Longform

The Quiet Man

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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.

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T.R. Witcher