Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith were the greatest duo in Television Sports Journalism. They were the Jordan-Pippen; The Wade-LeBron; The Shaq-Kobe of sports writers for ESPN. No disrespect to Max Kellerman – Skip’s replacement on First Take, nor Shannon Sharpe – Skip’s respective replacement for Stephen. They have their own characteristics which still make First Take and Undisputed worth watching, they even have some striking similarities to who they’re “replacing” with regards to their appearances and how they argue, yet it’s nothing compared to the magic of what Skip and Stephen were able to create on ESPN First Take.
Here’s a classic argument between the two people from 2012:
Observe the overwhelming passion of Stephen in his argument, and then compare it to Skip’s subtle shade of trolling and baiting Stephen into a completely different argument; instead of a simple “Would Team USA beat the 1992 Dream Team?”, Skip states “LeBron’s approach to this idea of playing against the Dream Team is too weak”, Stephen argues that it’s LeBron’s sign of “respect” since the Jordan and the other predecessors of LeBron are crucial factors in shaping today’s game – in both its rules and market. However, Skip completely disregards that idea and further argues that Kobe Bryant would have said “Team USA would beat the 1992 Dream Team” with much more conviction in his delivery, thus highlighting a common belief among fans, and an argument against him, that LeBron James is not mentally-willing enough to beat his competition. The argument then devolves from a “Team vs. Team” concept between 2012 Team USA and 1992’s Dream Team, to that of a “Player vs. Player” concept between Lebron and Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, with Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson’s name thrown in between. All of this just because of Skip’s clear rage-baiting and trolling. Skip finishes the argument by changing the parameters of the idea once again from a 7-game playoff-esque series to a winner-takes-all game, which Stephen agrees the 1992 Dream Team would win simply because of their competitive spirits, thus proving Skip’s rather-irrelevant points and completely dismissing the argument of “respect” which he started in the first place.
That type of dialogue between the two of them feels like something straight out of a novel or film, the way their 2 characters play off one another is irreplaceable. The way these two people demand our attention, move conversation and draw us in to their words are so picture-perfect, that it’s to the point where we barely even acknowledge the third character on screen with them – Cari Champion.
Here’s another great moment between the two of them:
Notice the difference of rationality between the two of them; Skip barely has any, Stephen clearly uses it all. Stephen doesn’t acknowledge all-stars as X-Factors for decisive games because their status in the league already implies the expectation that they will “show up” and perform their duties, so he qualifies X-Factors as role-players who tend to be crucial to teams, yet aren’t all-star caliber status, therefore Stephen states that Serge Ibaka will be an X-Factor for the OKC Thunder against Miami Heat since he isn’t all-star caliber status, but averages a considerable amount of points, rebounds and blocks in the playoffs for a center. That’s a rational argument and perspective, right?
Well, Skip argues that Dwyane Wade is the game’s X-Factor simply because he outperforms LeBron James and Kevin Durant, their respective team’s best players, from time to time. Irrational argument right? How can Dwyane Wade, an established all-star and champion, be an X-Factor to a game when his status alone already demands a dominant performance? Sure, you could say that Skip had different parameters than Stephen when it came to defining an X-Factor, but it doesn’t exactly excuse his blatant arrogance towards Stephen’s point, nor does it counter it. Serge still averages more blocks, rebounds than Wade as a role-player so if he performs as his usual self, he may be a greater deciding factor than Wade.
Just watch the video and notice how it feels like Skip didn’t even argue for the sake of winning, he argued for the sake of trolling and getting Stephen all worked up over something so petty. That’s what made First Take so enjoyable to watch back then. That’s what made Skip different to Max, and that’s what made Skip and Stephen’s dynamic so irreplaceable.