Stephen A. Smith returns to ESPN, flips on Ben Simmons

ESPN host Stephen A. Smith (left) has completely changed his tune about former Sixers malcontent Ben Simmons.

after an absence from ESPN that lasted more than a monthStephen A. Smith made his return to First Take on Monday in dramatic fashion, filming the episode on a boat in the Hudson River.

The gimmick was a bit unsettling to watch, and at one point host Molly Qerim had to cut to ESPN’s South Street Seaport Studios for more than 15 minutes as the crew battled some rough waves and she fought off a bout of seasickness.

Maybe the choppy waters explain the former Inquirer columnist’s dramatic flip-flop on former Sixers malcontent Ben Simmons.

Smith hasn’t exactly been shy about his criticism of the former No. 1 pick, who is now in Brooklyn with the Nets as part of the trade that netted the Sixers James Harden. In April, he referred to Simmons as Zoolander for riding the bench in expensive outfits, and blasted the three-time All-Star for sitting out the Nets’ loss in the playoffs to the Boston Celtics.

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“Ben Simmons might be the weakest, most pathetic excuse for a professional athlete we have ever seen, not just in American history, but the history of sports,” Smith said.

Smith also referred to Simmons as “the antithesis of everything Allen Iverson personified,” noting that Philadelphia fans viewed Simmons as a “coward.” He has repeatedly referred to the 26-year-old as a quit.

“I feel bad for anyone who was his teammate. He quit on LSU, he quit on the Philadelphia 76ers, and now he ain’t showing up for the Brooklyn Nets,” Smith said during ESPN’s coverage of the NBA playoffs. “This is one of the most pathetic situations that I’ve ever seen in my life. He ain’t going to war, he ain’t going into the octagon, he’s not going into the boxing ring — it’s pulling teeth to get this man to play basketball. It’s pathetic, it’s sad.”

But after running into Simmons recently, Smith is singing a different tune (though he mistakenly called him “Brent”).

“His personal business is his personal business,” Smith said Monday. “I support the brother. I had a problem with him not playing, that’s the past. He’s ready to go. He wears he’s ready to go. I’m rooting for the brother.”

Smith’s change of heart came before news broke that Simmons reached an agreement with the Sixers on his grievance to get back the $20 million he lost while sitting out during the 2021-22 season. Simmons, who had back surgery in May, was paid his entire salary for the second half of the season, despite never taking the court for the Nets.

We’ll see if Smith has anything to say about the settlement on Tuesday’s FirstTake, though he’s not the first former critic to extend an olive branch to Simmons. In February, NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal softened his stance after he called Simmons a “crybaby” on The Big Podcast with Shaq. But he was back criticizing the point guard a few months later for sitting out of the playoffs as the Nets lost to the Celtics.

“He went the punk move route, ‘Oh, I’m not going to play, my back hurts.’ We all know what that is. Ballers know what that is,” Shaq said on TNT in April. “Guys that live this life, we know exactly what you’re doing buddy.

» READ MORE: Sixers, Ben Simmons reach agreement on $20 million withheld during his holdout

  • Hall of Fame head coach and longtime Fox Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson will be taking it easy this NFL season. In an interview with the Miami HeraldJohnson revealed he will only appear in the studio for Fox NFL Sunday during doubleheaders, so just about every other week. He also said he’ll occasionally be replaced by former head coach Sean Payton, who joins the network as an analyst this season. Though no formal announcement has been made, the rest of the Fox NFL Sunday crew — Terry Bradshaw, Curt Menefee, Howie Long, Michael Strahan, and Jay Glazer — are expected back this season.

  • Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, contacted one of the top execs at Paramount to begin talks about CBS airing the LIV Golf tour, according to Sports Business Journal’s Jon Ourand. Kushner private equity firm, Affinity Partners, secured a $2 billion investment last year from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is the controversial backer of LIV Golf. So far no network airs LIV Golf events, which have been forced to stream on YouTube.

  • Sports fans have been pushed to the limit by streaming services (Phillies fans will have to deal with Apple TV+ again on Sept. 2). Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw crunched the numbers, and if you want to subscribe to every streaming service without commercials, it’ll set you back $100 a month. And that doesn’t include what you’ll have to pay to, say, watch all the Philadelphia Union games on Apple TV+’s upcoming MLS package.

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