Smith was born in the Bronx area of New York City on October 14, 1967. He was raised in the Hollis section of Queens. Smith is the second youngest of six children. He has four older sisters and a younger brother named Basil, who died in a car accident in October 1992. He also has a half brother on his father's side. Smith's parents were originally from Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. His father managed a hardware store. Smith's maternal grandmother was white, while the rest of his grandparents were black. Smith graduated from Thomas Edison High School in Queens.
After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology for one year, Smith received a basketball scholarship to attend Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While in college, he played basketball under Hall of Fame coach Clarence Gaines. While still on the team, Smith wrote a column for the university newspaper, The News Argus, arguing Gaines should retire due to health issues. He is a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Smith began his print media career with the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greensboro News and Record and the New York Daily News.
Beginning in 1994, Smith had a position as a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began reporting on the Philadelphia 76ers as their NBA columnist, and eventually, as a general sports columnist. On August 23, 2007, the Inquirer announced that Smith would no longer be writing columns and would instead be demoted back to the position of general assignment reporter. In 2008, the Inquirer ended its relationship with Smith, which coincided with Smith starting his own blog, stephena.com. In February 2010, Smith returned to the Philadelphia Inquirer after winning an arbitrator's ruling that he was to be reinstated, but having to agree to remove all of his political views from his website and from cable news shows.
On April 11, 2005, Smith became the host of a weekday noon to 2 p.m. radio show on WEPN in New York City with his "right-hand man B.T. (Brandon Tierney)". On September 20, 2007, his radio show was shifted to the 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. slot, with the second hour being broadcast nationally on ESPN Radio, replacing The Dan Patrick Show (Mike Tirico took over the first two hours). The show came to an end in April 2008 as Smith sought to expand his career in television, and beginning May 1 Scott Van Pelt began hosting in the 3–4 p.m. hour that was previously Smith's.
In November 2009, Smith became an on-air contributor to Fox Sports Radio, and was the one who broke the story of Allen Iverson's retirement on the Chris Myers-Steve Hartman afternoon show on November 25. Iverson later ended his short retirement, and re-joined the Philadelphia 76ers on December 2.
Smith became a Fox Sports Radio morning show host on January 4, 2010, replacing Washington, D.C.-based host Steve Czaban. On his radio program, Smith predicted that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh would all sign with the Miami Heat during 2010 free agency. In early 2011, Smith became a resident FSR NBA insider and ended his morning show.
It was announced on February 1, 2011, that he would be returning to ESPN as a columnist for ESPN.com and host weekday local radio shows on 1050 ESPN Radio New York (WEPN-AM) at 7–9 p.m. ET as well as 710 ESPN Radio Los Angeles (KSPN-AM) at 6–8 p.m. PT. April 24, 2012 was Smith's last show for LA 710 ESPN.
In 2013, Smith left ESPN for Sirius XM Radio, where he joined Chris Russo's Mad Dog Sports Channel. The move was announced just one day after Smith made some controversial comments on ESPN 2's First Take program regarding the Ray Rice situation.
On January 17, 2017, Smith will move from Sirius XM's Mad Dog Sports channel back to ESPN. His daily two-hour program will be heard on WEPN in New York, KSPN in Los Angeles, Sirius XM's ESPN channel and via syndication.
Smith started his television career on the now-defunct cable network CNN/SI in 1999.
Smith is currently an analyst and talk show host on ESPN and ESPN First Take. In August 2005, he started hosting a daily hour-long show on ESPN called Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith. After the show was cancelled in January 2007, he mainly concentrated on basketball, serving as an NBA analyst.
Smith is known for provocative analysis and dour delivery. Smith has appeared on other ESPN shows as well, including the reality series Dream Job, as well as serving as a frequent guest (and guest host) on Pardon the Interruption, Jim Rome is Burning and as a participant on 1st and 10. He has appeared as an anchor on the Sunday morning edition of SportsCenter, but on April 17, 2009 announced on his website that he would be leaving ESPN on May 1, 2009. The Los Angeles Times reported that ESPN commented that, "We decided to move in different directions." Though according to Big Lead Sports a source says that ESPN and Smith went to the negotiating table and couldn’t reach an agreement. Since then, Smith has returned to ESPN.
It was announced April 30, 2012 on air that Smith would be joining First Take on a permanent, five-day-per-week basis under a new format for the show called "Embrace Debate" in which he squares off against longtime "First Take" commentator Skip Bayless.
On July 25, 2014, Smith made controversial remarks that women may provoke domestic abuse on ESPN2's show ESPN First Take, in regards to the ongoing situation involving Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice and his wife. After criticism of the remarks, including comments on Twitter from ESPN reporter Michelle Beadle, Smith apologized for his words on a taped segment on ESPN. On July 29, 2014, Smith was suspended by ESPN for a week and did not appear on any of their programs again until August 6, 2014.
In late 2014, Smith signed a multi-year deal with ESPN that will pay him over $3 million per year.
In a March 9, 2015 episode of First Take, while discussing the topic of Philadelphia Eagles' head coach Chip Kelly trading away running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso, Smith said: "Chip Kelly has made decisions over the last couple of years that, dare I say, leave a few brothers feeling uncomfortable." Michael David Smith of NBS Sports believed that Smith had hinted Kelly's roster moves regarding the 2014 release of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the McCoy trade and letting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin depart for free agency to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs, while still keeping wide receiver Riley Cooper on the Eagles' roster might be racially motivated. In an interview with ESPN the Magazine that was published on May 8, 2015, McCoy admitted that while he respected Kelly as a head coach, he did not see eye to eye with him. McCoy also believed that some of the roster moves that are being made by Kelly are racially motivated. Kelly has said that the roster moves that he has made have nothing to do with race, it has to do with finding the right players that fit well into his team. Smith defended his comments by saying that he never used a form of the word racism to imply that Kelly was a racist.
On June 11, 2015, Smith received criticism for a comment he made about female soccer players during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. While on SportsCenter, a replay was shown of a goal scored by Norway on a free kick against Germany. Tim Legler pointed out that the German players forming the wall turned their heads as the ball went by, and Smith joked that the players "might not have wanted to mess up their hair". Smith's comment was criticized as being sexist and a poor joke. ESPN said they spoke with Smith about the comment, and he later apologized in a series of tweets.
On November 5, 2016, Smith joined Top Rank's broadcasting team for the Manny Pacquiao vs. Jessie Vargas boxing Pay-per-View event.
Smith made his acting debut on the ABC soap opera General Hospital in a cameo appearance as a television reporter on the February 2, 2007, episode . Later the same year, he was in the Chris Rock motion picture I Think I Love My Wife.
Beginning in 2014, he has appeared in a series of Oberto all-natural beef jerky commercials as "The Little Voice in Your Stomach," each time appearing alongside sports figures, such as star athletes Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and pro snowboarder Louie Vito, and notable basketball sportscaster Dick "Dickie V" Vitale. Smith returned to General Hospital on April 1, 2016, though at press time the role was unknown.