The Quiet Man
It's Tuesday morning, and Thierry Smith, Denver's most unlikely radio sports-talk host, is on the air. Sporting a yellow polo shirt and seated in the motorized scooter he's been forced into by multiple sclerosis, he moves across a variety of subjects. Surgery on John Elway's arm. ("Just maintenance. Nothing to be concerned about.") Last night's Sonics-Bulls basketball game. ("It's rare you see a great game in the regular season.") Final Four predictions. (No mention of Arizona.)
Smith just set up shop a few weeks ago at KKFN-AM/950, the Fan, bringing his "Sports Rap" show back to the media mainstream after three years at tiny, black-owned KDKO-AM/1510. Many of the callers are regulars who have followed him over from KDKO, where his battle with MS forced him to broadcast out of his back bedroom. And unlike other talk shows in town, the program is more about them than it is about the host, their angry exuberance standing in marked contrast to Smith's own measured, monotone sound.
Take, for example, a caller named Quentin, or Q, who calls up to taunt Smith about Dikembe Mutombo's departure from the Denver Nuggets (Q was glad to see him go). In mid-call, Q switches gears and begins to rail about Scottie Pippen's performance in a recent Bulls loss to the New York Knicks.
"Scottie Pippen one of the top 50 players of all time? How can you be a top 50 player with four field goals?" he asks, rapid-fire and bothered.
"Well..." says Smith, taking time to consider the question. "He takes the pressure off of Michael."
"How can you take the pressure off with eleven points?" demands Q. "To put him on the list and not Dennis Rodman is a travesty of the sport."
"Thanks for calling, Q."
Q is a typical caller to Smith's show: more opinionated and mad about something than the 43-year-old host himself. Smith has strong thoughts on Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, but those are off the record. He's got gossip, but he delivers it off the air: "You know what happened in Dallas, right?" he asks, referring to the breakup of a Mavericks basketball team loaded with young stars like Jimmy Jackson and Jason Kidd. "Toni Braxton! They both wanted her. They stopped passing to each other. She shook up an entire franchise."
Smith is a riddle. He's a black talk-show host whose racially charged comments once got him forced him off the air and led him to file a civil-rights lawsuit against his former employer, yet most of the time he operates with a laidback style that would seem to be anathema in today's high-energy radio market.
"Personally, he's probably a little too nice of a person," says Billy Scott, a friend of Smith's. "I'd like to see him be a little more dramatic when the situation calls for it, instead of saying, 'Oh, boy.' But what he does do is create permanent loyalty among his listeners, advertisers and athletes. He has the reputation of not slamming people for the sake of drama."
Smith's voice is slow and dreamy--some would say boring. He is given to long pauses, and his inflections generally don't go beyond a slight raising of his voice at the end of a sentence. It's a low-key seriousness that calls to mind the studied self-absorption of TV anchor Bryant Gumbel. But Smith's methodical nature is born of something else: the ravages of MS, a mysterious and incurable disease that has given his life both definition and limitation.
He works in an industry where "playing in pain" is a badge of honor and hours are spent discussing other people's sprained ankles. But Smith never talks about his disease on the air. Few of his listeners realize the once-promising athlete has lost the use of his legs.
"Nothing I can sense tells me it's coming," Smith says of MS, which attacks the central nervous system, blinding some, crippling others. When attacks come, "they feel like I've put my finger in a socket," he says.
"He goes down for two or three days and he just can't do anything," notes friend Darrell Elliott. "He never wants it to be an inconvenience to others." Smith feels weak for days on end after an attack. His mind often draws blanks. He goes to work anyway.
"There were stages where I wondered whether physically I could do it," he says. "There are days and weeks where I have to fight through."
Smith has fought through for years, despite a career marked as much for its setbacks as for its successes. Back problems wrecked his athletic aspirations at East High School, forcing the gifted basketball player into the role of team trainer and equipment manager. A car crash during those high-school days almost killed him. A few years later he was stricken by MS.
Smith gets around with the help of his scooter and his wife of twenty years, Diana, who bathes him and helps him get dressed in the morning. He describes his scooter as a "hindrance," though he says he's not complaining. "When there's a media crush, [the Americans With Disabilities Act] won't help me get access to a person," he notes. "Sometimes there's so many people and so many cords."
Mostly, though, Smith's struggle has been about keeping himself on the air for so many years, despite low ratings and an industry more renowned for blue-collar Lous from Littleton or over-the-top shock jocks who make a living from provocation. "Now it's, 'I'd rather have somebody that's loud and people will pay attention,'" says veteran Denver sportscaster Sandy Clough, who was once known for his abrasive, phone-slamming style but has now mellowed to the point that it seems logical for him to follow Smith's 10 a.m.-to-noon slot on the Fan. "Thierry's been able to survive through a period of change. People who follow him tend to be very loyal."
No one else but venerable Denver sports-talk hosts Irv Brown and Joe Williams survived "the lean years" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, says Paul Walker, a communications instructor at the University of Colorado and sports-radio buff. "Six, seven years ago this market was awful, a dead zone for sports-talk radio. I don't think Thierry has to take a backseat to anyone."
Smith has worked in local sports radio since 1981, first at KDKO, then at KYBG ("K-Big"), then back to KDKO, and now at the Fan. Sixteen years, he admits, "is an unusual period for anyone to survive in this business."
He has survived largely by making the high-school sports scene his niche. And he has survived by carefully playing off his racial identity. He knows when to turn it off and when to turn it on. He remains the only black voice in Denver sports radio, where, as Clough notes, "the people making the decisions are primarily white.
"If he weren't black, he'd still be a legitimate figure on the scene," adds Clough. But Smith thinks it was being black that got him into trouble at K-Big.
The trouble started in the fall of 1990, when Smith made a big deal of becoming a Raiders fan after the team hired the first black head coach in the NFL, Art Shell. Though the announcement angered some callers, in reality the stunt was as much about provoking controversy--Smith's partner at the time was ex-Broncos linebacker Jim Ryan--as it was a political statement.
"That was all about entertainment," Smith says today. "You'd call rooting for another team, and we'd ambush you. I knew it was going to be somewhat of a shock. Even Ryan's mouth dropped open at first, but then he caught on."
Smith's comments, however, didn't sit well with station manager Ron Jamison, who allegedly wanted Smith to tone down the "black" commentary.
"I just think Ron, when he hired Thierry, was looking for someone who just happened to be black but was the same as Irv Brown or Joe Williams," says Billy Scott, referring to Brown's and Williams's play-it-safe style on race issues. "He was instructed not to mention any racial issues, no matter how legitimate or current."
"They felt good about hiring this black talk-show host," adds Smith, "but they didn't realize what came with that--more minority callers, minority issues. It wasn't something I discouraged callers from."
Jamison, Smith suggested in a lawsuit filed in May 1994, was opposed to the "Sports Rap" title of the show and dismayed at the high number of black callers. Though constrained by a confidentiality clause signed when the case was settled this past summer, Smith says he was targeted for making innocuous comments that were misunderstood.
During UNLV's trip to Denver for the NCAA basketball championship in 1990, for example, Smith made an on-air remark about the dearth of black cheerleaders for the Vegas squad. "The Vegas cheerleaders were like clones, all blond and blue-eyed," he recalls. "I said it would have been nice to have a minority girl, and--boom!--here comes a memo."
The memos came often, he says, "berating you every day for comments you thought were innocent. It got to where I was paranoid. I never thought of myself as a racist."
The following May, Smith had been moved from his daytime post to a nighttime slot. By the summer, he was off the air, assigned to do community-relations work for the station. The following year he resigned. Roughly two years later, in May 1994, Smith filed suit in federal court against KYBG and Jamison. (Jamison, now out of the radio business and running a Quizno's sandwich shop, declines to discuss the case, citing the confidentiality agreement.)
Smith argued in court that Jamison was out to get him. But radio consultant Jack Fitzgerald, who had been hired by the since-sold station to study ways of making it more profitable, says that "Jamison did what was best for the station. If people would get away from emotion and look at the performance, it wasn't there," notes Fitzgerald. "I don't think Thierry set the world on fire with the ratings there."
In court documents, Fitzgerald was more forthcoming in his opinion of Smith's on-air style: "He sounded terrible. In five years of familiarity with his on-air work, I have detected no improvement in his performance."
In fact, during his stint at K-Big, Smith followed what has been a familiar pattern for him, posting steady but unspectacular ratings that provided him with little job security. And his battle with the station took its toll. "His health deteriorated significantly while he was at K-Big," says Smith's 23-year-old daughter, Dasha, a law student at the University of Virginia. (The Smiths also have a 20-year-old son, Damon.) "It had to do with the stress there. It's hard for a public figure to come out and say, 'I was a victim.' It was hard for my father."
The Art Shell incident points at the tightrope Smith walks between being too provocative and not being provocative enough. "He gets it from both ends," says Clough. "There are folks who tend to attribute an agenda to someone who is going in a slightly different direction, and there are those who would like him to be louder, more outspoken and more flamboyant. His way has tended to be more thoughtful, tended to bring people into the program."
"What would you do if you were in Chauncey's shoes?" Smith is asking his listeners today from the KFAN studio in east Denver, where the walls are lined with sports almanacs and ESPN's SportsCenter airs on TV screens that hang from the ceiling. "Would you go? Would you stay? What would you do?"
Dred from Denver calls in a short while later to urge Chauncey Billups, the CU basketball star, to head for the NBA. Most of the callers, though, want to know what Smith thinks. After all, Thierry Smith went to high school with Billups's parents; Smith was telling people to "watch out" for Billups when the kid was twelve years old and no one else had ever heard of him.
But the host, who admits he's more complacent personality than curious reporter, evades the question. "I spoke to Chauncey yesterday," he tells one caller, "but I didn't ask him, 'Man, what are you going to do?' Give him some breathing room." (Billups opted for the NBA.)
Thierry Smith was born in Paris, the son of a black American serviceman and a Swiss translator. His father, Lauren, was a Denver native who studied in Switzerland after serving in Europe during World War II. There he met Smith's mother, May, and the two moved to Denver in 1955. The boy took after his mother: "He wanted to talk about everything," says May, who worked as a librarian at the University of Denver before retiring.
Smith grew up in a home north of City Park, where his parents still live. But while that may explain his interest in local sports, it doesn't explain his prescience in spotting talent. About ten years ago he spotted a young Nikki Weddle--this year's star of the Montbello girls' basketball team and a Colorado Athlete of the Year--performing during halftime exhibitions at charity games. "She must have been seven or eight," Smith recalls. "You knew she was special. She'd be playing ball somewhere."
Smith brings athletes on to his show who get few other shots at the limelight. In addition to Billups and Weddle, he's invited Aspen Burkett, a track star from East who just missed the Olympic team last summer and who everyone else in town just plain missed. "It was no big deal to have her on, other than no one else did," says Smith. "Not enough attention is paid to high-school sports in this state."
Smith's local contacts run deep. Early last month, when Denver boxer Stevie Johnson won the WBC lightweight championship in Paris, he called Smith first. When Louie Wright, former wide receiver phenom for the Broncos, quit training camp in 1987, the only interview he gave the press was with Smith.
And at times, Smith's handicap has helped him gain access to sports figures. "Fight Doctor" Freddie Pacheco did his only show in Denver with Smith during a visit last year because Pacheco's daughter also has MS. Even NBA prodigal son Dennis Rodman, at the time with the San Antonio Spurs, appeared to be touched by Smith's condition.
"Rodman had just seen Commissioner Stern that day--that's what got me to go," recalls Smith. "I'm in the hallway of McNichols--Rodman wasn't talking to the press. He came out to use the phone and I figured, 'What the hell?' I went up to Rodman and asked for a couple comments." Rodman agreed, and after he got off the phone, the two began to talk. Immediately, other reporters crowded around. "'Get away,'" Smith recalls Rodman saying. "I'm only talking to him.'"
After the interview was finished, Smith tried to play the tape of the interview back for the other reporters, only to discover he had forgotten to release the pause button on his tape recorder. It was too embarrassing to tell the truth about what happened, he says, "so I walked into the locker room and blamed it on my machine: 'Dennis, my recorder fucked up--would you do that again with me?' And Rodman said it'd be no problem. I felt maybe it was the handicap."
An interview with another star--Magic Johnson, who had recently announced he was HIV-positive--allowed Smith to gain perspective on his own disease. "From that point on," Scott says, "Thierry figured his problem wasn't anywhere as big as it could be. We went out that night, and there was no thought of disadvantage or pessimism."
Smith's scooter fits neatly into the back of his Mitsubishi station wagon, but getting it there can be an ordeal. First he must move himself off the scooter and onto the front seat of the car, which is equipped with metal control rods so that Smith can drive with his hands. Then someone else has to lift the scooter into the car using a winch. Today the detachable seat won't come off the scooter without a fight, and the winch inexplicably moves up when it's supposed to move down, and vice versa. It takes three people to figure out what's wrong. Smith, meanwhile, sits helpless though unfazed in the front seat.
"I can see the joke going around the office now," says KFAN sales manager Larry Nettingham, who has just pulled into the station parking lot. "How many brothers does it take to get a scooter in the back of this car?"
Even as a young boy who loved riding his bicycle and playing ball in the alleys of north Denver, Thierry had to battle growing health problems. Asthma gave way to back problems, which forced him off the basketball court and onto the sidelines after his sophomore year at East, where he managed and worked as a trainer and equipment manager for several of the school's athletic teams. "I was the man," he says. "I had the keys to everything."
On the eve of East's 1971 title run in boys' basketball, Smith's senior year in high school, he almost lost everything. He and two buddies were driving west on Thirteenth Avenue when their car was hit on the passenger side by a car heading south. Smith was riding shotgun, and he doesn't remember much about what happened. Neither he nor his mother can recall exactly how long he was in the hospital, but they say three to four weeks sounds right. Smith suffered double vision, a broken nose, a broken cheekbone and a severe concussion.
All he remembers is the other driver: "She was really upset about a cake or something." Shortly after he recovered, his beloved basketball team was upset in the state finals.
These days Smith wonders whether the crash led to his MS. "Colorado has a real high incidence of multiple sclerosis," he explains matter-of-factly, "and folks who've sustained prior head damage are also more susceptible."
In the years between the accident and the onset of the disease in the mid-1970s, Smith began seeing Diana. The couple met for the first time at an East football game his freshman year at DU, while she was still in high school. But Diana remembers seeing him a few years earlier at a Homecoming-like assembly called Color Day. Smith was one of the candidates for Color Day King, and she says she knew then that "that was the person I would end up marrying. I didn't know his name; I didn't know anything about him." They finally did marry in 1977, after Damon was born.
After graduating from DU with a degree in communications, Smith set his sites on a job in the media. He worked for a brief time at a youth-services center in northeast Denver. Then in 1981, after an internship at Channel 7, he was offered the job of sports director at KDKO, the black-owned station that struggles to survive against the big boys of local radio.
"I never thought I'd get the job," he says. As sports director, he was a one-man show, writing and airing seven broadcasts a day, covering press conferences and going to games. He didn't get into talk radio until the mid-1980s, when he had to fill in unexpectedly for a KDKO talk-show host who couldn't make it into the studio. Looking to create a show similar to Clough's Broncos post-game session on KOA, Smith started "Broncos Rap" in 1985. A few years later he expanded it to "Sports Rap." Hosts have come and gone, but the show has basically remained the same.
Shortly after going to work at KDKO, Smith also began a business partnership with Diana, who already worked in marketing for another local station. She sold ad time on his show and wrote the copy herself, and profits began to roll in. Soon after, K-Big officials came calling, hoping the Smiths could work the same magic for them. They made the jump to K-Big in 1987, and before long "we had sponsors clamoring to get on," Smith recalls. "They wanted me on board 'cause they were letting too much money get away."
But even as Smith and his callers found a steady rhythm of give and take, MS was destroying his body. His hands and feet became numb and tingly. "It was difficult for him to admit it," Lauren Smith, Thierry's father, says. "He probably should have had a wheelchair a lot sooner."
Smith at first tried to deny the reality of what was happening to him. "But people around you, you're scaring them to death," he says. An avid cyclist and ballplayer, he was generally able to keep active through the 1980s. But gradually he ran out of space to run.
Soon he was holding on to walls and using friends as crutches, all as inconspicuously as possible. "What would happen is, we'd be walking from the car to a door to an office, and one of his legs would just almost give out," says Scott. "He'd have to hold on to me. It didn't happen every day--just once in a while. He was very good at hiding it."
The disease struck just as Smith was finally getting a taste of the success that had so far passed him by. His Broncos show was popular among players and fans. "He attracted a lot of players," says Scott. "Players started coming over to his house. His popularity skyrocketed. When [former San Diego Chargers tight end] Kellen Winslow was in town, he invited Thierry out to dinner."
When MS finally put him in a wheelchair, it hit hard. "They didn't expect to do any good with this radio deal," remembers Billy Scott. "None of the DJs ever made any money at KDKO. All of a sudden he got all this notoriety, all of a sudden he was going out eating free dinners all the time, being wined and dined by everybody, then all of a sudden he's handicapped."
Smith's move to the wheelchair full-time in 1991 coincided with his twentieth high-school reunion, an event he says "I wasn't planning on going to. No way I was going in front of all my high-school friends in a wheelchair."
Friends finally coaxed him into coming, but the normally gregarious Smith was "apprehensive," recalls Diana. "Everyone knew him, heard him on the radio," she says, but he "isolated himself" at the event, staying in another room as the class assembled at night's end for a group photo.
"Everyone started gathering, ending conversations," remembers Graylon Cole, a classmate and friend of Smith's. "I said, 'Come on over, Thierry,' and he said no. So you kind of respected his decision. But just before they snapped the picture, a group of us said, 'Let's not snap this picture yet.'"
Cole and several other classmates went into the next room and retrieved the sports host, picking him up in his wheelchair and carrying him onto the stage. "He was like 'No, you guys,' and we were like, 'Oh, yeah, you're part of us,'" Cole says. "We sat him at the end of the picture, and everyone just clapped. There were about a hundred of us in the picture, and everyone felt this brotherhood."
The stoic Smith doesn't like to talk about that moment. But, he admits, "It was pretty emotional."
Despite the acceptance from his old classmates, MS was making his radio job tough. "At first it was difficult," says Lauren. "People would elbow him away. Let's say he was going to a game. Black players would give him answers, but it took a long time for him to get respected."
Immediately after Smith quit K-Big in 1992, convinced he was on his way out anyway, he returned to KDKO, working out of a home "studio" that consisted of two phone lines run into his bedroom by old high school buddies. But though working at home was convenient, the isolation and lack of technical support started to drag him down. His old friend Larry Nettingham, who had worked with Smith at K-Big, was sales manager at The Fan, and he pursued Smith for about a year, eager to add a black host to the station's all-white lineup. "As far as knowledge, here's a guy who taught himself all the sports," Nettingham says. "He's made himself."
Smith started working last month at the Fan, where he says his decision to broadcast from the station's studio, and not his bedroom, "has helped my health." But though Smith seems to accept MS without complaint, friends and family suggest the real burden has been shouldered by Diana. "She didn't ask for all this," Scott says. "It's taken a toll on her. She stays out of the way. She's written every ad he's ever done. She's put up with a lot of shit, make no mistake about it."
Diana says the divorce rate for couples with a spouse stricken by MS hovers around 95 percent. "I've screamed and hollered in my own private moments," Diana admits. "'Don't want to deal with it today.' You just have to learn to accept it. You have no control over MS. It's unlike cancer, you know, where something out there is either going to make you better, or you have a short period of time on this earth. You have to figure out what you do have control over."
There are times when he feels he is about to fall into depression, Smith says. "You can't succumb to it. You have to force your way through that stage." He takes medication to combat the stiffness in his legs, and he hopes the disease will be content with his legs alone.
Perhaps fittingly, Smith's favorite athlete is Muhammad Ali, a man who also has retained his dignity in the face of daunting health problems. His next picks are, he says, "a notch below." There's Arthur Ashe ("He was all about character"), Jim Brown, Doctor J ("What Jordan does now, the Doc invented") and--in a somewhat conciliatory gesture to the mainstream--the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
Paul Walker still remembers the day he heard Thierry Smith speak about Ali--it was, he says, one of the finest sports commentaries he's ever heard. Walker was driving in his car, though he can no longer remember where he was going. "Thierry was talking about Ali, not as a fighter anymore, but Ali as a man and all that he brought to sports and fighting and all he eventually gave up," says Walker. "I remember being so engrossed by it I almost forgot about driving. It just captivated me, the way he spoke of Ali, because it was unexpected. It was almost a tribute."
Walker didn't know at the time that Smith had MS; he was only aware that Smith was sick with something. At the time, nobody knew Ali had Parkinson's Disease, either. But Smith was talking about Ali's last three bouts, when people knew he had lost a few steps but didn't know why.
"His focus and sincerity talking about Ali was so genuine that I don't think he was trying to reflect on his own situation at all," says Walker, in retrospect. "He was trying to come to grips with such a great champion who had fallen.
"He can see the humanness of sports because of what's happened to him," Walker adds. "That side of the story needs to be told more.
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