There Is No Replacing Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley announced his intention to retire from broadcasting at the end of the 2024-25 NBA season on Friday night following Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee as a player whose second act has seen him become arguably the most well-known pundit in sports history, said that regardless of what happens with the next NBA media rights deal, he plans on calling it a career.

“I talked to all the other networks, but I ain’t going nowhere other than TNT,” Barkley said. “But, I have made the decision myself, no matter what happens, next year is going to be my last year on television. And I just want to say thank you to my NBA family, you guys been great to me, my heart is full with joy and gratitude. But, I’m gonna pass the baton at the end of next year”

Saying that there will be a void left by Barkley’s departure — assuming that he does, indeed, hang up his headset after what will assuredly be a year of other networks putting on the full-court press to get him to change his mind — is a gigantic understatement. Barkley was a spectacular basketball player, but several generations of basketball fans know him primarily as the guy who sits all the way to the right on TNT’s NBA studio desk — following his retirement at the end of the 1999-2000 season, Barkley joined Inside the NBA and has spent the last 24 years with Turner.

Because we live in a society where the next thing is always the most important one, there’s one question that comes to mind: Whether it’s Turner or, more likely, one of the networks (Amazon, ESPN, NBC) that are going to get broadcast rights in the next television deal, who is going to fill the void left by Charles Barkley?

The answer, pretty simply, is no one. As Barkley mentioned in his announcement, he had conversations with the other networks about bringing him on board as a contributor once the new TV deal goes into effect at the start of the 2025-26 season. That’s because everyone understands the value of having him on the air — few people on television, let alone on sports television, are as charismatic as Barkley. You can find someone better at breaking down the finer points of the game — Barkley isn’t going to do a detailed breakdown of the Blazers coverage against a Spain pick-and-roll set or something — but Barkley just inherently knows how to make good TV. There is no forced effort, no switch he has to flip once he arrives at Studio J to shine. Instead, he simply makes TV magic by being The Chuckster at all times, and never compromising on that in any way.

That’s ultimately what makes trying to replace him impossible. Barkley is not someone who goes out there and tries to be good on TV, he just … is. The Charles Barkley that you see on TNT is the Charles Barkley you get in interviews (just with less cursing), and I would guess is the Charles Barkley you get if you run into him at a Home Depot or something. There is an effortlessness to his ability to get on a set, grab a microphone, and say things that people enjoy, which stems from the fact that he doesn’t seem to care that there’s a camera on him.

Take, for example, when he showed up on ESPN’s set during the Stanley Cup Final between the Florida Panthers and the Edmonton Oilers last week. The whole thing worked because you can put Barkley on any TV show and he’ll have it bend to his will, not because he’s forcing any action, but because he is a one-of-a-kind magnetic personality and when he’s on the air, you let the show go in whatever direction you want. It’s the reason why an NBA player can go on an NHL studio show and it’s still fun to watch, or Saturday Night Live can do an Inside the NBA sketch and everyone, regardless of whether they’re a basketball fan, can find it hilarious.

There will presumably be efforts to try and replicate what Barkley brings to television to one extent or another. If Turner is able to keep an NBA package and Inside the NBA goes away, the thought for years has been that Draymond Green would slide into Barkley’s seat on the desk (even if that’s not quite right), while Vince Carter, Jamal Crawford, and Candace Parker are all very good on television and have experience on studio shows. Should TNT fail to land a piece of the pie, NBC, Amazon and ESPN, which has frequently drawn the ire of basketball fans for its inability to put together a compelling NBA studio show despite multiple tries, should all make overtures to those four names. However, none of them stand much of a chance if they are tasked with being the next Chuck.

The important thing is that whether it’s any of those individuals or someone else who is in the ex-player media sphere and gets identified as a name to watch — this is where I suggest ESPN going in the complete opposite direction from what it has always done and giving Jeff Teague free rein to do literally anything he wants — they never get saddled with the expectation of being Barkley’s successor in any way. Even if, as my colleague Robby Kalland theorized, Amazon or NBC agrees to a deal that lets them rent out the Inside studio from Turner and broadcast the show with Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and another person, Barkley’s departure is going to make it feel different. Saddling that fourth person, or anyone who gets tagged as his spiritual successor on any network, with the expectation of being his replacement is setting them up to fail from the very beginning. That’s because even if they grow into being an exceptional television analyst, they will not be Chuck.

Bringing in new voices and new perspective is going to be a very valuable thing for the basketball media space, and in a way, Barkley announcing he’s calling it a career is a good thing. He’ll be missed dearly, but throwing him on a studio show that isn’t Inside the NBA with people who are not Ernie, Kenny, and Shaq would have felt a bit wrong. But when we get to 2025 and television networks roll out their studio crews for the upcoming NBA season, it’s of the utmost importance that the individuals on the various shows are asked to be themselves and never try to be anyone else, especially Chuck. That’s what made Charles Barkley an institution on American television for a quarter of a century, and it’s why we’ll never see anyone quite like him again.