Longform

The Quiet Man

Page 6 of 6

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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T.R. Witcher