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Stuart Scott changed the game

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Michael Wilbon Remembers Stuart Scott (6:13)

Michael Wilbon looks back on his friendship with Stuart Scott and how much support he received from Scott, especially after having a heart attack. (6:13)

So here's what Stuart Scott's teammates could see that viewers couldn't. They couldn't see him suffer through a chemotherapy session at, say, 10 a.m., catch a quick nap and maybe a small bite, put himself through a kickboxing class or some other rigorous physical routine in an attempt to strengthen his body for its fight with cancer, show up at the studio to prepare for a Friday night NBA doubleheader that might require us to work until 1 a.m., and plow right through the evening without so much as a bad word for or to anybody.

That scenario, or something like it, played out way too often during the last seven years of Stuart's 49. He'd close his eyes during the commercial breaks at times. There were trips to the bathroom that we knew included violent illness. There's not a person in the Bristol studios who didn't say at some point, "Stuart, seriously, you shouldn't work tonight," and his response pretty damn frequently was: "Bro, I'm good."

And he was ... to the last drop.

We were from the same place, the South Side of Chicago, but approached what we did in radically different ways, which is why I didn't know exactly what to make of Stuart when I first saw him on-camera in the early 1990s. I was as intimately familiar with Pookie and Ray Ray as he was, but didn't think they belonged in a delivery of the day's sports news.

I was brought up in a buttoned-up world of traditional journalism where the person reporting/commenting/analyzing didn't call attention to himself. Stuart, very deliberately and without much fear, was in the process of taking us to a new world of sports coverage, one where you let your emotion come pouring out much of the time, where personality would infuse the coverage. It wasn't just that a Scott-delivered story sounded "blacker" -- and it did, it sounded younger, and hipper, had greater edge and connected with an entire population of viewers who had been ignored. Not every reference to music needed to be the Beatles or Rolling Stones, not for those of us who preferred Earth, Wind & Fire or Chuck D. More than anybody working then or now, Stuart Scott changed the very language used to discuss sports every day. He updated it, freshened it, made it more inclusive. And he took hell for it.

How nerdy is it, looking back, to have felt that Stuart was some kind of pioneer for simply wanting to be himself on television? But he was exactly that, and because that evolution took the better part of 20 years, there is now an entire generation of young media folks, black and white, male and female, who don't feel the need to conform, and that is an enormous and admirable part of his professional legacy.

When I think of ESPN, I'm in many ways stuck in the 1990s, the days before I actually started working there. While there are dozens of talented and dedicated people at the network, ESPN's Mount Rushmore, to me anyway, is Chris Berman/Dan Patrick/Bob Ley/Stuart Scott. They were the faces on the front line who took the network from fledgling to global entertainment giant.

And what I loved is that Stuart, who was no shrinking violet, was fine with his role in all of it, being the transitional figure he was and taking the mood from buttoned-up to cool. He was also smart enough, particularly the last five years, to ignore the morons and bigots on Twitter, the noise and intolerance of it all.

One of the things Stuart shared with St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, besides death from cancer in the primes of their lives, was the ability to be so upbeat and good-natured in the face of withering criticism from people who didn't want their morning newspaper or evening news to move one inch from what it had been in whiter times.

Our business, not that I'm particularly proud of this, is full of cynics, smart-asses, know-it-alls who don't actually know all that much. Everybody has become Simon Cowell, turning most every conversation into an intolerant rant. Not Stuart. He was up, upbeat, full of energy, always had something good to say. Always was good to the young production assistants in Bristol or on location. At 2 o'clock in the morning, most of us are irritable as hell and want to kill the producer for having us tape another "SportsCenter" segment; Stuart was perpetually ready to roll. "Are we about to do LIVE TV?" he'd bellow. Jon Barry and I would snarl. Magic and Stuart were always good to go.

Though we were all acutely aware that the cancer had returned, I couldn't see Stuart dying young until recently, when the signs were too overwhelming. He was all over me about changing my eating habits after I suffered a heart attack in January 2008. Health concerns were at the center of texts and phone calls for longer than I want to admit. Just a few weeks after the heart attack, it was Stuart, on the Sunday before my son, Matthew, was born, who said to me: "You have to believe what I'm about to tell you. You have to enjoy all the stuff you think you're going to hate about becoming a dad. Enjoy giving him a bath. Enjoy changing his stinky diapers. Enjoy getting peed on. Enjoy him drooling on your favorite tie just as you're about to walk out of the house to go on the air. Enjoy all of it. Be a hands-on dad. Enjoy it when he spills stuff all over you and when you get a pair of feet in your back when you haven't had any sleep."

To this day -- and I told Stuart this three or four years ago -- his advice on what to enjoy about early fatherhood is the most memorable counsel I received on the topic. I give that speech to expectant dads now and tell them I'm stealing every word of it from Stuart Scott, who was such a wonderful dad to Taelor and Sydni.

When ballplayers say what they miss most when someone moves on is the hang, believe them. It's how people who wouldn't otherwise know each other gradually become like family. The NBA season, particularly the interminable playoffs, would be our time. You're down about bailing on your family for two months, but eager to engage with your professional family. For the past 10 years, for me, that's meant being on the road nonstop with Magic Johnson, Tim Legler, Avery Johnson, Jalen Rose, my man Jon Barry, Hannah Storm, Lisa Salters, Stephen A., Doris Burke, Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, Dan Patrick and Mark Jackson, Mike Tirico, Chris Mullin, Hubie Brown and the late Dr. Jack Ramsay . . . and more recently, Sage Steele, Brian Windhorst, J.A. Adande, Heather Cox and Doug Collins (and that doesn't even count the producers and staffers, nor the many friends from TNT).

And always Stuart Scott.

Covering the playoffs without him and his spirit is unthinkable. Being a Chicago kid (he was born there, and his family moved to North Carolina when he was a young teenager), there's a reference Stuart would get, from the movie "Cooley High" . . . and already he's not here when I need him, because Stuart always recalled memorable movie lines with total precision, something I'm not any good at. Anyway, there's a scene toward the end of the movie where a crew of young 'uns mourning the death of murdered friend Cochise, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, are assembling under the "L" tracks. And I think Preach, played by Glynn Turman, suggests they should pour one for the brothas who aren't there.

The first thing we need to do, and it doesn't have to wait until the playoffs, is pour one for the brothas who are no longer with us, Bryan Burwell and Stuart Scott, without whom the discussion of sports or anything we wander into will, sadly, no longer have the flavor they helped give it.