Posted Apr 27 2012 8:32PM
ATLANTA -- Inside Studio J, on a Disneyesque set at the Turner television compound, one chair is still empty and there's only 15 seconds left to fill it.
Uh oh. Now it's "10 seconds!" before the pre-game show, as the set director reminds everyone who's here. She seems fidgety, and yet you get the feeling she's been through this before.
"Five seconds!" She's looking around. It's official. She's freaked. She isn't pregnant but she just might have twins if he doesn't get here in ...
"HELLO EVERYBODY LET'S HAVE SOME FUN!"
Charles Barkley's voice enters a room well before he does. He used to enter belly-first, but that was 50 pounds ago, so now it's bellow-first. For those who like their basketball commentary sharp and unfiltered, be glad that Barkley's diet didn't reduce his thoughts and words. They still carry plenty of weight.
It's game night at Inside The NBA, the mother of all basketball shows with the Emmys to prove it, and the ball's about to go up. Sitting to the far left is newcomer Shaquille O'Neal, The Big Neophyte, who talks softly but brings a big shtick, desperately wanting to fit in. Next to him is Ernie Johnson Jr., or "EJ," son of a broadcasting legend, a cancer survivor and a veteran who is so smooth at directing traffic he could take over in the control tower at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. To his left is Kenny Smith, a clever former point guard who comes across that way on the air.
And then, Sir Charles, who's not just the life of the party. He is the party. And it's 'bout to start.
"Whether they play in Boston, Atlanta, Tokyo or Shanghai, the Atlanta Hawks are not going to beat the Boston Celtics," Barkley says on air, discussing the first-round playoff matchup.
"But Charles, Atlanta has home court," says EJ.
"That's not home court. That's like a mausoleum," Barkley fires back.
"Charles, you're on fire," says Smith.
"I'm in a good mood," says Barkley.
Later in the show, the topic switches to the Suns. Barkley: "Old as the Suns are, we're not going to take them out to pasture, we're going to take them to the slaughterhouse."
And then, the Spurs: "They've got Kwalee, Kraylee, Kwame ... " Barkley is struggling to pronounce Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs' terrific young forward. Smith tries to help.
"Kwame? Now you're calling him Kwame Brown."
Barkley: "He don't play like Kwame Brown."
At halftime of the Celtics-Heat game, where $200 million worth of talent is sitting out and therefore turning the game into a glorified shirts vs. skins, EJ opens by telling the bored audience: "You know how some games have a playoff atmosphere and electricity?"
Barkley interrupts: "Well, this one has bad weather and the electricity went out."
Given the power and the reach of the media, it's possible Barkley ranks behind only the commissioner as the most influential non-player in the NBA. And David Stern, unlike Barkley, has had a rough year. If Barkley stays on this pace in broadcasting, which is slowly pushing him to icon status within the business, folks might forget he actually played ball and is in the Hall of Fame. Sort of like Johnny Miller in golf, Barry Melrose (Barkley's idol) in hockey, Troy Aikman in football.
And none of those jocks-turned-broadcasters can touch Barkley's ability to entertain.
"Charles is a mentor," said Shaq. "The best."
He's quick and spontaneous and loud, a combo that makes him smart and funny and not easily ignored. You may not agree with him, and that's fine, but he's telling the truth as he sees it. He may not always be right, as he says, but he's never wrong. Barkley is maybe the last honest broadcaster in a business that overflows with phonies, flame-throwers and analysts too agenda-driven to tell it like it is. Barkley calls BS on all that.
"Some of the guys have their favorite coaches, favorite players," he says. "Some of (the commentary) is racial, they don't like these young brothers ... I block all that crap."
He is bracing for the upcoming marathon known as the NBA playoffs, where the Inside The NBA crew will appear nightly to inspect and dissect the games. This is the last buffet that Barkley, who famously endorses Weight Watchers, is allowed to consume. And like a starving carnivore at Ruth's Chris, he'll devour hours of basketball and use the material to entertain and inform millions who watch mainly because of him. Those who love Barkley never miss a show, anxious to hear what he'll say next. Same goes for those who despise Barkley.
He says plenty of complimentary things about plenty of players and coaches. The list is long. Nobody can rave like Sir Charles. He said Marcin Gortat, until lately a career bench player, will someday be an All-Star. For a while, after listening to Barkley's constant gushing, you'd have thought Kevin Love was the mutant offspring of Kevin McHale and Bob Love. Yes, Barkley recognizes and acknowledges talent and fine play and great games quite regularly.
But it's the criticism that flushes out the beast in Barkley. People want to know who and what Barkley thinks is tuurrrible.
Like the hiring practices of Michael Jordan, one of Barkley's closest friends and the owner of arguably the worst team all-time, the Bobcats. On this day, Larry Brown, the former Bobcats coach, took a swipe at the competency of Jordan's inner circle, to which Barkley laughed.
"I said the same thing years ago. Larry's just getting around to that."
Proof of Barkley's brutal, nobody-is-spared honesty lies with his opinion of Jordan, whose rep as an executive and owner can't get much lower. Few in broadcasting have the guts to take on Jordan. And clearly, it pains Barkley immensely to discuss his friend in anything but glowing terms. But, duty calls and honesty trumps all. Barkley said Jordan needs to stop hiring "his boys" to run the team, and later that day, the phone rang.
"Michael cursed me out," said Barkley. "Michael went ballistic. You couldn't repeat it. You know, 'Bleep-this and bleep-that.' Look, when you're Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or someone like that, very few people are going to tell you when you're doing wrong. Because their bills are [getting] paid and they want you to buy all the drinks and all the meals.
"And he's done a terrible job of hiring the people around him. So I said, 'Hey man, I can't get on TV and say you're doing a good job.' I mean, c'mon. That would kill my credibility."
(In a later interview with the Charlotte Observer, Jordan said: "It's absolutely wrong that I don't want [my executives] to challenge me. And the people who say that aren't in the room.")
Kobe Bryant also took issue with Barkley once, when Sir Charles noticed -- like most anyone who knows basketball -- how Kobe curiously turned invisible in a game years ago.
"Kobe tried to prove a point and wouldn't shoot the ball," said Barkley said. "So I called him out. He started texting me that night, about two in the morning. Calling me 'sum-bitch.' We texted for an hour and a half straight. I told him I'd been saying he's the best player in basketball for years and he never texted me once about that. Some of these guys, you can say all the nice things about them, but if you say one bad thing, they're upset. I'd like to think I wasn't that sensitive when I was a player."
Barkley came upon broadcasting in his final few years as a player at the urging of Dick Ebersol, the former NBC Sports honcho, who liked Barkley's bombast in interviews.
"He said, 'You're going to be good on TV, and you're gonna get in trouble because you're honest.' Instead of going to NBC I went to TNT because they said I could be myself on the air, and I knew I couldn't be that way at NBC. I wanted to pick the battles that I wanted to fight. I could be honest and straightforward with no BS."
Those in the industry initially worried about Barkley being credible, since he was no angel as a player. During the Inside The NBA broadcast, when the subject of Metta World Peace's violent elbow begged for a response, what was Barkley's take?
"That was stupid," said the man who once elbowed an Angolan basketball player in the chest.
But Barkley the player never cheated his bosses or fans out of an honest day's work. He was often criticized for his conditioning habits and yet Barkley was one of the bluest of blue-collars on the floor come tipoff; his rebounds and points don't lie.
"I can honestly say I gave it everything I had," he said.
He's beloved and valued at Turner because he carries himself as an ordinary guy; there are no star-tantrums or any big-timing from Barkley. Also, his generosity is legendary among co-workers at all levels. Mostly, everyone recognizes that Barkley works hard when it doesn't seem like he's working at all. He studies constantly, watching multiple games all at once in the massive control room, then again at home, absorbing everything and everyone.
"He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met," said Tim Kiely, the producer. "He's brought a style that everybody tries to copy but he's so bright and so quick that only he can pull it off.
"Is there a line to cross? Yeah, he's way out ahead of everyone else but he loves to go up to that line without going over it. Let me tell you, Charles knows exactly what he's doing. He puts some thought into everything he says on the air."
Barkley caused a stir in Miami last spring during the playoffs when the Turner set moved outside of American Airlines Arena. A handful of Heat fans standing near the stage began giving Barkley the business, and he gave it right back. Heat fans were angry that Barkley was one of the loudest (and many) critics of the way LeBron James left Cleveland and how Barkley ridiculed the pep rally held by LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shortly after the three became teammates.
"Chuck invited all of that," said Kiely. "Look, he still has that fire in him. He wants you to challenge him. If you don't, he's disappointed. All you need to know about Charles is he once fought Shaq. You have to be insane to do that."
Inside The NBA airs a pre-game show, then a halftime show, and then does a full post-game show. All told, Barkley and friends will spend a good five hours straight watching and talking basketball. It shows, and it flows.
Steve Nash and his future was up for debate on the show the other day, and Barkley jumped in.
"If the Suns sign him, they'll be stupid," he said. "He's 39 years old and they're not a contender. At some point you have to start rebuilding. These teams don't owe us [players] anything. The Colts just traded Peyton Manning [actually, they didn't re-sign him]. The San Francisco 49ers traded Joe Montana.
"This idea that 'I've got to keep carrying you because you're a great player for my organization' is nonsense."
Just as the night was winding down, Barkley was warming up. Too late for the show, which was about to end.
But the playoffs are coming, the basketball buffet is about to be served and Sir Charles is starving.
Knowing his appetite, he'll go back for seconds.
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