ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi is Philly bred, Temple made and still can’t spell Schuylkill.
Negandhi is hosting the 90th annual Scripps Spelling Bee on ESPN this week, and he chatted via phone from Washington, D.C. about the event, and how the run of Indian-American winners the last decade reminds him of his own childhood.
It also reminds him of home, and those ridiculous Philly-area locations nobody can spell on the first try. So what’s the hardest Philly word to spell?
“You know what, I think it’s the most obvious,” Negandhi said. “Schuylkill. How many people are going to get Schuylkill right? People that have lived there all their lives. I drove on the Schuylkill for four years every single day. I still can’t spell it right.
“The one thing I can tell you about Schuylkill is there are no Os in the word. I bet if you quiz 10 people you’ll get two who get it right.”
We ran through some other contenders. I brought up Bala Cynwyd. Negandhi offered Bryn Mawr. There’s Manayunk. Wissahickon. Passyunk. What’s the language of origin? The etymology? Any alternate pronunciations? Can you use it in a sentence?
More to the point, would these young kids be able to spell any of them?
“That’s actually a really, really good question when you’re thinking of the Philadelphia region,” Negandhi replied to which would be the toughest. “But you can’t escape the Schuylkill. Even when you’re not driving on it, it’ll haunt you.”
The Scripps Bee has become a television phenomenon, thanks in large part to ESPN’s annual coverage. This is Negandhi’s second year as host of the event, and he’s helped connect the audience to these kids in a very different way. Past hosts for ESPN and ABC have included Chris McKendry, Sage Steele and even Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, back at the time Mike & Mike were on everything, all the time. Negandhi, though, has a lot more in common with the contestants: His heritage.
We spoke about his upbringing as an Indian-American, how he uses that to relate to the Spelling Bee contestants, and how he’s hoping the event can inspire his own kids.
‘I’m the lone wolf. All my cousins are doctors or attorneys.’
Negandhi has long been a fan of the Bee and he likens it to his own childhood, having to do homework after his homework.
“Listen, being Indian-American and also fully aware of what education provides in the house — and I really believe it’s the passport to everything, and it’s how my parents instilled the culture of learning in our house. I’m the lone wolf. All my cousins are doctors or attorneys with advanced education, and then you have me, ‘oh yeah I want to be on TV. I’m going to be a sportscaster.’ So I was always in tune with it.
“My parents also at a young age made sure that I was really involved in doing extra homework — their version of homework. My dad’s version of homework was tougher than any homework I’d done at school because they all knew. They all knew what it would it provide me. So when I watched [the spelling bee] I always looked for two things: I looked at the kids’ behavior, and I looked at how the parents handled it.”
‘You’re training your brain instead of training your body.’
Training for a national event, no matter the discipline, takes hours of dedication. Negandhi likens the spelling bee to training for a sporting event, with the parents just as involved.
“I understand what every one these kids are going through; the pressure they are dealing with and what the priorities are in the family. The only way I could explain it to people to understand — especially with the Indian-American dominance the last nine years — there are many things relatable that what these kids go through to what every American kid goes through. Because every American kid who is with a traveling baseball team, AAU soccer, AAU basketball, traveling football team, you are involved in practice daily, many times it’s your parents taking you to competition after competition. It’s starts probably at home where you’re having your first catch with your dad or your mom’s in goal while you’re trying to get a goal playing soccer.
“Those things are so similar to what is going on with many of these Indian-Americans. Their parents are getting them involved, they are practicing daily and they’re going to competitions. And they’re dealing with pressure the same day these kids are dealing with at every level at a young age. They deal with pressure all the time, and it’s super competitive. It’s the only way I can describe it. On a linear concept, it’s the exact same thing, only you’re training your brain instead of training your body.”
‘To this day, I’ve never seen my father take a day off.’
For many American kids, the day consists of school, homework and sports practice. But what happens when more homework is your sport?
“I go back to my father. I couldn’t stand it when he did this to me. I’d get home from school and all the neighborhood kids would be outside my door, because my house was the house where we’d play Wiffle ball, football, basketball every day. So all the neighborhood kids would be waiting for me to come home, and my father would be like, ‘did you finish your homework?’ And I’d be like, ‘yeah, that’s easy,’ and he’d say, ‘alright, where’s MY homework?’ And I’m like 7 or 8 years old, and I’m like, ‘WHAT?!?!’ But it did two things for me. It advanced me, so when I went into the classroom, I knew how to do everything because I had supreme confidence I was going to be acing this test because my dad’s work was harder.
“And it also instilled a certain backbone to, ‘how to I study? How do I get a story? How do I do hard work? What do I gotta do?’ It gave me the framework for everything I needed to do when it came to high school, college, working deadlines. To this day, I’ve never seen my father take a day off, and he instilled that kind of discipline in me.”
‘I take great pride in breaking stereotypes’
Negandhi may credit his dad for giving him that work ethic to succeed, but his childhood is nothing compared to what his mother went through.
“And then, on the other side of it, my mom — My dad came over [to the United States] in 1969 with five dollars in his pocket. He stayed in a YMCA for two years. Then he brought my mother and my brother over; my brother is seven years older than me. Then I was born in ’75, four years later. My mom’s family was so broke and the women were viewed as home-carers. They took care of everything at the house and education was not the priority. My mom would tell me stories that they were so poor, and they had seven brothers and sisters — she was part of seven, but two passed away when they were very young. She said she had one set of clothes for an entire year she had to wash every night. And she had to share pencils with her sisters. She said, ‘I failed one day at class because the pencil was in my sister’s hands. We couldn’t afford another.’ She’s not one to expand on hyperbole. I believed it.
“And then here she comes to the States, she goes and gets her GED, when I’m 7, 8 years old, first, second, third grade, she’s taking me to college at night because she’s going to study for nursing. So I’m in the back of the class with all these women, and I’m going to college with my mom.”
Negandhi’s mom first went to Harcum College in Bryn Mawr before transferring to Immaculata University in Malvern. She also has two masters’ degrees. He credits her journey for getting him not just to Temple, or to ESPN, but for making him who he is as a person.
“I take great pride in breaking stereotypes, but I look at what my mom and what my dad did, they came here with nothing. And they created a culture in our house to follow that honestly has been the backbone for me whenever I need it.”
‘You’re doing a really good job.’
We celebrate the winners of the spelling bee with praise and 15 minutes of celebrity, but everyone who gets to D.C. for the finals has done an incredible amount of work just to reach that far. Also, they’re little kids. Negandhi hasn’t forgotten that.
“Last year was my first year and I [met] a couple of the young Indian-American [contestants], and I’m blown away by what they’re doing, and they’re just, they’re kind of like, ‘oh my goodness, you’re on TV.’ So we’re taking pictures with each other like fanboys.
“The first thing I tell them is, ‘you’re doing a really good job.’ Because I think that’s important to understand that regardless of what happens Thursday night, they made it this far. There are less than 300 kids in the entire world who made it this far. That’s the thing I try to stress to them, regardless of what happens, you kicked butt and you accomplished something. I think that needs to be stressed.
“After that, I talk to their parents and I just get a feel for who they are and what they’re doing, because I want them to understand what their kid is accomplishing is pretty great.”
‘This is a celebration of being smart’
Spoiler Alert: Negandhi’s kids think they are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
“Side story…I’ve got three kids. My 3- and 5-year-olds, they’re both boys, they watch SportsCenter every morning, they know the Eagles fight song, they know every single football team in the NFL, they bring up the Phillies. At one point a couple of weeks ago they wouldn’t respond to me because I had to call them Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons while they were playing basketball in the house — they wouldn’t respond to their regular names.
“So they’re seeing what I do, but I stressed to my wife, and she understands because she’s smarter than me…I told her I wanted the boys to come here [to D.C. for the spelling bee] to see this. They’re 3 and 5, and the only point I’m making is I want my kids to see excellence on the stage, and it’s celebrating being smart. This is a celebration of being smart. An acknowledgement that it’s okay to be smart, and it’s okay to be the best at being smart.
“I want them to see the 9- to 14-year-olds up on the stage and see they’re being celebrated because they study. Because in the long run, that’s what I’m going to be emphasizing with my kids.”
‘This isn’t about the participation trophy BS’
Hosting the event on ESPN is hard, because the words are all impossible, sure, but also because you genuinely feel so terrible for the kids when they get a word wrong. We feel that way at home, so it’s impossible to not feel that way on TV.
“There are a couple of things I’ve seen throughout the years, and the disappointment on the stage, you know there’s a like an ‘ugh’ moment. Never once do I want to express that on the air from my end, because to me every kid here who made it this far should be celebrated.
“This isn’t about the ‘participation trophy’ BS. I think that’s lame. This is about — look, whoever wins this is not getting the last scholarship at Harvard. There are going to be plenty of opportunities for these kids and one of the cool things I learned last year, is a lot of these kids, especially the final 15, there were about 12 of them who all kept in touch and knew each other because they talk to each other. I related it to NBA players who all know each other and they played AAU ball together as teenagers and moved up the ranks. That’s what they’re doing here.
“Eventually some of these kids are going to come together and they’re going to work on projects at universities and they’re going to compete against each other for prizes in the knowledge team or debate or even some science projects. They’ll be competing against each other down the road, and to me this is a build up of those relationships and friendships.”
‘What more do you want from an 11-, 12- or 13-year-old kid?’
Ties in the spelling bee? How can they run out of words?!?! Negandhi looks at the last few bees ending in ties a bit differently than the traditional ESPN viewer.
“This is three years in a row they had ties. They’ve tweaked the rules a few times, but you look at last year. I don’t know how you separate it, because you have to take into account it’s getting late at night. They’ve gone through, what, 25 rounds? Both of the kids who made it and won last year did everything possible. Granted, it’s a little disappointing, but there’s a difference between this tie and the tie you see in soccer or NFL football where everyone’s moaning and groaning. I think it’s a little unique and different because that’s adults playing, but this…I mean, hey, they want 25 rounds. What more do you want from an 11-, 12- or 13-year-old kid?
“Last year’s show, my first show, the final segment went 72-straight minutes, uninterrupted, no commercial breaks. Those kids went back-and-forth for that final. One versus One A. And Nihar was amazing with the looks that he gave and him being a Dez Bryant fan and Dez Bryant responding on Twitter, then J.J. Watt weighing in. To me, shoot, those guys didn’t have a problem with a tie.
“This is a point where those ties can be pretty much acceptable. And look, the [Scripps] Bee has done everything possible…it’s not an exact science to get this right. We’ll see, I think the competition is going to be very, very good this year.”
Just as long as nobody has to spell Schuylkill.
The Scripps Spelling Bee is on the ESPN networks Wednesday and Thursday with the final rounds airing live on ESPN starting at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.