All spelling errors are intentional, we think. -- The editor.
"First Take" the TV show is a morning instituton on ESPN2. It has given a national platform for the hottest most controversal takes, and it has turned Skip Bayless into a jet-setting international millionaire. First Take the lifestyle is a mentality that runs through every real sport's fan. It is the desire to beat friends and co-workers in conversations about sports. It is the mentalty that hustles through the synapses of every talk radio show caller from coast-to-coast.
Growing up I was a ESPN fanatic. I memorized sportcenter commercials and would show up late for school on every Monday mornings because "Plays of the Week" started at 8:53, opening bell was at 9:05 and the school was 15 minutes away. And as much as television kicks ass, the biggest influences on how I look at Sports came from car rides. I listened to "The Big Show" book on tape- the story of Dan Patrick and Kieth Olbermans heyday on the flagship ESPN program- on road trips with my mom when the signal from the Rush Limbaugh show got to weak to pick up on the radio. And "First Take", quite frankly, is a perfect mix between the two. First Take is the show that made talking about sports more of a sport than most sports. It would go on to be my inspiraton for when I auditioned to be a columnist at Bleacher Report.
Needles to say, taking a trip to Bristol would be a kin to going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, except more religious. Ive been drawn to that sleepy New England like a moth to a flame of burning takes for my entire life. Theres a popular saying that you see on bumper stickers once you get there: "I wasnt born in Bristol but I got here as fast as I could once the interstate travel conditions of my probation expired."
So when a coworker at SB Nation won a trip to go watch a live taping of First Take AND a opportunty to meet Skip and Stephen A Smith, I literally peed myself with anticipation. What would I say to Skip when I met him? Would we become best friends? What if they were reptiallans? etc.
The beauty of First Take is its unifying presence. According to producers, the demographics is 53% White and 47% Black- the most culturally diverse audence of any ESPN program. It is without a doubt the only television show in the history of the world who's title sponsor is Bass Pro Shops and has a musical intro by Wale. It is a platform that brings all races together in the peace, harmony, and brotherhood that Dr. King talked about, to argue with each other about the New York Jets and call Lebron James a selfish bum.
The success of "First Take" has been no more apparent then in the networks and other outlets attempts to replicate it. Sports TV yelling is a copycat league, and you need look no further then "His and Hers" which air's immedately afterwards, its basically if First Take took a half dose of Molly, earned a bachelors in macro ECON, and grew up listening to ATCQ. In fact, First Take is the highest rated show on ESPN2 by far despite the fact that it airs at 10 AM Eastern on weekday mornings when many of our nations employed elite are at there office jobs.
So I flew into Hartford the evening before the big meeting of the minds and made the 40 minute drive into Bristol so that I could take in the sites and do some tourism in Bristol. The thing is, as it turns out, theres not a whole lot to do there. Out of the top 10 things to do in Bristol on Trip Advisor, 7 are restraunts. The other three are Lake Compounce water park, the clock museum, and the museum of fire. So obvously I made a bee line for the water park.
Unfortunately it had rained earlier that day so the Water Park was closed down which is like a prostute taking a day off on Valentines Day. But Bristol is the type of small town America where people still trust each other, no one locks there front doors, even the people that own the Water Park. So I let myself into Lake Compounce and went on a little tour of the place:
It was a spooky ghost town in there and after about 10 mins park securty apprehended me, and the LC Police escorted me to the exit- no need to call the police- some towns still know how to be friendly. I went on over to the Watch and Clock Museum which was closed but I feel like I could pretty much tell you what was inside. Also the main clock outside the literal museum of clocks was set to the incorrect time:
But besides museums theres actualy a ton of cool sites to see and photo ops all over this lovely town check this one out:
Then, it was time to get drunk. There are only a couple options on where you should get drunk in Bristol, CT. One is in a bar who's sign is written in Comic Sans that says something like FIFTY BEERS ON TAP coming soon. Hard pass. I dont want 50 beers on tap- I want a bar that has ice cold budweiser, or miller lite for specal occasions. I like to mix the two sometimes if Im on a date and ask the bartender to make me a 50/50 combo Bud Lite- very cosmopolitan. So we chose to go to a bar called "Bleachers" (get it? (sports.)) I loaded up on some chicken wings, nachos with chili (this would come into play later) and slammed down a few brews. I was on my way out the door at about 9 PM when my pregnant coworker that had been put in charge of making sure I didnt do anything stupid stopped me and by misstake mentioned that they were donig a beer pong tournament that night.
So with pretty much no formal training we stepped into a major league beer pong tournament and finished 3rd out of 40 teams with a pregnant woman as my partner. Not to brag. But by that time it was 2 AM and I was suppose to be in bed 4 hours ago because I had to wake up in 5 hours. But I mean my hands were pretty much tied, if you say "beer pong tournament" to me Im under a obligation to my readers to say "yes" to it.
The Mother Ship
The next morning I woke up with a really bad feeling in my stomach most likely do to the 14 beers and chili that I ate a few hours ago and made my way to the ESPN campus where we would be taken on a whilwind adventure of takes.
We were escorted into the room where they were just wrapping up there morning production meeting for the show and it was absolutley nothing like I imagined it. There were no mountains of cocaine, no Mark Sanchez on all fours in a metal dogcage with Stephan A Smith wailing on it with a nightstick, no Static X or Drowning Pool or Monster Magnent or Powerman 5000 blasting from speakers. Just a whtie board that listed which side of the "Geno Smith got punched" argument they would be taking for each segment.
A common theme you hear when you talk to anyone in sports media is that Skip and Stephen A are just contrarians for ratings sake. I am here to tell you that this is not true at all. They are two naturally occurring properties who inherently disagree about EVERYTHING- reminded me of my first marraige folks. There job is to be themselves and who they are just happens to be the only two people on earth who disagree on both of the questions of "Is Lebron James good?" and "Is Tim Tebow bad?" If the producers come up with a topic and they both agree on it, they axe that topic. American viewers like fighting more then anything including sex. Given the choisce of a movie about war like Saving Private Ryan, and a movie about love like Pearl Harbor, they will choose war everytime.
I would of loved to have gone there on a day when absolutely no important sports news happened, like the week of the home run derby or during the world cup. It would of been great to see these artists mold a TV show of takes with no raw materials, like watching Piccasso make a portrait out of pubes and snot. Just kind of work with what you got. But they were going live with plenty of ammo that day since the Geno Smith deal was still very much breaking news.
The show requires a army of producers, editors, make-up artists, camera operators, fact checkers,and interns behind the scenes to make it go. The producton studio resembles a upgraded version of a NASA control room except there job is to launch stars back to earth and into the homes of millions.
Stepping into the on-air studio with SAS and Skip is a magical moment. I felt like a honeybee bee who accidentaly flew into the garden of Eden, there was just to much to process. Seeing the two of them take there seats before taping was not unlike when Rocky and Thunderlips faced off on the Silver Screen except if Hulk Hogan played both characters. Stephen A was literally cracking his neck getting ready to do battle. They didnt speak to each other- didnt even make eye contact- just prepared for what was sure to be a slugfest.
Here's The Thing about First Take and its enourmous sucess. What they debate is inconsequental as much as how they debate it. Its like, even if Lincoln-Douglass had spent three days agruing over something stupid like whether Harriet Beecher Stowe is black enough we still would of remembered them both as superstars. Whats also great is that they dont keep score like they do on "Around the Horn." This means that the real winner of each days debate is- you guessed it- up for debate. Now people can argue about people arguing about sports and it turns out that people love it.
For the next two hours Skip and Stephen A would act as opposing legal minds in the debate over Geno Smith got punched in his jaw. After they cut to there first break I got some side-eyes from the production staff for applauding but you could tell Skip was happy to have a greatfull audence for a change. I was also thinking that if there would be anyplace in America that my ESPN phone would still work it would be in this very studio like when the UFO in Judgement day turned back on when it got all close to the mothership but that actualy didn't happen.
Being up close to two master tacticans like Skip and Stephen A allowed me to gain a greater understanding of there strategies, weaknesses and strengths. They have two very different styles of screaming at each other that fit in perfectly within the contex of the show-
I honestly mean this in the very best, nicest way possible but Stephen A Smiths rhetorical style reminds me alot of Adolf Hitler. One of the Germen Chancellors favorite things to do was to start a sentence in front of a big crowd using very muted, diseffected tones, almost at a whisper. What this does is force the audeince to lean in just a bit and focus there listening on what your saying. Then, after you've got everyones attenton you gradually build and build and build until you could be screaming about whatever the hell you want whether its the foreign banking cartel or Carmelo Anthony and everyone will be drawn in and almost force to agree with you. Its almost like listening to "Stairway to Heaven." As Smith cresendos up from a delicate acoustic beginning to basically telling Skip Bayless to fuck off like its the end of the guitar solo and the drums hit and Robert Plant screams "And as we wind on down the road." I literaly got goosebumps when he was pulling this off live.
Skip, on the other hand is very laid back like the mafia boss in a movie that allready knows he's paid off the other 6 guys at the table, and the second you say a cross word and start to feel good about yourself your going to get dragged into the kitchen and get your hand stuck into a duck press. So after Stephen A gets up to his climax and screams out his last 4 words of whatever, Skip lets the audence have like 5 seconds of silence to let the screaming echo around in his viewers mind long enough to get the half-life of what SAS just said out of there heads and start to realize how ridiculous it was, until Skip slingshots them back into the stratosphere of takes by saying very calmly and confidantly, "Bryce Petty should of been the number 2 overall draft pick". Its sports theater. Its a masterpeice. It is like watching Beethoven compose a symphony after he turned deaf. Its magical.
Every break during First Take, Skip walks off set and goes to his corner like a prizefighter getting a sqwig of water and some vaseline while SAS stays where hes at shuffling his papers and shopping on amazon prime for I dont know, to see if JNCO makes suit pants or something. Tahts the difference between the two- SAS is a agressive fighter who dominates the ring and wont back down not even during commercal breaks. But he tends to punch himself out, which gives Skip the last word before they cut to breaks to work in a "I know you are but what am I" type flourish- and thats what the judges remember. Skips a smarter debater. Hes a counterpuncher at this stage in his career- he's like Michael Jordan on the Wizards- doesnt have the fastball he once did, but undeniably better than at any other point in his career.
Theres a big movement to having Jon Stewart host a Presidential debate in 2016 but I think America would much prefer the two candidates go on First Take. My God it would be a transcendent moment in American politics. It would be equally as transformative as when they had the first ever televised debate where Kennedy looked like Adonis and Nixon basicaly turned into a raccoon. Can you guys serously imagine Donald Trump and Joe Biden debating whether or not Chip Kelly is racist?
After the two hour thrillride of the show was over, they asked us if I wanted to meet Skip and Stephen and I said a emphatic "hell yes." They brought me up onto the stage and I shook there hands and I said "Skip Im just a real, real, big fan of your takes. There incredible."
That really pissed Stephen A. Smith off.
"Excuse me?" He asked.
"Im sorry Stephen, your takes are very strong and Im a big fan, but you have to admit Skips takes are just way stronger" I said as I shook his hand. Skip started to gloat, "You hear that Stephan A?".
"Thats it Im done with you" Smith shot back at me. He seemed genuineley offended it was like a Metallica fan telling James Hetfield he had much tastier riffs then Kirk Hammit. I asked to get a picture with them and SAS initially refused, saying "No Im not getting my picture taken with you. Not after that." But eventually relented.
There are alot of people in the media that give Skip Bayless a hard time and make fun of how much money he makes, how much girls love him, and how successfull he is. They think hes a angry curmudgeonly guy, but he is literaly 100% one of the nicest people Ive ever met. Just all class. Skip must of seen something in me, or maybe its just that takes recognize takes, because after this picture he pulled me in asked me where I was from, what sports I liked, etc. Every time I turned away to catch up with the rest of my tourgroup he would pull me back in with another thoughtfull, genuine question, until he literaly asked me what I thought about RG3. Then it was on. I knew I had to debate him. Stephan A Smith saw two bighorns sizing each other up and decided it was time to amscray and I cant say I blame him.
Skips widely known to be correct about most sports things but his Robert Griffin takes are going to haunt him for the rest of his life or at least as long as I have his email address.
Today if drafting 2012 over, I'd still go RG3, Luck, then Russell Wilson (who went 75th). Still believe RG3 can return to rookie of yr RG3.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) October 7, 2014
I told him The Redksins are trying to turn RG3 into Andy Dalton and Skip nodded his head in agreement not knowing that I meant Andy Dalton as a compliment. He said its just so sad what the Redskins have done to him, which I agreed with but only because I think they should of drafted him as a Wide Recever. We went back and forth and the only knock I have against Skip is that he spends too much time actually listening to what I had to say and thinking about it instead of just lining up the take cannon in his mind. He was almost TO polite. I dont know if he mistakenly thought I was like there on a Make-a-Wish trip or whatever, but he treated me like a sick child and that is the highest compliment I can pay to anyone.
Then the tour continued and I got swagged out in the offical ESPN gift shop and ate a lunch in the ESPN cafeteria. We took a tour of the campus and let me tell you it. Was. Awesome. They had a studio they built just for sportscenter that cost nine figers. I'm going to repeat that. hey had a studio they built just for sportscenter that cost nine figers, and the NFL live studio wasnt that far behind it. Saw Mark Schlereth strolling around- gave him the Kobe jaw when we past each other- kind of like a Jeep wave for guys who are pretty tough when they see each other. He was pretty busy but you could tell there was some mutual respect going there.
I asked a guide where the on-air personalities desks were, because I had an score to settle. Heres how that conversation went:
"Where do your TV people sit"
"TV people? Like who do you mean?"
"I dunno like Darren Rovell."
"Hes in New York. Why do you want to meet Darren Rovell?"
So after all that chlii and beers from the night before you better believe I needed to use the restroom. Our guide kindly directed me into the bathroom stall- the very same one that is used by Chris Berman. Couldnt believe my luck.
But the day took a nasty turn at this point- someone had left a floater in the ESPN stall.
Who could it of been? Possible suspects that I knew to be in the Sportscenter building at the time the floater was discovered include- Mark Schlereth, ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson (whose name just sounds like a urban dictionary term for someone whose toilet got upper decked), Chris Mortensen, two Sportscenter anchors that I didnt get to see, and the entire staff that votes on the College Football Rankings poll.
First instinct is to say Schlereth, but you get a bunch of college football writers together in a room who all literally think there shit doesnt stink so it could of very easily been one of them.
I guess the mystery will go unsolved for now. But that dosen't mean we can't debate it.