How Inside the NBA's Gone Fishin’ took on a life of its own

The late-night skit on TNT has been sending NBA teams on vacation for more than 20 years.

ATLANTA — The most refreshing perk enjoyed by NBA players headed toward the offseason is vacation, where an exotic destination awaits. To distance themselves from the basketball grind, most will be gone beaching, gone golfing, gone shopping, gone traveling.

But the absolute last choice is Gone Fishin’, and even worse, sent there on a custom-made and digitally enhanced boat, courtesy of the “Inside The NBA” crew. This means not only were you just eliminated from the playoffs, but you also get lampooned while harpooning your catch.

It’s all in good fun, though, and the traditional springtime skit on the late-night TNT show is more knee-slapping than face-slapping. Unless you’re Kyle Anderson, who recently was shown getting socked off the Timberwolves’ boat by a left jab from teammate Rudy Gobert in an animation revisitation of their recent bench confrontation. Most likely, Anderson got a chuckle out of that … like millions of viewers.

Of all the regular segments that make “Inside The NBA” — the best sports show on television — Gone Fishin’ is perhaps the most anticipated if not most entertaining because it only happens this time of the year. It cleverly combines photoshopped heads of players, coaches and also celebrities with ties to those home cities, all thrown together on a boat designed to remove them from the playoffs and ship them to a favorite fishing hole.

They’re serenaded by Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson Jr., the “Inside” crew shown in the studio on a massive yacht holding fishing rods and wearing fishing hats — therefore striking the balance between hoops and hilarity that the show is famous for.

“That’s my favorite part of our shows, the entertainment value,” said coordinating producer Jeremy Levin. “I love basketball as much as anybody. The games are awesome, you can’t beat that. But I grew up a huge late-night talk show fan with David Letterman and Johnny Carson and I wanted to lean into that. That’s where we find our sweet spot.”

How it started

The slickly produced Gone Fishin’ segment is engineered by art director Alex Houvouras — who creates many of the clever bits — and coordinating director Steve Fiorello. And it’s the brainchild of Kenny Smith based on an incident during his playing days with the Rockets, which coincidently linked all four “Inside” hosts.

The Rockets fell behind Barkley and the Suns 3-1 in the 1995 Western Conference semifinals and during a Game 5 timeout in Phoenix, the Suns’ Gorilla mascot did a skit. He held a fishing pole and on the end of the pole were wooden boards that revealed the teams the Suns had already beaten. Then the last board unveiled the name of the Rockets, who were still alive, but barely. It caught the attention of the crowd, which erupted, and Smith, who also erupted.

He screamed in the huddle: “We ain’t gone fishin’ y’all! We ain’t gone fishin’!”

Well, Smith’s outburst had three positive effects: It riled up the Rockets, who rallied and beat Barkley and the Suns in the series; Game 7 became the famous Mario Elie “Kiss of Death” game when the Houston guard blew a kiss toward the Phoenix bench after hitting a big corner 3-pointer with seven seconds left. The Rockets then advanced to the NBA Finals and swept Shaq and the Magic. And then Gone Fishin’ became a signature segment once Smith brought the memory to the TNT show where he became a regular after retirement.

As the show was about to sign off for the season, Smith told Johnson: “I guess we’re about to be gone fishin’.”

Well: That registered with the producers, and thus created Gone Fishin’ to salute the exit of every playoff team ever since. It’s the last segment of the show each spring, as part of EJ’s Neat-O Stat Of The Night (unsullied by sponsors since 1989), and filled with photoshopped gags both obvious and subtle.

“Kenny’s the straw that stirs the drink and he has entrusted us to give our little spin on it,” Fiorello said.

The producers originally slapped together headshots and that was it. The first Gone Fishin’ was in 2003, a doctored photo of Smith and Bucks coach George Karl holding fish (the Bucks lost in the first round to the Nets).

But the advancement of technology, gadgetry and visual hocus-pocus has changed everything. Helped by a massive green screen similar to those used by local TV stations to display weather maps, the segment is now vivid and 3D-ish. That’s why the “Inside” cast is now aboard a billion-dollar yacht roughly the size of Switzerland (not to scale, of course).

“As soon as Chuck saw the boat, he said, `That looks like the boat Clarence Thomas was taking trips on.’ People on social started eating that up,” said Houvouras.

The evolution

EJ, Charles, Kenny & Shaq send the Pelicans, Bulls, Thunder, Raptors and Mavericks into the offseason after the Play-In Tournament.

The process by which the studio is prepped for the segment is actually quite herculean. During the commercial break prior, dozens of workers scamper about to lay the green screen, prepare camera angles, lighting, animation and assorted other technical necessities. Also, the hosts are putting on their fishin’ gear, consisting of hats (Houvouras said “they’re very peculiar about their hats” although Smith doesn’t wear one) and poles (Barkley uses a pink children’s pole).

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” said Fiorello. “It’s like a NASCAR crew at a pit stop. Everybody knows their job and it gets done, because the commercial break is only two minutes.”

When the break’s over, the fun begins.

Along with selected players on each team, the celebrities on the boat complete the segment. They’re chosen for their connection to those cities, and in some cases those celebrities aren’t widely known for that, forcing the viewers (and hosts) to think. The easy one is Spike Lee whenever his beloved Knicks are eliminated. Same for Jack Nicholson with the Lakers and Outkast with the Hawks.

But: Steve Harvey fishin’ with the Cavs? He was raised in Cleveland and has a street named after him there. Post Malone with the Mavericks? He’s from Dallas and his father works for the Cowboys. Los Angeles is the producers’ favorite because the celebrity possibilities are endless.

The unofficial most popular Gone Fishin’ was back when Jay-Z owned a piece of the Nets. Just before the Nets were eliminated, a video surfaced of the rapper being slapped by his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles, and it went viral. So Houvouras had Jay-Z getting sweet revenge, by showing him throwing her off the boat.

“We put him in a shirt that said ‘98 Problems,’” Houvouras said.

It’s those types of decisions that flush out the segment and apply hilarious perspective to the team that’s gone fishin’. For example: The name of this year’s Grizzlies boat was “Fine In The West,” a riff on Ja Morant’s bold and cocky declaration months ago about his team’s chances of going all the way (they didn’t). The Minnesota boat was named “Back-To-Back Play-In Champions,” giving them a backhanded claim to fame.

And for the eliminated Clippers? Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — who once again were mostly AWOL with injuries — sat together with a doctor standing in the background, and they held a prescription … for Load Management.

The producers are constantly brainstorming ideas. Most material is inadvertently provided by the teams and players themselves, from the drama stirred up before the playoffs and even during the playoffs.

Houvouras said: “We want to have fun with the storylines.”

Fiorello added: “If we find it funny, the hope is the viewers will find it funny.” 

Last year an animal rights protestor glued herself to the court in Minnesota during a game, and the producers pounced. When the Timberwolves were eliminated, they showed the protester halfway off the boat — and the TV screen — desperately clinging to the deck with her glued hand. When the Sixers were bounced last year, Will Smith — Philly native — was shown slapping Barkley instead of Chris Rock.

Another goal of the producers is to pique the interest of the “Inside” crew because if that’s accomplished, then Smith, Shaq and Barkley become engaged and locked in and their improvisational commentary skills take over.

Fiorello said: “When we got bored with the stuff we were doing, we started coming up with ideas to get the guys interacting a little more. And with these guys, it’s really easy to give them a visual to work with.” 

Houvouras said: “When there’s stuff that’s on the edge, those guys love that. We try to visualize something that will get those guys to create moments. Give them the opportunity to be part of the reaction.”

Another beauty of the “Inside” show is how the cast, namely Barkley and Shaq, are often caught by surprise by various skits on the show. Like: Barkley is often victimized by something falling from the ceiling onto his dome — feathers, fake snow, anything safe yet suffocating. Same goes for the Gone Fishin’ gags.

“One year we had this idea to create a stormy evening,” said Fiorello, “to kind of enhance that going into the graphic. So we brought these giant fans in the studio to create that effect and had our lighting crew create lightning. We didn’t tell the guys. Prior to the segment, I told our stage manager to take stacks of paper, just lay it on the desk because when the wind kicks up the paper’s going to start flying. So every segment before the gone fishin’ she would run out and put stacks of paper on the desk and the guys didn’t know it was coming, didn’t realize what she was doing.

“But once they realize something’s up, they always lean into it and embrace it. They didn’t see the fans or anything. When the segment started we cranked up the fans and paper is flying all over the place and Shaq’s yelling `abort, abort.’”

An obvious question: What feedback do they get from players who are the butts of the jokes? Smith said: “They take it pretty good. It’s done in good humor because it’s not anything about their game.”

So that’s the gist of this fishy segment. Starting with the first round of the playoffs until the last game of the conference finals, the TNT crew comes with rods ready. While Johnson narrates the scene, Shaq obliviously casts his bait almost high enough to snag the studio lighting and threatens to jump into the fake ocean, Barkley and his oversized hands grip the tiny kid’s pole, and Smith is wondering what celebrity will appear next. 

Oh: The one person shown aboard every boat, no matter the team, is Smith. And what’s the dirty little secret about that?

Smith doesn’t care much for real-life fishin’.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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