CHARLOTTE – In the world of the "hot take," this is as hot as it gets.
"I want to thank everybody for coming out," Stephen A. Smith tells the 300 audience members that flocked to Bank of America Stadium on Thursday for the live airing of "First Take," Smith's sizzling hot sports debate show that airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on ESPN. "I'm going to stay to take as many pictures as I can, but I've got to hustle."
With that, Smith drops the mic (something he figuratively does daily on the two-hour show) and works the room with precision and speed, posing for an amazing number of selfies in about five minutes as fans move with him hoping to wind up at the right angle to shoot their shot.
"We wouldn't be what we are if it wasn't for the support from the fans," Smith says. "It's hard for me to put this in words: I never saw this coming."
Smith's rarely at a loss for words, but the numbers speak for him. Two years ago, "First Take" moved from ESPN2 and bumped SportsCenter's mid-morning shows to "the Deuce." It's now the highest-rated cable show in its time slot.
"We have really grown this show," said Antoine Lewis, coordinating producer of First Take. "You don't start a show on ESPN2 and have it end up on ESPN. It just doesn't happen."
The Panthers are providing the venue for the show Thursday and Friday, but they aren't the topic on this day. The show, which moved from Studio E at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to a new facility in New York at the beginning of the NFL season, is in Charlotte for the first time because the NBA All-Star game is here Sunday.
Justine DeLuco, director of production and events for First Take, said this is one of about a dozen "large-scale events" the show hits the road for in a typical year – a list that will include the 2019 NFL Draft in late April. Portions of a crew of about 40 began arriving at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday to set up for a two-day run for "First Take" as well as "The Jump," the network's daily afternoon NBA talk show.
Smith, who played basketball down the road at Winston-Salem State University in the late 1980s, began Thursday's basketball-dominated show with a shout-out to the crowd.
"When it comes to North Carolina, it definitely is home," Smith said. "Nothing but love, y'all."
But there was plenty of love lost over the next two hours as Smith and co-host/foil Max Kellerman (kept under relative control by mediator Molly Qerim) debate everything from whether there should be concern for Charlotte native Stephen Curry's team following the Warriors' blowout loss in Portland to the seemingly endless supply of drama in the Lakers and Celtics camps.
There wasn't much of a Panthers presence beyond the venue itself, but Charlotte was represented. Hornets legend Muggsy Bogues was the first guest (along with Kings guard De'Aaron Fox and Bulls legend Scottie Pippen), and the crew debated a hypothetical as only it can - about whether LeBron James will someday be a more successful NBA owner than Michael Jordan.
The topics are the kinds of things that are debated at sports bars and barber shops all the time.
"I would say to viewers who support the show, I would say that I hope that they realize that I'm thinking about them when I do what I do," Smith said. "I'm not saying it just because it's something in my chest that I need to vent; I'm saying it because there are a lot of people out there that want the things that I am saying to be said. That has a lot to do with the show's success – they know they can trust me to do that."
Audience member Oscar Jones is among those who appreciate Smith's approach. Jones left his Raleigh home at 5:30 a.m. Thursday hoping to score a spot in the audience. Decked out in a Cam Newton jersey, he made the cut.
"I watch it on TV all the time," Jones said. "Stephen A. tells it like it is."
When the show ends, Smith has a handful of minutes to spare. And he tells it like it is – or rather how he thinks it is – as far as the Panthers are concerned. Without skipping a beat, he shares another hot take, perfectly in the style of his highly popular show before heading for the exit.
"I think they underachieved this year," Smith says, managing to not invoke the name of Cam Newton for a whole nine seconds. "I personally like Ron Rivera; I respect him. But I think we've gotten to a point where we have to look at Cam. I think Cam is obviously a former league MVP and a tremendous, tremendous talent, but there's no Super Bowl championship on his résumé. There have been plenty of years when the defense of this squad has been quality, where you could look at the offense and say it was devoid of weapons – when Kelvin Benjamin was here, whether or not Funchess has lived up to expectations. I'm a huge Christian McCaffrey fan. I think he's a definite plus.
"But in the end, as much as I believe in Cam and as much as I respect Cam, the flip side of it is that there's nothing wrong with demanding more from him. Last year he got injured against the Steelers and he was never the same. But that's this year. What about the previous seven? One was an MVP season, but the Super Bowl wasn't the greatest.
"So you've got to hold him accountable the same way you would hold any star quarterback accountable when things don't get done. I think that far more often than not, even though we put him under the gun, we're coming up with explanations for why things don't get done instead of just saying, 'Look, you're great. We accept it. Can you now make sure we get over the hump because of that greatness?' That's not saying you're not great; that's acknowledging your greatness but saying that it should come with expectations other than us ending another season talking about how great you are but how some hiccup occurred. True, true, great champions are ones who find a way to overcome them. When is your turn?"
First Take filmed live at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday and Friday ahead of the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. Guests included head coach Ron Rivera, former Hornets great Muggsy Bogues, six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.