Skip Bayless leans in to tell the story. He bows his big shoulders, straining the seams of his muscle tee, plants his elbows on the table at the Ruby Tuesday in Bristol, Connecticut, just down the road from the ESPN studios where he works, and tightens the screws in his jaw. The voice that comes out of him, though, is arid and pinched, as if describing the contents of his desk.

"This was the turning-point moment for me and my father, the summer I said, 'I have to get out.' I was working at Hickory House, his barbecue place, filling a truck with big cookers of ribs. Dad was drunker than usual and abusing me in front of the staff, throwing these scalding-hot cookers at me so I'd burn my hands. 'What're you doing? You want to fight me?' I said, and he goes, 'Yeah. Let's see what you got.' So we go to a back storeroom, and he takes his stance, comes at me with a big old roundhouse. I casually half-ducked it and creamed him with a right, knocked him into a vat of potato salad. He got up spitting fury and said, 'Go home to your mother!' Screamed me out the door yelling that. He died five years later, during my first year out of college. That was the last time we really talked."

>Bayless has been sitting for four and a half hours, telling tales of his Raymond Carver beginnings: the beautiful mother who drank like a fish and had only a nodding interest in her kids; the father who treated him like a party trick, pouring booze down the throat of his preschool-age son for the amusement of his Saturday-night guests; and the decades-long rift between Skip and his two siblings, one of whom is Rick Bayless, the famed chef and impresario of Mexican cuisine. It's a powerhouse story of suffering and resilience, of a man who spun himself out of thin air into a red-hot commodity in sports – first as a columnist, then as a host on talk radio, and, finally, as the 60-year-old star of a breakout television hit, the morning sports debate show First Take on ESPN2. There, his outdoor-voiced views on zeitgeist athletes – Tim Tebow (whom he exalts) and LeBron James (whom he reviles), and Terrell Owens, Tiger Woods, and Chad Ochocinco in years past – have pushed ratings through the roof, provoked untold hate tweets, and driven a fair portion of the national conversation about superstars and their lives. But get him going on his own life, or the meager bits of it not subsumed by watching and judging players, and the air leaks out of Bayless. It's like talking, suddenly, to a hardware salesman, albeit one who knows his way around a punch line.

"So I knew to get out, and that I could get out, despite no sports or college background in my family," says Bayless, who, as a senior at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, was writing for the school paper, carrying perfect marks, and catching for the varsity baseball team. To compound his troubles, though, he was playing for a coach who happened to be a lot like his father, "demeaning and abrasive because he could be." In the spring of that year, Bayless decided to strike a blow at one of the overbearing men in his life. Just before his last game, he published a detailed takedown of the coach, a man named Winston Havenstrite, and his "tyranny." The story, outing Havenstrite as a bully and a fraud, was a local sensation and set Bayless' flight path as a rabble-rouser-in-progress. Shortly afterward, he got a phone call at home informing him that he'd won the annual Grantland Rice scholarship, a full boat ride to Vanderbilt University given to the best high school sportswriter in the country. It was revenge and deliverance in a single serving, but Bayless barely shrugs at the recollection. "I left that chaos – Dad running off with Mom's friend, Mom spiraling into alcohol hell – and was gone and done. My sister and brother haven't forgiven that to this day."

"Have you sat with either of them since?"

He slumps in his booth and folds his gunnery-sergeant arms, eyes hooded by his baseball cap. Out of his on-air uniform – the hand-stitched and double-starched shirts – he is ferociously fit for a man his age, as obdurate about the body he's spent 30 years building as he is on the subject of Tebow's glory. Both things are extensions of his self-conception: He's a warrior for the truth, and war is hell. "Without going into details, which I'll keep to myself, I tried to reconnect with each and failed."

And the coach you nailed with that kill shot?

At this, Bayless brightens. "My junior-high coach, a guiding light in my life, ran into him on the golf course a week later. Havenstrite said, 'I want you to tell him something for me: If I ever see him again, I will kill him!'"

"Your first death threat. A milestone."

"I know," says Bayless, his eyes lit up now. "I'd made my first hater in print!"
ESPN, once a bland supplier of, you know, sports, has gone, like MTV, into the drama business and stuffs its platform with canned debates. Each weekday, it mounts six or more hours of barbershop woofing, beginning at 10 a.m. with 'First Take' on ESPN2. That show runs two hours, re-airs at noon in its entirety, and then is chopped, sliced, and diced for a half-hour sampler. Right behind it come 'SportsNation', 'Around the Horn', and 'Pardon the Interruption', where the same five talking points chewed on 'First Take' are rolled out, remasticated, and served anew. The nonstop harangues over LeBron's postseason reading ("'The Hunger Games' is for eighth-grade girls! Winners read 'The Art of War!'"); his "failure to lead," i.e., match Michael Jordan in jumpers made and teammates punched; and his pretensions to greatness while still a high school kid ("Don't forget, he stole MJ's powder toss!") – it's almost enough to make you feel lousy for a man earning $53 million a year. Forget "The Decision"; it's the derision we can't take. Nine years in and a championship won: Can we finally change the subject and move on?

But 'First Take', which began life in 2003 as a sports-variety turkey called 'Cold Pizza', has done the near-miraculous since changing its format to full-time debate last summer: It has nearly doubled its audience and become a profit center as a midlife program made over. Some portion of the credit goes to Jamie Horowitz, the in-house producer brought on last year to reanimate the shopworn show. "We focus-grouped it to people and realized pretty quickly that viewers wanted debate," says Horowitz, who also oversees 'SportsNation' and 'Numbers Never Lie'. "In particular, they wanted to see Skip debate. As we say in the television business, he cuts through."

Agreed, though often with a broadax. Like very few others in this age of contention, Bayless is brilliant at picking up heat, spotting born stars in the nebula stage, and claiming early stakes in their stories. James, for instance, was a rookie with the Cavs when Bayless noted his tendency to flinch in fourth quarters and shun last shots and the free-throw line when games were late and close. It seemed absurd to say it then; the kid was 19 and entitled to fail as he learned. But Bayless was onto something, having seen the young Jordan hoist miss after miss without blinking. "LeBron's truly a good person, but he wants to please people, and MJ didn't care about that. The great ones are about winning and winning only. The rest of it is tied for last." The years going forward seemed to bear him out, as James went wobbly at critical moments in do-or-die games for two teams. But Bayless, having long since made his point, couldn't and wouldn't let up, turning this observation into a string of taunts – "LeBrick," "the Frozen One," "the Counterfeit MVP" – that seemed less about being right than about growing his brand.

So, too, with Tebow, though to very different ends. Bayless anointed him in his junior year of college as the God of Self-Made Success, a scrapper who'd strike it big not because he could throw but because he'd been told at every step that he couldn't.

"He 'can't hit an out route,' can't do this, can't do that," scoffs Bayless. "But I was at the BCS game in Miami when he destroyed my vastly superior Oklahoma Sooners by sheer force of will. He so amped his team at halftime that they came out and left tire tracks on a defense filled with high-round picks." Fair enough, and full marks to Bayless for seeing an NFL gamer in the kid. But when Tebow went on his modest run last fall, Bayless flogged the story like a tent-show healer, winding up acolytes and haters alike with his cultic sermons on "winning." "With Tebow, he's just gone way out there in space; in a word, I think he's crazy," says Stephen A. Smith, Bayless' longtime friend and debate foe on the program. "I love him like a brother, but he can't believe he's ever wrong, even if the facts disagree." "Skip's faith in Tebow is like Tebow's faith in God: It's so strong that it doesn't matter if he's real," says Woody Paige, Bayless' pal and opponent from 2004 to 2006 on 'Cold Pizza'. "He'll find evidence to back his case, whether it's victories over stats or Tebow's fourth-quarter numbers."

As much as it may gall friends, never mind viewers, to hear him bang the drum – "Skip's constant beating up on Russell Westbrook almost ended our 48-year friendship," says Craig Humphreys, the Thunder's pre- and postgame radio host and one of Bayless' childhood buddies – none of them doubt that he does so in earnest; he's been at it, and then some, since boyhood. As a latchkey kid in a chaotic household, he was saved by sports from the snares that tripped his parents. At breakfast, ignored by his hungover dad, he'd crib the sports section of 'The Oklahoman,' fold it just so on the floor of his kitchen, and commit the Cardinals' box score to memory. The names and stat lines, the stories on those pages – those became the bible of an avid mind, much the way church offered refuge to a boy who never felt safe at home. "I didn't have a curfew and always slept at friends' houses, but on Sundays, Mom dragged me to church," he says. "It was the best thing she did for me. I was moved just to be there and to feel God had a plan for me." Bayless thought about becoming a preacher but was playing three sports from middle school forward and reading every book he could get his hands on. By the age of 16, his calling was clear: He would write sports with the zeal and conviction he'd heard coming from the pulpit.

After college, Bayless got a job at the 'Miami Herald' and made the leap to columnist at the 'Dallas Morning News' in three years. Soon he was the object of a bidding war between the city's two major dailies, thrusting him into a new class of franchise writers who could name their own price and terms, including a country-club membership.

During the course of two lucrative decades in Dallas, he began to grow his portfolio, taking a local sports-radio slot in 1991. It was an effortless pivot for a talker enrolled by his mother in speech-coaching classes at age eight, who, by middle school, was winning oration contests in front of packed assemblies. "I loved sparring with callers and hardcore regulars, but even more so the on-air battles with coaches. Bobby Valentine and I would go at it for a solid hour," says Bayless. Indeed, he so incensed the then-manager of the Texas Rangers with a column that the two men had to be pulled apart during a pregame argument at the ballpark. These set-tos became something of a meme for Bayless. He was on the Cowboys' plane in 1991 when Mark Tuinei, a 320-pound Pro Bowl tackle, called him out by name over the PA system. Bayless, who stands 5-10 and weighs 170 pounds, marched back to where the players were sitting and went nose-to-nose with the drunken lineman, who was irked at something he'd written about Troy Aikman. As Aikman and a number of others circled to watch, Tuinei threw Bayless against the bathroom door and began bashing him in the chest and shoulders. "It was a near-death experience. He was mad enough to kill me, and I was fool enough to stand my ground," he says. Happily, the head coach, Jimmy Johnson, came charging up the aisle to intervene; otherwise, Bayless and his contrary views might have made an unplanned departure over Duluth.

So effective was Bayless at stirring things up that he co-founded a sports-talk station in Dallas and built it into a drive-time colossus. Soon he was all over ESPN, guest-hosting for Jim Rome, debating Smith on Sunday mornings, and doing the two-hour run-up to 'Monday Night Football'. "One night, Joe Theismann put me against a wall and screamed I was full of bleep," says Bayless, who doesn't curse, drink, or smoke, and whose idea of depravity is a shared slice of pizza with his fiancee, Ernestine Sclafani. "He thought I had blasphemed a heroic performance by Emmitt Smith, but I had contacts in that clubhouse that he didn't."

In 2004, Bayless got a call from Mark Shapiro, who was then chief of programming at ESPN, asking him to save the floundering 'Cold Pizza'. Bayless moved to New York and spent two years debating Paige; their 10-minute segments, staged at the top of each hour, put Bayless in front of a national crowd, where, dependably, his takedowns started rumbles. Tossing brickbats at show-pony jocks, Bayless struck a chord with disaffected fans who'd had it up to here with me-first divas. But more than a few African-Americans and media critics were appalled by the sight of a Southern-fried white man roasting black icons for their stunts. Deadspin assailed his "Negro baiting," FOX Sports likened him to Glenn Beck, and the 'Miami New Times' called him "the Rush Limbaugh of sports journalism."

Apart from a couple of line-crossing cracks over 40 or so years in the public square, however – Bayless recently acknowledged taking pride in the fact that Blake Griffin has a white mother – it's hard to give those charges any traction. Bayless has been a fierce, and often solitary, backer of embattled black stars through the years (see Barry Bonds, Vince Young, and Donovan McNabb). If he's biased about anything, it's for superstars with the rare but definable "clutch gene": Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kevin Durant, end of list. All others are judged against them and mercilessly found wanting, none more so, of course, than James. This infuriates critics as grossly unfair and leads them to their own indiscretions. Charles Barkley, no one's diplomat, says he wants to "kill" Bayless and "hates him more than any person" alive. Terrell Suggs appeared on 'First Take' and called Bayless a "douchebag" in a segment not sponsored by Massengill. "Athletes don't like him, and I'm being kind when I say that; I won't repeat the things they call him in private," says Smith, who became Bayless' full-time sparring partner when the format changed to straight debate. "But he's factual and fearless and more than does his homework, and anyone who attacks his character is dead wrong."
Fifty weeks a year, Bayless camps Sunday through Thursday in a cluttered hotel room just outside Bristol, sharing the space with an old exercise bike and the DVR on which he tapes games. He makes the five-minute drive to work in a humdrum Chrysler that's the dog on the lot at ESPN, parked beside brute utes, hot-wheeled Carreras, and the candy-colored Lambos of retired stars. He lives, in short, like a traveling monk with a touch of sports Asperger's, though he earns a salary in the high six figures from a network eager to lock him up for years.

But put him in front of a camera and Bayless amplifies in an eyeblink. His voice booms out, launched like a Taser at Smith. The morning after LeBron clanked a pair of late free throws in a second-round defeat to Indiana, Bayless starts off in full messianic fervor, assailing the sins of the "false MVP" and pinning the loss solely on James. This raises the hackles of the excitable Smith. Bayless listens to Smith gabble about which star choked the most, and then mockingly taps his watch and cuts in. "Yes, but what we've seen is LeBron wave to him and say, 'You do it – I'll stand over here!' We have an MVP who doesn't want the ball and is afraid to take the last shot!"

And so it goes, with minor variations, for 35 minutes without a break. This is heresy, of course: Television lives to cram in ads, but 'First Take' treats its opener with the bated breath of the storm-the-beach scene in 'Saving Private Ryan'. This may account for its sky-high "retention rate" – the average length of time that people stay tuned in before clicking away during commercials – but fails to explain why hundreds of thousands of men are watching a high school food fight at 10 a.m.

Smith and Bayless believe they speak the hard truth – "We're as raw as it comes; if it's relevant, we go there strong," says Smith – but there's nothing hard or truthy here. Their network, which pays the NFL $2 billion a year for the right to air 'Monday Night Football', has largely become the butler to that outfit and breaks its back dancing attendance. It spends two hours a day in June, the thick of football's off-season, pumping the dry-well dust of mini-camps, so if you've tuned in to see Bayless scorch Roger Goodell for his logrolling on NFL brain woes, or are waiting for Smith to unburden himself on the farce that is student athletics, you've got the wrong show and channel.

So, no, Smith and Bayless aren't Huntley and Brinkley, but taken in small doses, they go down easy. A sample exchange, regarding the NBA playoffs: Smith (shaking his head): Ah, Skip – so little time, so much to teach you about the postseason.

Bayless: Oh, right, I forgot – you invented the game of basketball, didn't you, Stephen Naismith. Which is why you broke speed records jumping off your Thunder and onto my San Antonio Spurs! 

Smith, who prefers to watch games from courtside so he can chat up players before and after, usually goes on-air without index cards and seems to have done his prep in the cab ride over. Bayless, on the other hand, starts the previous evening and brings a stack of notes to the set. "The debate is often won the night before, beginning with the 6 p.m. SportsCenter," he says. "After that I watch the games and comb box scores for stats, and get up at 5 a.m. and watch a loop of the 2 a.m. SportsCenter." Childless, divorced, and void of outside interests, Bayless' one passion is protecting his record in debates. "I've never lost an argument and don't intend to start, though I'd be happy if our audience thinks Stephen won a day's debate."

Smith chortled when told this, saying Bayless "is beyond hope; he's just wired different from you and me. Don't get me wrong, I'm life-and-death too, but unlike him, I have a life to fall back on." Paige, Bayless' first foe, recalled a claws-out competitor who lived on "Red Bull, broccoli, and Ambien," rehearsed his punch lines in a corner downstage, and showed up to predawn production meetings with 10 fully formed subjects on a legal pad, "whereas I'd walk in with two words on a Post-it, having not been to sleep for 24 hours." At one meeting, the producers proposed a topic: Would you give up sex for a year if it improved your golf game? "I said, 'Sure, why not; I'll make up for it the next year,'" says Paige. "Skip looks at me and says, apropos of nothing, 'I've had more sex than all you people combined.' I said, 'Bayless, you're full of shit, how could you possibly know that?' But sure enough, he goes and says it on-air – 'I've had more sex than Woody Paige' – and that was about as much as I could take. I jumped out of my chair, knocked him to the floor, and we both rolled around on national television. I'll tell you, though: That guy is really strong."

Bayless admits to saying something of the sort but denies that a hockey match broke out (screaming match was more like it). "Woody's a good friend, but he likes to improve his stories; it's part of his shtick," he says. What can't be denied is the provocation, and more's the pity. Bayless the writer was a whip-smart observer with that rarest thing in sports: an authentic voice. Even on radio, he had the time and space to argue his counterwise views. But television seems to have taken that voice and amped it to a carny's blare, upping the volume and dialing down heart, the soulfulness that made him so compelling. Among the things he's traded in the upgrade to fame is the precept they taught him in church: that human beings change, are bettered by failure, made whole for being torn up. LeBron, for instance, is no longer the kid who fashioned himself the next Jordan. After years of being scourged for his flameouts and ego, he's grown into a heedful, wised-up man who's raised his game and spirit to become a champion. Bashing that spirit, as Bayless does daily, is an insult to all of us and not just James, because it denies the very things we most aspire to: to be stalwart in failure, toughened by insult, rebuilt in our own true image. No one should know that better than Bayless, who heard God tell him, at an early age, that he had a purpose for him. Surely that purpose wasn't to pile onto people who've done nothing to earn his spite, and who, in the case of James, do more to help kids than Michael Jordan's done in his selfish life. Winning isn't the only thing, to half-quote Lombardi; there's that other thing called grace that's worth pursuing.