Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Stephen A. Smith returned to ESPN earlier this month in what seemed a surprisingly modest role, given his resume: early evening radio shifts in New York and Los Angeles, and contributing to ESPN.com.

No worries. He said he is happy to be back and happy with the role.

Well . . . for now, that is.

"You know me," he said, getting warmed up for a bit of vintage Stephen A. "This is just the beginning. I don't plan on stopping. I'm just getting started.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a resurrection, and I'm coming back with serious business on my mind."

Sometimes it is difficult to tell with Smith what is serious and what is shtick, but he certainly sounded sincere.

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The timing of his return has been fortuitous. The NBA long has been his specialty, and his blunt thoughts on timely subjects such as Donnie Walsh and Isiah Thomas have made him a go-to guy for Knicks-related opining.

But as he said, he views this phase as a mere transition to a larger media profile, the kind he had in the mid-2000s when he was a rising star at the network.

"I anticipate anything I do is going to be short term in terms of limitations," he said. "I go for it all and I try to be the best at what I do."

Smith left ESPN in 2009, unable to reach an agreement on a new contract and interested in stretching himself with, among other things, political commentary on cable news channels.

He even appeared on ABC's "The View" and taped a pilot for a late-night program on Showtime. (He kept his hand in sports on Fox Sports Radio.)

By the time he left ESPN, his low-rated TV talk show, "Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith," had been off the air for two years.

The timing seemed right to try something new. He said he feared that if he remained at ESPN for another five or 10 years, he would be typecast, and "had an itch to diversify my portfolio" outside sports.

"I wanted to whet my appetite to see what other things I could do to exercise my skill set," he said. "The longer I was gone, the more I missed it.

"They certainly didn't have to bring me back. They were going to be fine without me."

Smith had stayed in touch with ESPN decision-makers, notably executive VP Norby Williamson. The network offered a road back through its local radio stations and websites in the nation's two biggest markets.

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(He spends time in both Los Angeles and New York, where he grew up in Hollis, Queens.)

Smith is in no rush to expand his current slate. He said his 7 to 9 p.m. shift on 1050 ESPN - where he had been a regular from 2005-08 - is a good fit. But the station has juggled its schedule regularly in the past, so it is possible he could land in an earlier slot eventually.

As for returning to a larger, regular role on television, his deal with Showtime is believed to limit what he can do for now.

Smith, 43, said that despite his jagged professional path, he mostly is the same guy who was a hot ESPN property several years ago.

"I haven't changed,'' he said. "But I've grown. I've matured. I've learned."