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.