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ESPN’s Bayless talks about being polarizing; blindsided by Rose; HS hoops career

When I visited Skip Bayless at ESPN back in March, he was beaming. He had just learned that he was nominated for a Sports Emmy in the Outstanding Sports Personality-Sports Event category.

“It is the greatest honor of my career,” said Bayless.

Bayless was fresh off airing a First Take show that included in-studio appearances by Arian Foster, Victor Cruz, and LeSean McCoy. Imagine, big-time athletes wanting some face time on his program. It’s a usual occurrence.

With a Diet Mountain Dew sticking out of his bag, Bayless was pumped as usual. Not that he ever comes down.

Life was good, and we did our interview.

However, there have been some new developments that warranted a follow-up interview. First Kevin Durant knocked Bayless for some of his comments on Russell Westbrook. “That guy doesn’t know a thing about basketball,” Durant said.

That was nothing.

Last week, Bayless was vilified in certain circles when a story alleged he embellished his high school basketball career in a couple of Tweets to his nearly 600,000 followers.

The whole episode went into Twitter/blog hysteria when Jalen Rose called him on it during Tuesday’s show during a basketball debate. It was a low, low blow, catching Bayless off guard. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Wednesday’s show then addressed the issue with Bayless adding details about his high school career and rebuking Rose. Mel Bracht of the Oklahoman actually did a piece on Bayless the hoopster, quoting former teammates as saying he really could play.

Meanwhile, Bayless’ critics, of which there are many, went crazy, taking great joy in watching him squirm.

Yet for all the people who profess to detest Bayless, here’s the bottom line: Wednesday’s show, which morphed into a vigorous debate about athletes and the media, attracted more than 400,000 viewers on ESPN2, double the audience that it did on that date in 2011.That’s a huge number for a blah sports Wednesday in April with no Tim Tebow story, or anything else to feed the machine.

In the Twitter world, the show and subjects being discussed had 5 of the top 10 trends. There were tweets from Lance Armstrong, Bill Walton, Jay Feely, Jamal Anderson, among thousands of others. Yet another barometer: Bracht’s story on Bayless had nearly 10 times more pages views than anything else on the Oklahoman site that day.

The entire episode underscored the big question: Can anybody name a more polarizing figure in sports TV right now than Skip Bayless?

As Bayless, 60, says: “I could argue for the Easter Bunny, and I still would lose on Twitter.”

On the one hand, the guy gets nominated for an Emmy. The other nominees were Cris Collinsworth, Charles Barkley, Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds, Kirk Herbstreit, and Trent Dilfer.

On the other, the outrage from his critics was about the same as if a faction of the Democratic party nominated Rush Limbaugh for Man of the Year.

Writes Ken Fang at Fangbites.com:

Besides yelling and inexplicably latching onto Tim Tebow, what Skippy does is bloviate and make a spectacle of himself. He makes himself the story instead of covering it. The Academy got this nomination wrong. I just hope Skippy isn’t labeled “Emmy Award-winning” this year or any other year.

Believe me, that was actually kind compared to others.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Bayless when he was a columnist at the Chicago Tribune in the late 90s. I can say he was as intense about his job as anyone I’ve ever seen in the business.

I also know he believes every word he says. Don’t ever, EVER question his conviction on a subject. Bayless does nothing for show.

Love him or hate him, people certainly are talking about him. And watching, judging by the ratings.

So with that in mind, here are the highlights of my interviews with Bayless:

How does it feel being such a polarizing figure?

Bayless: Wasn’t that the case at the Chicago Tribune? I’ve been through that my whole life. It’s the way it was when I was with the Miami Herald, the LA Times, in Dallas. I grew up on this. The weird thing is wherever I’ve gone, things just happen. I’m trained to go through this. My skin is extremely thick. I must admit when I open my Twitter responses, you always have to remind yourself these are emotional overreactions in large part. My Twitter followers love me. Some of them love to hate me, but it’s born of love.

Certainly some of the comments on your Twitter have to get pretty vile.

Bayless: If someone crosses the line, I go on to the next one. It happens often, but you have to remind yourself: Just accept it for what it is and go on. I get emotional too. I think I’m always right, but a lot of people disagree. Turnabout is fair play. If I can do it on the air, they can do it to me on Twitter. It’s part of the entertainment of sports. I welcome that they do it.

What was your reaction when Rose hit you with that comment on Tuesday’s show, calling you “Water Pistol Pete”?

Bayless: I was blindsided. I restrained myself on the air. I was shocked that Jalen confronted me and used it against me in what was one of our basic debates. The show ended and I was told, ‘Jalen would like to apologize to you for what he did.’ I said he doesn’t need to do that. They said, ‘No, he feels like he owes you that.’

All I was upset about was that Jalen didn’t come to me before the show and say, ‘Is this the truth?’ It wasn’t even close to being the whole the story. All I wanted to do was sit and say here’s my side of the story. If you still want to ridicule me, I’m great with that. I felt like he was running with half-baked blog reports. He did say he say he was sorry and seemed sympathetic. He had a similar story on a much higher level (a clash with then coach Larry Brown with the Indiana Pacers).

How did Wednesday’s show come about?

Bayless: I said, there’s no reason to run from this. Let’s tee it up the next day. The amusing part was I didn’t know what Jalen would do on the air. I didn’t expect him to apologize, but I thought he might be apologetic. If you know Jalen, and I do, and this is what I like about him on the show: He was back to being defiant Jalen. All of the sudden we ripped it off and quickly left behind my insignificant high school basketball career and launched into an all-out discussion on athletes vs. the media.

The great thing about our show is that we are so flexible. We had blocked 10 topics for that show. We scrapped the rest of the rundown. We just said, let it fly.

How did you feel about people saying you embellished your high school career with those Tweets?

Bayless: I get constantly asked on Twitter, did you play basketball in high school? On a Saturday, I put up two tweets. One about this and one about baseball. Baseball was my better sport. I wrote what I did and got to 140 characters. I thought, should I expand on this? I figured nobody cares, and I let it go. Every word in that tweet is 100 percent accurate, but it is only 5 percent of the whole story. But thanks to the 140-character limit, I thought that was enough.

I guess the takeaway is that there are some things that defy Twitter. You don’t have the space to do the whole explanation.

Were you concerned that people were questioning your credibility?

Bayless: This is what kills me. People equate my ability to play basketball with my ability to evaluate basketball and other sports.. This is a constant argument I have with Jalen and Cris Carter. Last year, 28 of the 32 NFL general managers never played one down in the NFL. How do you explain that, Cris?

To Jalen, I say, the best GM in the NBA is R.C. Buford in San Antonio, who didn’t even play college basketball. A classic example is a guy like Michael Jordan. The greatest player who ever played, and we can make a case he is the worst general manager/personnel director/owner in the history of the NBA. They don’t have a comeback for this.

How did you feel about Kevin Durant’s comments?

Bayless: That knocked me out of my chair. I’m from Oklahoma City. Durant is my favorite player. I make no bones about that. All of the sudden because I’m down on his teammate for stealing shots from him, he blasts me. This is Kevin Durant, one of the nicest guys you’ll meet, saying I know nothing about basketball and that I must never watch the Thunder games. In fact, I watch every dribble of the Thunder games. I was just trying to make a point about Russell Westbrook, and I think I’m right.

What does it say that you have athletes reacting to what you say and that you have people searching for your high school basketball records?

Bayless: It shows me our show is arriving. I rarely meet a pro or college athlete who does not watch our show. They all watch it. Partly because it fits into their schedule and lifestyle. I asked Marcellus Wiley, ‘Why is it so many athletes watch our show?’ He said, ‘Because it’s real.’ Then he chuckled and said, ‘They want to see somebody take you down.’

Do you see yourself as the guy wearing the black hat?

Bayless: The thrust of our show is people trying to take me down. They just want to see me lose. That’s why they love Stephen A (Smith). He calls me Skip “Baseless.” Fine. Then I quickly prove to the audience that I’m not baseless and win the argument from him, using live ammo, real facts that he can’t refute.

You’ve described yourself as being obsessive. How does that translate on the show?

Bayless: I’m a fanatic. I’m obsessed. I live for this show. My whole night is watching sports. I watch the 6-7 Sportscenter. Then I watch it seems like every game ever played. Go to bed at midnight. Get up at 5, watch the (West Coast) SportsCenter on the treadmill. I have no choice. When you walk in the door at 7:15, you better know everything that happened the night before, and more important, what your stance is. Are you pro or con?

Are these debates personal to you?

Bayless: I’m driven. I’m competitive. I want to win every debate. The audience gets it. People laugh, but I say I win most debates every night between 6 and midnight in preparation. Reading, watching, thinking, formulating my argument. I do it every night without fail.

What does the Emmy nomination mean to you?

Bayless: It was the greatest honor of my career. I had writing honors. This was against all odds, against the grain, to be nominated in the category I’m in. It was breakthrough for the show, much more for me. And all the people who worked on it, fought so hard, come so hard. Long, hard struggle. The show has broken through since the fall. This has been a thrill ride for all of us. We’re getting validated by the eyeballs for the first time. We’ve always done fairly well, but not like this. This was the cherry on top of all that.

Why is the show registering now?

Bayless: We found our audience. They were there. Whenever I traveled, airports, all I ever heard was, ‘We love the debates. We just wait for the debates.’ I believe we have developed a dynamic unlike anything that’s been on sports television. It’s real, raw. It’s unfiltered. It’s basically unplanned. It’s definitely unscripted. We’re fearless about our topic.

Charles Barkley is another one of your critics. He’s even said he wants to kill you. How does that make you feel?

Bayless: I’m mystified by whatever he’s said about me all the way to his recent kill quotes. I don’t understand it. I don’t know the genesis about it. I love Charles Barkley on the air. I watch every Inside the NBA. I look forward to everything he says. I don’t always laugh with him. Sometimes I laugh at him. The great irony is that many of our debaters who know Charles say, “You’re missing the boat here. Skip’s heart is good. I believe my heart is good.’ I’ve asked him many times to talk to him on the air. We’d go to Atlanta to do it. This vehicle is built for Charles Barkley. He would thrive in it.

A postscript: Bayless sent me the following email Sunday, providing the proverbial “rest of the story” to his high school basketball career.

Bayless: As I said on air on Wednesday, if I HAD played for a high-school coach who loved and encouraged me, I very well might not be where I am today. If, as my teammate told the Oklahoman, I had transfered to a rival high school and averaged 18 a game in an era of 45-40 scores, I probably would have tried to play college basketball, even Division II, and probably gone nowhere. But I was so disillusioned my sophomore year, when I had gone from rising star to shattered confidence, I was far more receptive when the journalism teacher asked me to write two columns a week for the school paper.

I fatefully had her for the one non-journalism class a day she taught, advanced English, and the first day of school she asked us to pick any book and write a one-page report, just so she could gauge our writing ability. I chose a Y. A. Tittle biography. She asked me to stay after class on Friday. I thought I was in trouble. She told me I could write – first I’d heard that – and she told me I was going to write for her paper. I said no, I was player. But by the end of that year, I was writing for the school paper. She eventually entered me in the Grantland Rice Scholarship competition at Vanderbilt – a full ride given once a year to the best prospective sports writer. I won. My career path was set. My faith has always been very important to me. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways.

 

 

 

 

 

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