December, might have been interpreted as harbingers for Sunday’s news.
Perhaps the warmest tribute came from someone who no longer works at ESPN. Rich Eisen has been the lead anchor on the NFL Network since 2003. But he made his name as a “SportsCenter” anchor, often working alongside Scott on the popular 11 p.m. edition.
“Stuart was one of the most joyful, full-of-life individuals I have come across,” said Eisen on the air Sunday, minutes after receiving the news. “He lived his life the way his parents wanted him to live it. He broadcast the same way. A groundbreaking broadcaster in the world of sports television. I love this man. I still love this man.”
During his 2½-minute tribute, Eisen made mention of “even those who hated on [Scott]. Because he thrived on it.” It was an interesting acknowledgment, because while Scott imitated no one and a generation imitated him, an indication of true originality, he did have his share of detractors.
Some criticisms were just. His slam-poetry phase in introducing a highlight was more indulgent than innovative. And he could be shameless in ingratiating himself to players, as evidenced most embarrassingly by his forget-those-guys embrace of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after a tense line of questioning before Super Bowl XXXV.
There was some drifting into hyperbole during Sunday’s tributes — “Countdown” host Chris Berman said, “Stuart made ESPN what it is,” in an otherwise lucid and genuine homage — but the urge to exaggerate is understandable in sad circumstances. And the impact of Scott’s career was overwhelmingly evident on social media. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Jon Lester (“@stuartscott you will always be as cool as the other side of the pillow my man,’’ the Cubs pitcher and cancer survivor tweeted) were among those prominent in the sports world to pay homage.
But it was the words of his peers that had the most impact, particularly on “Postseason NFL Countdown.” The show features Berman and the panel of Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, and Keyshawn Johnson, longtime colleagues and, in some cases, confidantes of Scott.
Their collective grief for and appreciation of Scott were palpable.
“I’m sure he would want us to remember him for his passion and above all for his dignity,’’ said Berman. “So we will. We love you, Stu.”
“He was a role model for me. He talked on ‘SportsCenter’ like me and my friends talked,’’ said Carter.
Johnson remembered the advice Scott gave him when he joined ESPN. “[He told me] don’t change who I was. Be exactly who I was supposed to be. Looking at him, knowing that he was able to bring that hip-hop culture, that urban feel, to television sports broadcasting, something that’s never been done before, gave me the hope that I didn’t have to be some corporate guy in a white shirt and red tie and sit there and talk a certain way.”
Johnson paused, wiping away tears.
“I’m trying to find words,” he said.
“You did it,’’ said Berman. “You all did it.”