The last few months, like all NBA seasons, were defined by money. Free agent contracts here, extensions there. Hundreds of millions for proven stars like Nikola Jokić and Damian Lillard, and for rising youngsters like Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole.
And then, at the last minute, came a different (but still quite large) contract: 10 years, and nearly $200 million. The team? Turner Sports. The player? Charles Barkley.
And, as is the case with NBA contracts, Barkley’s massive deal was followed by the role players trickling in. Shortly after the announcement of Chuck’s deal, it was reported that all three of Barkley’s teammates – Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith – had also reached extensions with Turner Sports.
In other words, one of the most successful and longest-tenured teams in the league, “Inside the NBA,” is keeping the band together.
It’s an easily defensible move. The show is a staple of NBA coverage from opening night until they lose broadcasting rights at the NBA Finals. It’s won 17 Emmys. It’s probably more popular than your favorite team.
But there’s a vocal segment of the fanbase that will hate the move. Despite its popularity, “Inside the NBA” has drawn the ire of many fans. As the league has struggled with ratings, turning everyone into a backseat Nielsen analyst, some have suggested that TNT trade their jovial watch party for some more serious analysis. Watch “Inside the NBA” and any NFL halftime show and the contrast is stark. The former lets you be a fly on the wall of a funny friend group’s tipsy night in; the latter transports you to a 300-level college classroom.
The complaints are valid. Barkley may have shed the “hater” label that followed him around during the start of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, but he and the crew still spend two minutes of airtime complaining about teams and players for every minute they spend applauding them. Even when lighthearted, like with the blooper reel that is “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” there’s an underlying concern that maybe these four don’t actually like the NBA all that much.
Spend some time in the fascinating and informative hellscape that is NBA Twitter and you’ll likely see many rants about the “Who He Play For?” segment, a bit ostensibly designed to highlight the fact that Barkley – now paid nearly $20 million a year to talk about the NBA – doesn’t actually know the players he covers.
Any hopes that TNT had listened to the complaints and put that particular charade to rest were squashed on Opening Night, when Barkley again took the stand for the game, and, to the delight of his fellow cast members, shot a Shaq at the free throw line-esque 0-for-5. Which, it’s worth noting, is the designed and desired outcome.
The criticisms hit a fair point, but tend to miss the mark. Those who know where the less-heralded two-thirds of the Holiday triumvirate play aren’t exactly who TNT or the NBA are targeting, and they’re not the reason that ratings keep Adam Silver up at night. People watch basketball for entertainment. Sometimes that entertainment doesn’t involve Horns sets and hedging the pick and roll.
Halfway through writing this article the halftime show for Thursday’s showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers came on. My friend was sitting on my couch watching (the pandemic created a ritual of work from home parties for us). I asked him how he felt about the crew.
“I used to hate them but now I love them,” he responded. “I’ve never been into halftime shows, but I will watch theirs.” I fired off a text to another NBA-loving friend. The response came in: “It’s the only TV sports show I watch … they have by far the best rapport and least hottakey BS on TV.”
As the first week of the NBA season will remind us, two is a pretty insignificant sample size. But both of my friends pointed to the same attributes. They each liked the rapport and camaraderie of the quartet and, interestingly, felt they perform best when not worried about being overly analytical. “Shaq got so good when he stopped trying to say smart things,” said Friend No. 1. “They give their true feelings even if it pisses off influential players/coaches,” added Friend No. 2. Both admitted that the crew says a lot of dumb things. Neither seemed to care.
The NBA is entertainment, and “Inside the NBA” is entertainment. At the end of the day that’s probably all that matters. Especially in this era of basketball coverage. You want a 20-minute explanation of the Spain pick-and-roll? A quick YouTube search will get you there. Want some film breakdown? Visit Twitter or dozens of sites – including the one you’re currently reading – and you’ll find endless content. Still haven’t had enough basketball nerdery? May I introduce you to a cool new invention called “podcasts.”
It’s not what “Inside the NBA” is and, while that angers some, the reality is it’s not what most people want “Inside the NBA” to be. We watch them because they’re familiar, comforting, and entertaining. They’ve been together forever, and their friendship and rapport has grown every year. They’re not stale, but we know what we’re getting.
The irony of the “Who He Play For?” segment is that it pokes fun of the fact that players in the NBA bounce from team to team. It’s exhausting trying to keep track of roster changes, and who plays where.
So it’s nice to turn on TNT on a Tuesday night and know exactly who you’re getting. Shaq, Chuck, Ernie, and The Jet. Same as they were last year. Same as they’ll be next year.
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