Heading into NBA Finals, ESPN Doubles Down on Stephen A. Smith (EXCLUSIVE)

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Photo Credit: Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Get ready for a major primetime dose of Stephen A. Smith during the NBA Finals.

ESPN is doubling down on the daytime star of First Take by planning up to eight potential primetime specials starring Smith during the 2019 Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

The 51-year old Smith will host a SportsCenter preview special tonight (Tuesday, May 28) featuring Magic Johnson, Doc Rivers and Pardon the Interruption co-host Michael Wilbon (7-8 p.m. ET).

Then, ESPN will ask Smith to host solo editions of SportsCenter from the site of the Finals before every weeknight game. Depending on whether the series goes seven games, those solo specials are slated to air May 30, June 5, June 7, June 10 and June 13.

There will also be two First Take primetime specials on non-game-nights, June 4 and June 14. ESPN’s sister Disney network ABC tips off Finals coverage on Thursday, May 30 (9 p.m. ET) from Toronto.

“I’m always hyped by hosting my specials for the NBA Finals. This year that’s up to eight prime-time spots with ‘SportsCenter’ and ‘First Take’ to analyze, report and react every step of the way,” Smith said in a statement.

“With many close to game time, I can get into stories from a different perspective as everything changes up to the final minutes this time of year. Add to that, daytime ‘First Take’ and ESPN Radio shows and I’ll say this much: I can’t wait. This is the Finals, baby. Let’s get this party started.”

Smith previously hosted three primetime SportsCenter specials during last year’s NBA Finals.

Last week’s widely-cited interview with Magic Johnson on First Take showed how much juice Smith has with NBA personalities, according to Norby Williamson, executive vice president of event and studio production.

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The Los Angeles Lakers legend chose Smith’s weekday morning show (10 a.m. to 12 noon ET) to offer his first in-depth explanation of why he quit his front office post with the Lakers. Johnson told Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim he felt “betrayed” by Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka.

The one-hour Magic interview on May 20 went viral — with many media outlets using it as a jumping off point to decry the storied franchise’s dysfunction.

Smith’s Magic interview propelled First Take to its most-watched quarter hour since January. The one-hour interview from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET averaged 652,000 viewers, up 54% from the comparable window in 2018. The entire two-hour episode was up 27% from the year before. As word spread that Magic was opening up, the episode peaked at 677,000 viewers from 10:45 a.m. to 10:59 a.m ET.

“The biggest power is Stephen’s ability to secure guests that are connected to the Finals. Obviously, when you are there that night doing the game, you’re not really going to get players. But we found in the past, when players are out there shooting and warming up, they come over to him,” said Williamson during a phone interview with Front Office Sports.

“He books people to show up on ‘First Take.’ So he’s done great. He’s a natural sort of host. Moving into hosting these SportsCenter specials is sort of a natural evolution of his talents. And something I know he enjoys.”

NBA personalities respect his influence, even if they dislike some of the critical comments and polarizing opinions he spouts on his First Take debate show.

Smith, for example, has persuaded Hollywood stars such as Jamie Foxx to come on First Take. These celebrities don’t just do short TV hits either, added Williamson. Like Johnson, they’ll sit down for an hour or more at a time.

Smith is “like having a talent producer and an on-air talent all sort of wrapped into one,” said Williamson.

Given Smith’s long history as an NBA beat reporter for ESPN and the Philadelphia Inquirer, players past and present know it will be difficult to BS their way through an interview.

“He’s just not going to be snowed. I’ve been in this business a long time. The great ones really have the ability to keep relationships with people. While not being cozy let’s say,” said Williamson.

Unlike some TV talents who don’t have the knowledge or guts, Smith asks the direct questions that are on sports fans minds, he added.

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“He confronts. He’s curious. He’s a good interviewer. It may not be textbook all the time. But it works for him and it works for us. He elicits responses. People know when they’re going to show up with him, they’re not going to get a pass on things. We’re going to talk about a lot of different things.”

Gerry Matalon, the former ESPN executive turned on-air coach and consultant at Matalon Media thinks it’s a smart idea for the Worldwide Leader to maximize Smith’s NBA connections during the Finals.

“Absolutely a good idea. SAS = attention,” said Matalon.

Editor’s Note (3:24pm): The original article posting reported that the second First Take special would air on Jun 17. That has been corrected to June 14.