Posted Feb 11 2010 4:51PM
ATLANTA (AP) -- The camera lights fade, but there's no "off" switch for Charles Barkley on the set of TNT's "Inside the NBA."
Barkley is always on, even when he relaxes with fellow analyst Kenny Smith and host Ernie Johnson in a room where they watch NBA games and other programming on a wall of flat screen TVs. Many of Barkley's on-air observations, jokes and insults are given test runs -- sprinkled with profanity. Conversations from the viewing room carry over onto the set.
"Charles just has to watch his language a little more," Johnson said. "It's like we just happen to be on the air."
Exchanges a little bit on the salty side are second nature to those who have worked with Barkley for a decade on "Inside the NBA," which has moved to Dallas for this week for Sunday's NBA All-Star game.
Johnson said the group's spontaneity drives the show.
"The best advice my dad ever gave me about broadcasting was just be yourself," said Johnson, the son of former longtime Atlanta Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson Sr. "That's all Charles is. He's being himself. He entertains. It's like he doesn't even have to try.
"He likes to have fun and that's exactly what he is on the air. There is never a point where he has to say 'Now I have to go on TV and be the Chuckster.' It's who he is."
Barkley, in turn, says that after a decade of work on TNT he trusts his employers.
He says TNT had his back one year ago when he kept his job -- after a two-month hiatus -- following a DUI arrest in Scottsdale, Ariz. He says the Turner cable network also earned his trust by giving him the freedom to talk about more than basketball.
"What it did was it let me know that I can trust the people that I work for," he said.
Trust also comes with success.
"Inside the NBA" has won five Emmys for best studio show. Johnson has won two Emmys for best host. It has become a much-discussed show among NBA players.
"They're good. They're really good," said Jamal Crawford of the Atlanta Hawks. "For NBA players, it's definitely must-see TV. I think every NBA player watches it."
The long run has been good for Barkley, the former 11-time All-Star.
Barkley's ads for Taco Bell and T-Mobile are prominent during the games and studio show. He remains such a celebrity he was the host for Saturday Night Live on Jan. 9.
The TV gig has lasted two years longer than Barkley's eight-year stay with the Philadelphia 76ers at the start of his NBA career. He was with the Phoenix Suns when he was named NBA MVP in 1993. He completed his career with Houston in 2000 and almost immediately moved to his TV job.
A 10-year special is planned for Friday night.
"Shoot, in TV you never know if you're going to last 10 minutes or 10 years," Johnson said. "My only concern when this took shape was when the novelty wore off, would Charles still be into it or would it be like 'I gave this a try, and that's enough."'
Smith calls Barkley "the ultimate dart-thrower" and says his goal is "to make sure I'm not the target all the time."
No worries there. Barkley aims in all directions:
• On Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat: "Let's be realistic. The Miami Heat are Michael Jackson with a bunch of Tito Jacksons. ... It's just Dwayne Wade by himself, like me in this studio."
• On the movie Avatar: "I want those three hours back in my life! I'm 47. I don't do special effects. I need a plot line."
• On the Eastern Conference race: "Cleveland and Orlando are the two best teams in the East. The Boston Celtics, people keep waiting on them to get healthy. I mean no disrespect, but old people don't get healthy. They die."
• On Clippers interim coach Kim Hughes: "First of all, I hate guys named Kim. I hate guys with girls names."
While Barkley enjoys his job, he's also restless. He dreams of being a general manager for an NBA team.
"That's next for me," Barkley said. "I've been doing this for 10 years. I'm going to need another challenge soon.
"I think some teams know that. I've got to make sure it's a good situation for me. I mean, I'm not going to jump on the Titanic. I've got a great gig and I work with great people, but I'm going to need a bigger challenge."
Smith, who won NBA championships with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, also would like to be a GM. He is fascinated by the idea that someday he and Barkley could be on the phone discussing a trade.
"I know I'd get the best out of the deal, so I'd call him every week," Smith said with a smile.
For now, the focus is the All-Star game.
Barkley is pumped about the big crowd waiting in Dallas. While he wants lose 50 pounds this year, he thinks he'll look good in the stadium setting.
"You know the cool thing about 90,000 people?" he asked. "They're going to be so far away I'm going to look skinny."
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