Deep inside Chesapeake Energy Arena in a makeshift studio on Thursday morning, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith are taking shots at each other.
The commentators on ESPN2's “First Take” show are arguing the merits of LeBron James' jump shooting ability. Bayless says James' shooting skills clearly are below average.
“I close my eyes when he shoots,” he says.
“He's not below average,” Smith replies, with his voice rising.
ESPN NBA analyst Chris Broussard, a guest on Thursday's show, sides with Smith, and before long all three are yelling.
“I feel like I need a shave and a haircut at a barber shop,” host Jay Crawford says with his friendly smile, comparing the sports discussion to friendly arguments at some barber shops.
Welcome to “First Take,” ESPN2's two-hour sports debate show that airs 9-11 a.m. weekdays. The show is making its first appearance in Bayless' hometown of Oklahoma City to cover the NBA Finals, and producers temporarily have turned an interview room into a studio, with jerseys of Thunder and Heat stars hanging up in fake lockers.
After the show wraps, the 60-year-old Bayless admits he still can't believe he's in his hometown for, of all things, the NBA Finals.
“I still wake up in the mornings and my first flash is, ‘Am I really in Oklahoma City for pro basketball? For the NBA Finals. With LeBron James,'” Bayless says.
Unsure of reception
Bayless says he wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get in his hometown. He has drawn the ire of some Thunder fans for criticizing Russell Westbrook's point guard skills, picking the Spurs to win the Western Conference Finals and then the Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals.
His tweet about starting at guard for the 1970 Northwest Classen state runner-up team also irritated some. Although Bayless apparently started a few games as a senior, he averaged only 1.4 points a game.
Bayless said he is “pleasantly surprised” that some fans have come up to him and agreed with his opinion that Westbrook is a talented No. 2 guard but not a point guard, and he says his colleagues have heard fans in the stands yell at Westbrook for shooting too much.
Bayless, who says he regularly follows the Thunder, says he wants Westbrook to shoot less so that his favorite player, Kevin Durant, can shoot more.
“I get frustrated with Westbrook because I love Durant so much and there are so many games I'm saying, ‘Quit shooting.' You're costing the best player in basketball too many shots.”
As for the predictions, Bayless said he picked the Spurs and the Heat to reach the NBA Finals in the preseason and he's not about “to flip” in midstream.
“We ridicule people on our show for flipping. So I am going to have the courage of my convictions. even though I knew I was going to have to come back to my hometown and I potentially was going to take a lot of verbal abuse, I can't flip. Even though I said up front I'm rooting for the Thunder because I would love to see Oklahoma City have the NBA champion.”
Good basketball state
However, Bayless is not surprised the Thunder is being so well received. He calls Oklahoma a good basketball state, noting such talented coaches as Henry Iba at OSU and Abe Lemons at OCU and several talented college teams the state has produced. He remembers the loud reception for Harlem Globetrotters' appearances at Municipal Auditorium.