Inside the NBA: the sports gabfest that became late-night TV’s best show

As NBA coverage moves to ESPN for the finals starting Thursday night, it means the end of another season for TNT’s beloved and uproarious studio show

For supporters of the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics, this is a joyous time indeed; their teams are in the NBA finals. But for me, it’s bittersweet because, well, the only TV show in the game worth watching has ‘Gone Fishin’’.

I’m referring of course to TNT’s Inside the NBA program and its uproarious tradition of sending off ousted playoff contenders with one last team photo – with the heads of their marquee players and celebrity fans photoshopped onto the bodies of random anglers. It’s just one in a slew of running gags that will have viewers missing Inside that much more as NBA coverage moves to ESPN for the finals.

Don’t get me wrong. ESPN is a fine network, and its NBA Countdown studio show is a more than credible source for insights on the game. But that’s just the thing. With Stephen A Smith et al, basketball isn’t basketball. It’s The Game of Basketball. It’s statistics as theatre and legacy quests; it’s sport as a very grave subject. I don’t watch sports for seriousness. Mostly, I watch for fun. And Inside never ever fails to deliver that score and then some.

The chemistry on their set fizzes. It starts with longtime anchor Ernie Johnson, the son of a major league pitcher and a consummate setup man in his own right. Kenny Smith, the sly New York City point guard, stirs the pot. Charles Barkley, the round mound who be loud, drops the bombs. And Shaquille O’Neal plays the mischief, a role that’s hardly beneath his 7ft frame. As star lineups go, only the Warriors come close in entertainment value the Inside guys have provided over the past decade. But then again Inside isn’t just another talking head exhibition. It’s the best damn show on late night.

It’s basketball as it was meant to be watched: with four guys who have been there, seen that and want Underdog (aka senior researcher Joe Underhill) to “put that on a T-shirt.” What’s more, the real genius of Smith, Barkley and O’Neal is how quickly they’ll drop the authoritative tone for the joke and how far they’ll take it, even if a player at the butt of the joke doesn’t find it funny.

After Brooklyn were swept from the playoffs in the first round, Barkley took aim at Nets star Kevin Durant. “I don’t want to bad-mouth the dude,” he started. “You guys always talk about that championship stuff. I try to tell y’all. All these bus riders, they don’t mean nothing to me. If you ain’t drivin’ the bus, don’t walk around talking about you a champion.” Translation: Durant, who won his only two titles with Steph Curry’s Warriors, should bear the brunt of responsibility for the Nets’ disappointing season because he’s the man.

Unsurprisingly, Durant not only didn’t appreciate the analogy; he posted pictures of the famously ringless Barkley surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates. Over one picture of Barkley flanked by erstwhile Sixers teammates Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks, Durant wrote: “Where would Chuck be without the big homies.”

No one faulted Durant for his post; throwing shade is par for the course for the NBA’s most thin-skinned superstar. His mistake was giving Inside’s production team too much lead time to photoshop Durant and co into a scene from the Office. (Instead of the Dunder Mifflin crew turning a bus into a mobile workspace, it was the Nets speeding off to a Cancun vacation.) The kicker: after rolling that footage, Johnson led the crew out of the studio to a waiting bus of their own. Barkley took the wheel, and the quartet rode off, through the security gate, into the night. At home viewers, live crowds – they can all get the business. The show is better than any other at sustaining conversation with its audience, taking the piss all the while. It’s no wonder that last year the whole production was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. It’s the only show that could make a whole documentary about itself without coming off the least bit self-aggrandizing. When Inside moved to Saturday Night Live’s iconic Studio 8H ahead of Barkley’s 2018 hosting gig, the show looked right at home.

Suffice to say, you’re not gonna catch anything as clever as Inside on ESPN. Much of the reason for that comes down to Inside executive producer Tim Kiely, a comedy nerd who wanted to build a sports studio show that more closely resembled SNL than the NFL on CBS. Once the league gave him the green light to let Barkley and crew outright say that games were bad, nothing was out of bounds. And so out went the hackneyed debates around LeBron’s historical import and the Knicks’ future fortunes. In came Smith’s knock-kneed sprints to the video board, Shaq’s blooper reel and the game show that never fails to stump Barkley: Who He Play For?

Sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I might fire up the Inside clip of Shaq breaking down fuel efficiency or Barkley breaking up a perfectly good predictions segment with a wild tangent about Jussie Smollet’s 2019 hate crime hoax.

“America,”he started, as Inside stage dissolved into titters, “lemme just tell you something: do not commit crimes with checks.”

Smith: “Because you writing a check that, what?”

Barkley: “Your behind can’t cash.”

But Inside will get serious, too. After the middle school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the show opened with crew riffing on Steve Kerr’s emotional reaction to the tragedy. “It’s been a rough couple weeks, man,” Barkley said, alluding to the preceding mass shooting in Buffalo. “What’s heartbreaking to me is … these last two attacks were carried out by young kids. What is happening in your life – at 17, 18 years old – that makes you so angry that makes you react like this?”

I’m sure the finals will be great and that ESPN will do a perfectly fine job of broadcasting the NBA’s denouement. It’s just that when the Inside guys aren’t driving the bus anymore, basketball becomes a different sport – less funny, less soulful, less fun simply for the sake of it.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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