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Stuart Scott, in a word: Chutzpah

Stuart Scott's ESPY speech

Stuart Scott's ESPY speech

The first time I ever wrote about Stuart Scott, I used the word "chutzpah," because what else can you say about a guy who spends the final minute of the year in Times Square lecturing fans on national TV about booing athletes?

Yup, that was Stu, on Dec. 31, 2005, delivering a New Year's Eve message on ESPN arguing that in 2006, sports fans ought to be more understanding of their athletic heroes.

"There's no point in booing these athletes," Scott said. "They've all worked hard. They've all trained hard, and let's see you get out there and do it, all right?

"If you want to go and have fun and cheer your team, do that, but if your team, if your guy, if your girl doesn't do anything, c'mon, man, don't boo them."

As I said: chutzpah.

But nine years later, two things stand out about the incident, as absurd as Scott's sentiments seemed at the time.

First, they illustrated what you have heard and read about him since he died of cancer at 49 Sunday: That he was an unapologetic risk-taker and trailblazer who built his career on not saying or doing the conventional thing.

Second, that he had the courtesy and confidence to get on the phone and discuss his take with a brand-new sports media writer whom he knew was planning to roast him in the next day's newspaper.

Scott told me he decided only "five or six seconds" before he spoke on that New Year's Eve special what he would say, but he said it was an opinion he had held since childhood.

"I don't like booing," he said. "I don't see any point to it. I like cheering your team. I just think it's a classless thing to do . . . I just think the whole act of booing is just silly."

It was difficult to argue that booing is silly, even if it also is true that fans have every right to do it. But the larger point was and is that it was the sort of thing that made Scott who he was -- a singular character in sports TV history.

He did it his way, even when others were questioning whether he had lost his way.

The magnitude of the reaction to his death after a seven-year struggle with the disease illustrated the point.

It was extraordinary -- from viewers to his distraught colleagues to an array of current and former athletic superstars to moments of silence before NFL playoff games to condolences from President Barack Obama.

Part of it surely was a function of ESPN's unique relationship to sports fans. I recalled something the impressionist Frank Caliendo told me in November:

"ESPN has so many characters. It's like 'The Simpsons,' " he said. "There's a world of people who may exist as pretty big names, but on ESPN they're superstars. They're brands, and they're super-identifiable to those who watch ESPN."

While other networks' personalities mostly deliver a game, then disappear until the next one, ESPN's multitude of platforms and endless hours make their stars part of sports fans' daily lives, as well as of each other's.

That dynamic fosters the kind of relationship viewers can have with an on-air fixture such as Scott.

But the man built himself into far more than a mere creature of ESPN. He helped reshape ESPN itself. That's not easy, if you're scoring at home. But so it came to pass.

As it turned out, 2006 was Scott's final full healthy year among us. The fact that he carried on until Sunday was a testament to his passion -- and to his chutzpah.

New York Sports