2021 NBA Finals - Game Three

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When it was first announced that sports commentator Max Kellerman was leaving ESPN’s First Take after five years, rumors abounded that the network’s golden child Stephen A. Smith was behind the exit. At first, Smith denied any involvement in Kellerman’s departure. However, with Kellerman finally gone and set to have his own show debuting next Tuesday, Smith went on NYC’s popular radio station Hot 97 and admitted what the public knew all along: he really was the one who pushed ESPN to remove his associate.

“The rumor’s accurate in terms of me wanting him off the show. Let’s get that out the way — yes, I did,” Smith fessed up. “We don’t have a bad relationship. I think he’s a real good guy, I appreciate what he did for the show, we were number one for five years, we stayed number one, and I appreciate that.”

Smith then tried to soften the blow and continued, “It wasn’t really about asking him to be off the show, it was about the fact that I knew that we, together — as far as I was concerned — was not a great partnership anymore, and that was something that needed to change.”

This admission is a turn from his remarks from a few weeks earlier, when Smith insinuated that any blame for Kellerman’s departure should lie at ESPN’s feet, not his.

“Those reports of me disliking Max are an absolute lie. I actually got a lot of love for the guy,” Smith said on The Morning Hustle in August. “If he stays on the show, so be it. If he departs, it will be because they have other things they want him to do.”

Since Skip Bayless’ move from First Take to FS1’s Undisputed with co-host Shannon Sharpe in 2016, there were stories floating around that Smith wanted to bring back his old running mate. But Bayless signed a new $32 million contract with Fox Sports in March of this year, nixing Smith’s hopes of any reunion.

“All things come to an end, and this is the end to my run on First Take,” Kellerman said on his farewell episode last Wednesday. “Stephen A. had a lot of say in who was going to be his partner after Skip, and I was honored to have been chosen and wouldn’t trade the last five years for anything.”

Smith was not in person for Kellerman’s last hurrah, either, reportedly at home and recovering from surgery for sleep apnea. He did call in, though, for Kellerman’s final sendoff.

“I’m really sorry I couldn’t be there to tell you face-to-face to thank you for everything you did for the show,” Smith said over the phone. “You’re going to be doing big things like you’re always doing big things.”