for supporters of the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, this is a merry time indeed; Your teams are in the NBA finals. But it’s bittersweet to me because the only TV show in the game worth watching is Gone Fishin.
I’m referring, of course, to TNT’s “Inside the NBA” program and its raucous tradition of sending ousted playoff contenders off the field with one last team photo — with the heads of their celebrity players and celebrity fans photoshopped onto the bodies of random anglers became. It’s just one of many running gags that viewers will miss Inside even more as NBA coverage switches to ESPN for the Finals.
Do not get me wrong. ESPN is a good network, and its NBA Countdown studio show is a more than credible source for game insights. But that’s exactly the right thing. In Stephen A. Smith et al. basketball is not the same as basketball. It’s the basketball game. It’s stats like theater and legacy quests; it is sport as a very serious subject. I don’t watch sports out of seriousness. Mostly I watch for fun. And Inside never fails to deliver that score and more.
The chemistry on their set is bubbling. It begins with longtime presenter Ernie Johnson, the son of a major league pitcher and a consummate setup man himself. Kenny Smith, the wily New York point guard, stirs the pot. Charles Barkley, the round hill that’s loud, dropping the bombs. And Shaquille O’Neal plays the Mischief, a role barely short of his 7-foot frame. When it comes to star lineups, only the Warriors come close to the entertainment value that the Inside boys have created over the past decade. But then again, Inside isn’t just another talking heads exhibition. It’s the best damn late night show.
It’s basketball the way it was meant to be seen: with four guys who’ve been there, seen it, and want Underdog (aka senior researcher Joe Underhill) to “Put that on a t-shirtFurthermore, the true genius of Smith, Barkley, and O’Neal is how quickly they drop the authoritative tone for the joke and how far they take it even when a player behind the joke doesn’t find it fun.
After Brooklyn was swept out of the playoffs in the first round, Barkley took aim at Nets star Kevin Durant. “I don’t want to badmouth the guy,” he began. “You guys are always talking about that championship stuff. I’m trying to tell you all. All these bus drivers, they mean nothing to me. If you’re not driving the bus, don’t beat around the bush that you’re a champion.” Translation: Durant, who won his only two titles with Steph Curry’s Warriors, should bear primary responsibility for the Nets’ disappointing season because he’s the man.
Not surprisingly, Durant not only didn’t appreciate the analogy; He posted pictures of the famous ringless Barkley surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates. Above a picture of Barkley flanked by former Sixers teammates Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks, Durant wrote, “Where would Chuck be without the big homies.”
No one blamed Durant for his post; Casting shadows comes naturally to the NBA’s thinnest superstar. His mistake was giving the Inside production team too much lead time to Photoshop Durant and company into a scene from the office. (Rather than the Dunder Mifflin crew turning a bus into a mobile workspace, it was the Nets who sped off on a Cancun vacation.) The twist: After shooting the footage, Johnson led the crew out of the studio to a waiting one own bus . Barkley took the wheel and the quartet drove away through the security gate and into the night. Home viewers, live crowds – they all can get the deal. The show does better than any other at maintaining conversation with its audience while taking a pee the whole time. No wonder the entire production was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last year. It’s the only show that could do an entire documentary about itself without coming across as remotely self-important. When Inside moved into Saturday Night Live’s iconic 8H studio prior to hosting Barkley’s 2018 gig, the show looked right at home.
Suffice to say, you won’t catch anything as smart as Inside on ESPN. Much of the reason for this lies with Tim Kiely, the executive producer of Inside, a comedy nerd who wanted to build a gym show more like SNL than NFL on CBS. After the league gave him the green light for Barkley and his crew to say head-on that the games were bad, nothing was out of bounds. And so ended the hackneyed debates about LeBron’s historical significance and the future fate of the Knicks. Add to that Smith’s knock-knees sprints to the video board, Shaq’s blooper reel, and the game show that never fails to amaze Barkley: Who He Play For?
Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I might start the inside clip of Shaq breaking down fuel efficiency, or Barkley breaking up a perfectly good prediction segment with a wild tangent about Jussie Smollet’s 2019 hate crime scam.
“America,” he began as the inside stage dissolved into giggles, “just let me tell you something: Don’t commit crimes with checks.”
Smith: Because you write a check, huh?
Barkley: “Your butt can’t collect.”
But Inside is also getting serious. Following the Uvalde, Texas middle school shooting, the show began with a crew grappling with Steve Kerr’s emotional response to the tragedy. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks, man,” Barkley said, alluding to the previous mass shooting in Buffalo. “What breaks my heart is… these last two attacks were perpetrated by young children. What’s going on in your life – at 17, 18 years old – that makes you so angry that you react like that?”
I’m sure the finals will be great and ESPN will broadcast the NBA’s resolution perfectly. It’s only when the Inside boys stop driving buses that basketball becomes a different sport – less funny, less emotional, less fun just for the sake of it.