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.
“The crowds were like Thunder crowds,” he says. “It doesn't surprise me what happened once the team came here. But it surprises me that the team is here. ... I got to thank Clay Bennett and his group. I know a lot of people think they stole the team from Seattle. But the team was failing in Seattle. They built it the right way. The rise was so meteoric and quick.”
Smith says Bayless' love for Oklahoma City is readily apparent, but it's not going to affect his picks.
“He loves this city. He loves this state. He talks about it all the time,” Smith says. “But we're a lot alike in that regard, it has nothing to do with his picks. It has nothing to do with our decisions. We watch what we watch. And we're going to make a call. The No. 1 thing that we concern ourselves with is being very, very authentic.”
If the Finals return to Oklahoma City for Game 6, Bayless said he would like to organize a field trip for some media members to view different areas of the metro. He says media members get a distorted view of the city by only driving from the airport to downtown.
Bayless says he might even consider moving back here someday, although he thinks it would be difficult to convince his fiance, New York City public relations executive Ernestine Sclafani, to make the move.
“She thinks the world begins and ends on the edges of Manhattan. And my heart and soul is here. I don't know if I could ever convince her. She likes it here OK, but she came thinking it was covered with wagons and cowboys.”
Although Smith and Bayless appear irritated at each other during their verbal sparring on “First Take,” after the cameras shut off, they say they are close friends.
“We came from opposite ends of the earth, but he's my brother,” Bayless says. “I would go down fighting for him. I have his back. But we go at it. The beauty of going at it is that we don't go over the edge. He can't make me mad. He can frustrate me and irritate me and he can bring me out of my chair, but he can't make me truly take-it-home mad. When we go to break, it's over.”
Smith, 44, who was raised in New York City, says, “I do believe the Skip Bayless that I've known for years is an incredibly good guy, incredibly sensitive. Takes his word very, very seriously. No one is more prepared to do their job. If you want to debate him, you better come ready. He's no joke.”
However, Smith loves to kid Bayless by calling him “the joker.”
“No. 1, he looks like him. No. 2, he's really, really slick and conniving when it comes to his debates. He'll set you up. Skip will say something and ‘Oh, you're trying to say ...' He'll put words in your mouth. He'll twist them. Like I said, you got to be prepared. You slip up in any way and he'll eat you for breakfast.”
The lively debate between the two has produced a big ratings jump for “First Take,” and this month Smith was added on a full-time basis.