In many ways, Friday’s First Take on ESPN was no different than any other episode, including a bold prediction made by the show’s outspoken host, Stephen A. Smith.
“The Philadelphia 76ers are going to the NBA finals,” Smith told Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and co-hosts Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim during the broadcast. “I’m still a little suspect on their bench. I don’t like that [J.J.] Redick is gone. But I don’t think the other teams in the East are strong enough, and I think the Sixers are going to be playing in June.”
Instead of filming at ESPN’s South Street Seaport facility in New York City, Smith and his First Take crew drove south on I-95 to Wilmington, where they shot the two-hour show live in front of a packed house at the new 76ers Fieldhouse, home of the Sixers’ NBA G league team the Delaware Blue Coats.
Smith, a graduate of Winston-Salem State University and a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and columnist, was this year’s ambassador for HBCU Week, which highlights and celebrates the nation’s top historically black colleges and universities. According to ESPN, nearly 4,000 people attended Friday’s event, which also featured more then 20 universities offering high school students scholarships on the spot and admitted them into their schools.
“We have a chance to expose students to the business of sports, not the field of play,” said Troy Vincent, an ex-Eagles defender and the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, who was also a guest on Friday’s show. “The next engineer, the next coder, the next sports scientist — all of these disciplines apply to the business of football and sports.”
Smith and the crew held a production meeting at 7 a.m., but they managed to keep the show’s best moment a total surprise from its host — an on-the-court reunion with his former WSSU Rams teammates.
“That was shocking,” Smith said. “At least two or three of them, I haven’t seen in 15 to 20 years.”
Following the show, his former teammates joked about their college years, including one story involving a 1950s-style suit the embarrassed ESPN star claimed his father bought him.
“We teased him the entire time about that darn suit,” ex-teammate Gary Stephens said. “We would put it on and walk around on campus and say we were old civil rights leaders. The funny part is we talked to his father about the suit, and his father said he’d never seen it before in his life."
Heading into the NBA season, ESPN is undergoing a major overhaul of its studio program surrounding live games, most notably replacing Michelle Beadle with Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor, who will share hosting duties on NBA Countdown.
Smith told the Inquirer he has aspirations of a primetime TV role. Last year, he hosted several SportsCenter specials during the NBA Finals, but no decisions have been made yet about his role this year.
But even if his NBA responsibilities grow at ESPN, Smith said, he’s not giving up his polarizing debate show, which he joined in 2012 alongside original host Skip Bayless.
“I do want to do First Take. I ain’t going nowhere,” Smith said.