It’s hard to imagine this now, but there once was a time when Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson were underexposed. This was back during the 2000-2001 NBA season, and TNT had assembled a pretty outrageous crew for their NBA coverage. At the time, Barkley was a TV neophyte, prone to blurting out even more outrageous things than he does now.
Of course, SLAM was all over this. Within two months of Barkley’s debut, I went to Atlanta and spent an evening behind the scenes with Chuck, Kenny and EJ. This made SLAM the first outlet to do this story, and within months seemingly every other outlet on earth, from ESPN.com to SI, was doing the same story. The funny thing is, people are still doing the same story — GQ wrote pretty much the same feature two months ago, six years after we did it in SLAM.
With the NBA Playoffs currently in full swing, I’ve been watching a lot of “Inside the NBA” the last few nights. And every time I see Chuck, Kenny and EJ, I think about this story. What follows is the unedited story I filed for SLAM issue 52, which is about twice as long as what we had space for in the magazine.
A day in the life of “Inside The NBA”—the greatest show on Earth. Forget the NBA comeback, Charles, somewhere there’s an Emmy with your name on it.
by Lang Whitaker
NBA scores and highlights are readily available. Between the ages of three and five? You’re checking out Ahmad and his main man Summer on “Inside Stuff.” Prefer interchangeable talking heads with no personality? CNNSI is your joint. Wanna have your teeth pulled? Chill with “The NBA on NBC.”
And then there’s the best sports show on TV, TNT’s ridiculously raw “Inside the NBA,” with Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, Jr. and Sir Charles Barkley. We hit The ATL to get the inside stuff.
Production Meeting — “Inside” producer Scooter Vertino and the entire “Inside the NBA” staff gather in a meeting room on the thirteenth floor of the CNN Tower, just across from Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta. There are about ten people there, including researchers, production assistants and the graphics department. Scooter dials up EJ on the speaker phone and they collectively go over a tentative schedule of the show for tonight’s game (Miami at Toronto), figuring out the highlight schedule and how they’ll handle the Fat Trak segment, where Barkley weighs himself every other week in an attempt to get back down to his playing weight. EJ suggests they get hats from Krispy Kreme to wear on the air, but Scooter wants to hold off on that until later in the season. The graphics department promises to come up with a CNBC-type graph, showing Barkley’s falling weight much like a stock would be plotted.
Ernie Johnson sits in his office in the TNT studio complex, located in midtown Atlanta. While Charles and Kenny have yet to arrive, EJ is surfing the web for any last-minute info. “This show is so much fun,” says EJ. “It used to be great when it was just me and Kenny, but with Charles, it’s almost out-of-control, which keeps us all on our toes.” EJ’s phone rings and he takes a call from a radio station in Arizona, doing an interview to promote tonight’s show.
EJ is seated by himself on TNT’s blinging set, laboring over a high-tech computer set-up, as various camera people and set designers scurry around, preparing the stage to tape a segment called “Sir Charles Theater,” in which Barkley, Kenny and EJ will host the viewing of a movie each week (Charles is a movie buff). Tonight’s segment is being taped to send out to possible sponsors in hopes of finding some funding for a weekly show. In keeping with the theme, Charles’ chair has been replaced with a throne, and a golden rope is dangling from the ceiling, hanging down next to his seat. The idea is Charles will pull the cord and a “Sir Charles Theater” sign will unfurl from the ceiling. No one has told Charles about this yet, though.
Kenny Smith silently enters the studio, wearing a dark suit, dark shoes and no socks. Kenny never wears socks on the air. “It makes me feel more comfortable,” he explains. He takes his seat next to Ernie and slips in his earpiece, which allows the talking heads to hear instructions from Scooter up in the control room.
His head freshly shaved, Charles Barkley makes his first appearance, immediately announcing, “What the hell is this rope? You all better hope I don’t pull this thing and some sh*t fall down on my head! I’ll come in here in a wheelchair and sue all of you!” The room instantly breaks into laughter, from EJ and Kenny to the camera people.
Barkley pulls the rope, and, timed perfectly, a purple sign trimmed with gold fringe unfurls from the ceiling. I begin to think what a complex operation that must have been, having to connect pulleys and levers just so a banner could be rigged to fall out of the ceiling. I look closer and notice that the rope is actually just tied to a beam in the ceiling. Further up in the rafters, a man sits on a beam, peering down to make sure the sign he set loose by hand is hanging properly.
Tonight’s movie is Police Academy. Kenny notes: “The guy who made those sound effects, he deserves an Oscar as far as I’m concerned.”
Done taping the bit, Barkley and Kenny get up, leaving Ernie alone to handle the opening of the show at 8:00. Barkley is introduced to me, and the first words he says to me are, “What’s up, Slapnuts? What the f*ck is wrong with your hair? It looks like a science experiment gone wrong, or like Cameron Diaz in Something About Mary. I want you to get a comb and do something about it before I see you again.” And then he walks away.
As Ernie goes live on the air, Kenny heads into a room known as C-Feeds, where highlights from all the other games around the league are logged and edited into short packages. Kenny sits and banters with the various people in the room, arguing that college basketball players should be paid. His argument is summarily rejected. “This is the last time I’m coming to C-Feeds,” mutters Smith.
While EJ sits on the set at the desk all night, in case they need to break into any games, Charles and Kenny end up in the viewing room, a long, theater-like control room outfitted with long desks and computers. In front of the room are 21 TV monitors, on which every game that night is shown, as well as all the programming on other networks, from “Survivor” to “Friends.” Kenny immediately sits front row center, in front of the biggest screen, and begins intently watching the Miami/Toronto game. His two-way gets busy, as Kenny’s friends around the country begin letting him know who’s hot and who’s not around the League this night.
Charles sits a few seats down, directly in front of me, and slips on a pair of headphones. The TV directly in front of him is tuned to UPN, and Chuck begins intently studying “WWF Smackdown,” which is apparently what his headphones are tuned to. He ends up switching between “Smackdown” and “Survivor,” where he’s become a fan of Alicia, the personal trainer from New York. (“Her body is ridiculous. If they vote her off the show, I’m never watching this sh*t again.”) He never really does watch the basketball game, though at one point, when a close-up of Charles Oakley fills the screen, Chuck comments, “Uh-oh, it’s Medusa.”
Barkley’s engrossed in the WWF shenanigans when he notices that there’s just 50 seconds until halftime, when he’s supposed to be on the air, live. Chuck throws off his headphones, turns to me and says, “Hey Slapnuts, make sure you see if Vince McMahon gives those flowers to his wife or to Trish Stratus.”
I ask him who Trish Stratus is as he runs out of the room and to the set.
“You’ll know Trish Stratus when you see her.”
The guys are halfway through their half-time show, getting ready to weigh Charles for the third time. Kenny, not trusting the scales provided by TNT, weighs himself and proclaims the scale calibrated. They go on air, and Chuck weighs in at 312, 25.5 pounds less than he weighed one month ago, and 47 pounds above his goal of 265. On air, Kenny praises his efforts, and Charles retorts, “Shut up, Kenny! You were eating Twinkies in front of me last night.”
With the second half underway and the weigh-in finished, Barkley is free to eat his dinner. He says he eats chicken almost every night while dieting, and that he’s forced himself to eat vegetables regularly. “And I hate vegetables,” he expounds. “The only one I’ve found that I like is green beans. Can you believe I’ve eaten green beans now for 37 days in a row?”
Barkley declines to eat the chicken provided in the catering room. “They don’t cook it well enough. It’s damn near raw on the inside. I always tell them to cook it more, and then they burn the outside and the inside’s still raw.” He orders delivery food.
I call my girlfriend to let her know how things are going. “Is Charles there?” she asks. “He’s right next to me,” I say, and on cue, Barkley turns and snatches the phone away from me.
I can only hear Barkely’s side of the conversation, but it goes like this: “Hello? What’s your name? Well, what’s wrong with Lang’s hair? Why don’t you do something about it? What? And what’s that crap on his chin? What kind of hold does he have on you?”
By now the game’s entering the fourth quarter, and everyone’s getting a little punch drunk from being indoors in this tiny room for so long. Chuck, the abuser, becomes the abusee. As he finishes his grilled chicken salad, he meticulously cleans up his desk area, even wiping down the counter with a moist cloth. To get under his neat-freak skin, I leave a dirty plate and a few crumbs on the counter next to him. He sees them and freezes, then bellows at me, “Are you through eating, Slapnuts? Don’t leave that plate here like it’s some kind of decoration.”
As the WWF signs off, Charles removes his headphones and joins Kenny in watching the crunch time of the game. It’s a tight game, going back and forth down the stretch, as Vince duels against Tim Hardaway and Eddie Jones. Kenny slips off his shoes and puts his bare feet in the seat next to Charles, and the following exchange ensues:
CHARLES: I don’t apreciate you having your feet up in my face.
KENNY: You’re not eating anymore.
CHARLES: At least you could get a pedicure.
KENNY: I did!
CHARLES: It doesn’t look like it! Looks like you been stomping out brush fires.
KENNY: (quietly) They’re just ashy.
The game goes into overtime, tied at 86. Charles, Kenny and EJ watch the game together on the set. Charles tries chatting up SLAM’s fetching female photographer, telling her that he’d love to show her around Atlanta. She informs him that she lives in Atlanta, and the entire studio erupts in laughter.
Miami finally knocks off Toronto, 98-91, and things kick into high gear. For the next thirty minutes, EJ runs down highlights and scores, as Charles and Kenny freestyle their observations. Despite apparently not watching a moment of this night’s games, Charles speaks intelligently about the action, saying, “Mason had six points in overtime. He struggled tonight, but down the stretch, he played like the All-Star he is.”
After they replay Charles’ weigh-in, the graphic plotting his weight is debuted. It’s a basic line graph, though the points are represented by tiny Charles Barkley heads. Since no one has seen this graphic until they’re all live on air, EJ says the graphic is, “apparently marked with Milk Duds.”
There’s a pause, and then Kenny says: “No, that’s Charles.”
During a commercial break, CNN’s Jim Huber enters to prepare for the next segment, where he will read a soliloqouy on the Vancouver Grizzlies possible move. Chuck proclaims him “the voice of reason.”
The show is winding down, and during the final commercial break, from the control room, Scooter reminds the guys to give SLAM a shout out. “Oh, we have to blow him like that?” asks Charles, innocently.
The show over, everyone gets ready to go. Charles says he’s going back to his hotel to rest, because he’s flying to Miami over the weekend to play golf with Dan Marino. Kenny stops by and gives me a hug; SLAM family. Then, as Charles is leaving, he turns to me and says, “Hey, I don’t care what everyone else says about you, I like you.”
And I like you, too, Slapnuts.