LOS ANGELES — During All-Star Weekend, the Inside the NBA crew was absolutely everywhere. From the giant road show and fan festival that was set up outside Staples Center (where the NBA on TNT guys did a live, outdoor broadcast on Thursday), to personal appearances all over the city, to charity events, to shoe signings, it was hard to attend any significant amount of media events and not see either Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal roll through the area.
Prior to that live broadcast on Thursday that helped kick off the All-Star Weekend, UPROXX had a chance to talk to Barkley and Kenny “The Jet” Smith about the on-screen ease and camaraderie that the panel exhibits year after year.
UPROXX: The NBA on TNT guys are renowned and beloved for your amazing chemistry. Can you describe that chemistry to me and what makes this team such a good fit with each other?
Barkley: Well, I think the main thing is, you know dude, we’re on television from eight o’clock at night to two o’clock in the morning. Nobody want us to be serious. First of all, we got a lot of shitty games. [laughter] But, we do, right? It’s frustrating for me as a fan. Like I can sit down, like, “I’m not gonna watch them two teams play. I’m not gonna watch these two teams play.” I mean, the balance of power is so shifted now. It’s tough to find good games.
So if we gonna be on from eight to two in the morning, we gotta make sure people have fun watching. ‘Cause we been able to get a great balance. First of all, we always want good games. First of all, that’s the perfect scenario when we get good games. But when we don’t get good games, we figure out how to make people have fun watching basketball. The ultimate thing would be to have really good games all the time, but clearly that’s not happening. I mean, we only got five or six elite teams in the NBA, and that’s unfortunate.
Smith: Our stuff is just … Four guys sitting on a couch, man. I forget we’re on … Like all of it, that’s why we cuss, every now and then, and it’s all like … Because you forget you’re on camera. Because this is the way we talk when we see each other at any point in our lives. Lot of fun. Chemistry is real because we don’t work on it. It’s unscripted, there is no agenda. If there’s a topic, we might switch it at the last … I know our producer, TK, he’s great because he’ll have a whole rundown sheet. And then, we don’t say anything on the rundown, we just change the whole subject. So, it’s fun to be part of that.
Was that easiness always there? Right from the beginning?
Smith: Well, Ernie [Johnson] and I were there first, so it became that … Ernie and I built that relationship, and Charles came in, just added kerosene to it. Just blew it up, because he just fit in so easily. But Ernie and I were doing that [thing] where weren’t really staying on script. And Ernie would say, and Tim Kiely honestly, our producer, was the one who kept saying to me, he’s like, “Kenny, it’s better when you don’t go on script, so keep doing that. Keep doing that!” And I’m like, “Okay!”
But the reason I was like, I just forgot about what we were talking about. I was like, that didn’t make sense to me, I’d rather talk about that. I’d rather stay on this topic longer. And it was just me and Ernie … Ernie and I, rather. So then now, he kept that going, so I give a lot to Tim Kiely.
You guys keep it light and try and have fun, but you also will go at each other every now and then. When it gets really heated and then you gotta go to commercial, what’s that commercial break like?
Smith: Oh it stays on, it keeps going! If it ends during a break, then we don’t keep … It won’t continue. But if it doesn’t end, it’ll still keep up! “Wait a minute! Ernie, before you …” Or, “Ernie! Ernie! Before you …”, and we keep going, because it’s … we all know we’re not malicious at each other, and it’s going to end. But we all … We have strong opinions. Really strong opinions. About everything. So that’s what makes it … Either we’re all gonna agree … But we never, kinda, contrive it. ‘Cause even when we agree, we agree differently.
Barkley: Dude, we’re not … I don’t think we’re ever gonna come to blows. No, but I think that it’s good to have basketball discussions because we all look at it from different perspectives, so that doesn’t bother me at all.
But man, I love going to work. I’m concerned about the league. I’ve been saying this for the last three or four years. I’m concerned. Depending on what happens this summer with LeBron. I mean, we could be down to basically a one- or two-team league. And at some point, the fans are gonna say, “Enough is enough. Why am I watching or buying tickets if we’ve only got three or four good teams in the NBA.” That concerns me.
Does a producer ever have to jump in and say, “All right guys, we gotta get back on track?”
Smith: The best time that we ever had, honestly, was when Dwight Howard was on the show. Charles and I were talking to him. We’re interviewing him and he’s on the air, and he’s on our show. And we stopped. And they were like, “Hey guys, that was great television,” and we’re like “Why?” He said, “We went 21 minutes and didn’t have a commercial. I blew off three commercial breaks. That’s never happened in the history of television. We had 21 straight minutes of you guys grilling this guy, and he was accepting of it.” So that, to me, is what we’re about.
What’s your most memorable moment on the panel, as a team?
Smith: When Charles kissed the donkey. We had a bet that when Yao Ming was a rookie, and he said, “Yao Ming wouldn’t score 20 points in a game”. I was like, “He’s gonna score 20 points.” He said, “I’ll kiss your ass if he does it.” The next night he scores 20. So instead of him kissing me, I brought in a donkey and was like, “This is my ass. Kiss it.”
This is how stupid it was: Instead of kissing the donkey anywhere, he actually kissed the donkey on the ass. Well he could’ve … It’s an ass, he could’ve kissed it anywhere! So, it still works. That was the funniest moment.
Do you have a funniest memory that happened off air, or during commercial breaks?
Smith: Oh that’s every day, man! That’s gonna be every day, something. You know you … Just from, you walk in after you finish a hard show, and … You’re still kinda wound up, and you walk in the dressing room and Charles … I mean Shaq, is on the exercise bike, with his underwear.
Moments like that, you couldn’t even tell people stuff like that happens, you know? You walk into Charles’ locker and there’s donuts. Like, in his pocket! Just stuff like that, you just don’t even realize that it’s actually happening. So a lot of fun, man, every day. Ernie, we’ve ripped Ernie’s notes up one day. We’re like a … fifth grade class with a substitute teacher, so we have a lot of fun.
You guys hang out, I’m sure, when you’re not on the air. What do you talk about when you don’t talk about basketball or —
Smith: Same stuff. Same stuff! It doesn’t change! It’s about basketball, it’s about politics, it’s about Martin Luther King Day, it’s about … It’s the same stuff. It doesn’t change. That’s why they kinda let us branch out, and not just talk about basketball a lot of times. We have political issues, we talk about the presidency, we talk about the race, we talk about racing in America. We talk about all these things that typically you don’t talk about on a basketball show, because that’s how we are.
Charles was saying that he’s worried about the NBA, because all the talent’s being focused on just a couple teams, and fans aren’t gonna like that. But, the numbers are showing that NBA is just increasing in popularity. With NBA increasing in popularity while still increasing in being political, and talking about issues that are happening in America, and what everything that’s going on with the NFL. How important do you think the NBA is right now, in the political consciousness and the cultural consciousness of America?
Smith: I think that the constituents of the NBA represent the mass majority of America. So, the acceptability of what’s going on and being said with inside the culture is easily digestible. Where, I don’t know if the NFL has a diverse enough culture inside of it, of constituents, that allows that to be acceptable. Because of the diversity, because of all that, the constituents, it allows it to be much more digestible.
It’s readily visible, from the coaches, from the owners … to the players. The diversity is … When Dirk Nowitzki, this German, wins the MVP. You’ve got Steve Nash, who wins the MVP. Then you have LeBron, from the inner cities of Cleveland. Then you have Porzingis, you have Mark Cuban, who they think is Spanish. You got a diversity that people just … Are aware of, and it’s so visible, where it’s not visible in other sports. So again, I think it’s easily digestible, because it’s true. And it’s real, and it’s not … You’re not fighting against the people that’s next to you, because you represent the culture that they’re part of.
[The NBA] is actually expanding, because the global ramifications and the global interest has picked up. I’m thinking that, eventually, we’re gonna have a team in France, a team in London, a team in … You’re gonna have a division, a European division. Because you can go over there in Spain, and you can travel and take that four games … Get four games in over there. I think that’s the next step. I don’t think guys would be opposed to be traded to Barcelona. If you’re in Utah. Or, guys who wanna come back to the States wouldn’t be opposed to coming back to the States.
What happens first, a team in Europe or a team in Seattle?
Smith: Team in Europe. Team in Europe comes before a team in Seattle, because a team in Seattle doesn’t change the landscape of the league. It just continues the landscape. A team in Europe changes the landscape of the NBA.
That’s what you think they’re looking to do next?
Smith: I hope they would, and I will do Inside The NBA over there. I’ll be the first the one signing up!