by Lang Whitaker

A few years ago, I wrote something on The Links about my previous experience dealing with ESPN. In essence, they were launching a morning show called Cold Pizza and they wanted to test me out as their video game reviewer. I presented them with a bunch of ideas, came in and did an on-camera test, and then they had me do several practice shows. We eventually parted ways before the show debuted, however, when they told me that I should be arguing more with my co-reviewer, and I didn’t really want to be on TV arguing with people, especially about video games.

That was in 2003, and in the next few years that whole arguing schtick invaded everything on ESPN. They had writers arguing on, analysts going at it on SportsCenter. I suppose the thought was if they can’t entertain us with things like humor, logic, insight and knowledge, they might as well just scream a lot.

The Big Lead — which, incidentally, is a great blog — recently had a post about the end of the NBA Shootaround team. They report that John Saunders, Stephen A., Tim Legler and Greg Anthony are all being booted in favor of Dan Patrick, Mark Jackson and Mike Wilbon.

(That isn’t to say all their info is correct — their post also insinuates that Scoop was writing about the US Open as a part of a fundamental shift in ESPN’s corporate philosophy. But actually, Scoop has always loved tennis and has attended the US Open for years.)

Word broke today that ESPN is thinking of using Allan Houston next season as part of their coverage, which would be another step in the right direction. Those of us who’ve interviewed Allan know him as thoughtful and well-spoken. He’s not particularly outspoken or incendiary, but that seems to be the way ESPN is attempting to nudge their coverage. And this is a good thing.

Which brings us to Stephen A. Smith. Several years ago, Stephen A. was ESPN’s ace NBA analyst, full of bluster and bravado. Remember how when there was any sort of breaking NBA news, SportsCenter would lead with a remote from Stephen A., who would answer their simple questions disdainfully while the anchors appeared to be terrified? Stephen A. became something of a star on ESPN, popping up all over the airwaves and becoming an integral part of their NBA coverage.

But then they launched his talk show, Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith, which was introduced with quite a clamor of publicity, and then promptly buried at 11:00 p.m. on ESPN2, a time slot not known for launching legends. I hadn’t watched Quite Frankly in months, until I caught a few minutes of a show earlier this week. It began with a cold opening, as Stephen A. screamed about Jason Giambi and A-Rod. I was laid out on the couch, fighting off sleep, and suddenly he was screaming at me. So I changed the channel in panic.

I eventually changed it back and watched as Stephen A. interviewed Ryan Howard. As a talk show host, Stephen A. isn’t bad, though his questions were rambling and wordy and several questions weren’t even really questions. His show isn’t horrible, but it’s not really great either.

I think we all agree that Stephen A.’s finest work on ESPN was as a talking head, where he found a role and played it to the hilt. During this year’s NBA Draft, for example, it was pretty obvious that Stephen A. hadn’t had time to research every single guy in the Draft, but he was the most magnetic presence on ESPN’s telecast because he knew how to present himself in a way guaranteed to create opinions, one way or another. I might not always agree with him, but at least I listened to him and had a reaction (generally visceral).

The problem with ESPN’s NBA coverage was that everyone thought they had to be like Stephen A. The reason Charles Barkley works on TNT — besides the fact that he’s genuinely funny — is that Chuck is the lone wild card. If Ernie, Kenny and Chuck were all trying to yell and be funny all the time, it would be unwatchable. If ESPN is really going to bring in Dan Patrick, Wilbon and Mark Jackson, I’d love to see Stephen A. in with those guys, who would let him do his thing and then call him on it when he goes too far.

I don’t know what the long-term future of Quite Frankly is going to be, but I hope Stephen A. stays on TV for a while, one way or another. Hey, maybe competing on Dancing With The Stars isn’t such a bad idea. Tom Bergeron would never know what hit him.