It’s about 20 minutes until TNT Sports’ ‘Inside the NBA‘ halftime show when Charles Barkley saunters on set, where his esteemed co-host Ernie Johnson is already scribbling notes about a handful of ongoing games.
‘Who these people?’ the Basketball Hall of Famer asks staff in his famous Alabama drawl, gesturing to a group of infiltrators at the famed Studio J in Atlanta.
The answer, as Barkley learned, is a small group of reporters with British and Irish readers, all of whom TNT Sports hopes to convert into NBA fans. And although he’s not briefed on the journalists’ precise story angles, he reliably assumes they’re writing about him and, arguably, the most popular show in sports entertainment. So while he’s not about to give a full interview, Sir Charles does offer a single, sarcastic quote as he slowly makes his way to his customary seat, stage left: ‘This is hard work!’
It’s not long before co-hosts Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith and Shaquille O’Neal arrive at the cavernous studio, where a steel-reinforced basket has been erected on the chance that the seven-foot, 300-something-pound Shaq decides to throw down a two-handed slam. Only on Tuesday night, with just a few minutes to spare before showtime, O’Neal is lining up for a baseline jumper — the kind of shot he abstained from as a pro, but Smith is wagering $100 he’ll miss, so the big fella opens fire and casually drains a 15-footer.
‘Shaq owes me more than that,’ Smith said later when Mail Sport asked if he’d be paying O’Neal $100. ‘You know how many bets that he hasn’t paid? And how many shots that I probably hit over the years that he’s never paid me?’
All of this takes place off the air, but to Inside The NBA devotees, it’s a familiar sample of the show’s DNA: What starts with basketball (in this case, O’Neal’s baseline jumper) evolves into an entertaining debate between friends, colleagues, and competitors.
Shaquille O’Neal (left), Ernie Johnson (center left), Kenny Smith (center right) and Charles Barkley (right) on Tuesday’s show
Shaquille O’Neal, 51, and Ernie Johnson, 67, have now worked together on Inside The NBA for around a dozen seasons
Smith (left) says Barkley (right) is responsible for ’99 percent’ of the controversies on TNT Sports’ Inside The NBA
Such an exchange might be less familiar to British and Irish audiences, but TNT Sports’ parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, aims to change that this season after obtaining the NBA’s regional media rights.
As a result, TNT Sports will broadcast nine games a week across the British Isles through the regular season and the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs. Additionally, the channels will air five games on Christmas, three matchups on Martin Luther King Day (January 15), and the knockout stages of the league’s inaugural in-season tournament, not to mention the last two rounds of the NBA postseason, ending with the Finals in early June.
But simply blasting some basketball games across the North Atlantic in hopes of cultivating an audience isn’t practical.
Two TNT Sports execs bringing the NBA to the UK: Atlanta-based Craig Barry (left) and London-based Scott Young
For starters, there’s the inconvenient time-zone difference, not to mention younger viewers’ reluctance to watch entire games from start to finish.
So in addition to the live, pre-dawn game broadcasts, daytime shows featuring highlights and commentary have been crafted to inform fans about what they missed while they were sleeping.
Above all, the content has to feel authentic, whether it’s consumed by live television audiences or someone scrolling though social media the following day.
‘This generation that really enjoys watching NBA loves the style of production that comes out of the US,’ said Scott Young, Senior Vice President of Content and Production for Warner Bros. Discovery Sports Europe. ‘They love the US narrative.’
And that’s where Inside The NBA factors into the equation: An American cultural touchstone, offering something to both hardcore and casual basketball fans.
‘I think we really love that intersection of sports and culture,’ said Craig Barry, the Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer for Warner Bros. Discovery Sports. ‘We understand our obligation to the hardcore fan, but we also understand our equal obligation to the casual fan, right? And that’s kind of the differentiation in the way that we create our content. [We] approach it in this really honest, unapologetic, authentic way.’
Intertwining basketball with pop culture has been Johnson, Barkley, and Smith’s approach for two decades, or so, including the last dozen years with O’Neal.
Yes, it is a sports broadcast, but Inside The NBA aspires to attract more than just sports fans.
‘I think we’re the number one entertainment show,’ said Smith, a former NBA guard. ‘Not sports — entertainment. Because it just happens we’re talking about basketball. That’s the subject that we’re talking, but we entertain and that’s what separates it. And Shaq is an entertainer; Charles is definitely an entertainer; I’m an aspiring entertainer, I guess; and Ernie entertains.
‘So the greatest compliment that we ever get is, I hear this a lot now: ”I don’t watch the game. I watch you guys.”’
Kenny Smith illustrates a point at TNT Sports’ expansive replay screen, which dominates the cavernous studio in Atlanta
The reach of the show is so remarkable, according to Smith, that he’s received fan feedback while traveling as far away as Abu Dhabi.
‘And not only one person, it’s the frequency of it,’ added Smith, who says he is easily better known for his on-air work than winning two titles with the Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s.
Even within the US, where the NFL sits atop the national sports hierarchy, Inside The NBA still stands out from rival programing for its cultural significance.
‘It’s my favorite show,’ retired NFL star Champ Bailey told Mail Sport from Studio J, where he’s already made several pilgrimages.
TNT Sports has a policy against releasing audience data, Mail Sport was told, but broadcasts are typically watched by anywhere from a 500,000 US viewers to 1.3 million, according to USTVDB.com.
Former NFL star Champ Bailey (pictured in Studio J) told Mail Sport that Inside The NBA is actually his ‘favorite show’
However, that’s an imperfect metric because it fails to account for the show’s impact across all media. Inside The NBA has been the subject of everything from Saturday Night Live sketches to serious national news reports, and just about everything in between.
Take O’Neal’s heartfelt reaction to the 2020 death of his former teammate, Kobe Bryant, or the time Barkley lost an on-air bet and was forced to kiss Smith’s ‘ass’ (a pet donkey): Both moments have been immortalized on the internet, albeit for very different reasons.
‘Because let’s face it, in the sports business, we’re in the business of moments,’ Barry said.
One such moment occurred in 2015, when O’Neal tripped while trying to race Smith to the expansive replay screen that dominates the background of Studio J.
Typically, when it’s time for Smith to review replays for the audience, he jogs back from the desk to the massive screen, occasionally outracing Barkley or O’Neal in a childish duel of NBA retirees.
Only this time, O’Neal’s zeppelin-sized feet got tangled with some power cords, causing him to crash to the floor and sending his three co-hosts into hysterics.
But the moment wasn’t just funny. To Barry, it was a revelation.
‘This door swung open for us and we realized it’s not Shaq, it’s us,’ said Barry, who admittedly made a mistake by originally casting O’Neal as a serious counterweight to Barkley’s comedic presence.
As Barry explained, Inside The NBA producers realized they were ‘not producing him correctly.’
Instead of allowing Shaq to be Shaq, they were stifling his best asset: a physical presence approaching 400 pounds.
‘He fell and it shook the set,’ Barry said. ‘It kind of woke us all up.’
And like everything with Barry and Inside The NBA, this wasn’t preplanned in a production meeting.
In fact, O’Neal, Barkley and Smith never attend production meetings — and Barry believes that’s what gives the show an authenticity he hopes will connect with British and Irish audiences.
‘Charles and Kenny and Shaq aren’t invited,’ Barry said of production meetings. ‘Not that they would come, anyway.’
Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith share a laugh in Atlanta during halftime of Tuesday’s Thunder-Spurs game in Oklahoma City
A peek inside the TNT Sports control room, where Inside the NBA and an array of other sports-related shows are produced
‘It’s real conversation,’ Smith said. ‘It’s real dialogue. It’s not rehearsed… So you see Shaq, when he’s mad at Chuck, he’s really mad. He didn’t have a segment to practice it and get mad and then calm down and do the segment. No, he’s mad in that moment.’
Johnson, the son and namesake of a former Milwaukee Braves pitcher, attends every production meeting. And when he’s not there, he spends most of his time hunkered in his office, where the media veteran diligently prepares notes for all of the NBA action on a given evening.
Barkley, O’Neal and Smith, on the other hand, spend their off-air moments watching games from their custom-made chairs, which are allegedly so enormous that they needed to be disassembled before they could fit into their private viewing room.
Of course, the image of Barkley, Smith, and O’Neal lounging in front of the TV dovetails with criticism of the show — namely that three former NBA stars have become curmudgeons, perpetually dissatisfied with the generations of players who succeeded them.
Most famously, Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant has bristled at Barkley’s criticism.
‘This ain’t gettin tiring chuck?’ Durant tweeted in March after Barkley called him ‘sensitive’ during a 60 Minutes segment.
‘Great player,’ Barkley said of Durant, before adding: ‘He’s part of that generation who think he can’t be criticized.’
Bill Hader as Ernie Johnson Jr., Kenan Thompson as Charles Barkley during the ‘Inside the NBA’ skit on May 16, 2009
SNL’s Inside The NBA sketch returned in 2022, with Alex Moffat as Ernie Johnson and Chris Redd (right) as Kenny Smith
Barkley, who certainly faced his share of criticism as a player, refrains from getting too personal. O’Neal and Smith are even less judgmental, and when it does come time to criticize someone, they try to stick to the facts as much as possible.
‘I never question your passion, your work ethic or your, your integrity,’ Smith said. ‘I can’t measure that. But I can measure if you didn’t run back on defense. And I could show that multiple times [on replay] and I could prove my point. But to say that you’re not running back because you don’t have passion, then it becomes subjective and then we are losing the point of ”you’re not running back.”’
And besides, Johnson, Barkley, Smith and O’Neal aren’t particularly concerned about criticism from outsiders.
‘I don’t think anyone criticizes or makes fun of us more than we do of each other,’ Smith added. ‘Like, we know each other so well that we could dig to a place that no one else could dig. And we do it.’
There was no shortage of that on Tuesday.
When Johnson did some basic arithmetic during one segment, Barkley quickly disparaged his subsequent gloating: ‘You’re bragging because you know how to count?’
Minutes later, O’Neal took an opportunity to remind the 60-year-old Barkley: ‘You just got a new hip.’
Unbothered, Barkley boasted right back: ‘I got two of ’em.”
Ernie Johnson (center left) tries an iGrow laser-based hair-growth helmet during a 2017 episode of Inside The NBA
The back and forth continues off screen, the only difference being that Barkley sometimes wears bifocals and O’Neal’s low-decibel speaking voice is barely audible without a microphone.
Whatever the conversation, though, the four do have their respective roles.
‘The slapstick, I’m not gonna lie, is mostly Shaq,’ Smith said. ‘Shaq comes up with most of the stuff when it comes to hardcore slapstick comedy. He’s very quick with it.
‘The controversy always — 99 percent — comes from Chuck,’ Smith continued.
‘I’m the team psychologist and Ernie is the overall referee — he’s there to make sure that it all just moves.’
And the show certainly moves, hitting on a number of topics with each segment while maintaining the trademark banter.
Even competitors, such as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, appreciate the dynamic interplay between the four co-hosts.
‘You, me, everyone consuming this, we all love Inside The NBA,’ Van Pelt told Jimmy Traina on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast in June of 2022. ‘So I get when that show ends, that it’s a bummer for everybody. Because it’s a blast. It’s just the rarest of things. The combination of personalities and truly not giving a s*** that Charles and that whole group has, with Ernie just the maestro making it all work, when it ends, I’m sad.’
Van Pelt wasn’t predicting the end of Inside The NBA, but the show will need to evolve at some point as Barkley & Co. head for retirement.
Barkley did sign a 10-year, $100 million before the season, so he’s not expected to call it quits anytime soon. But when speaking to Traina in August, he admitted that he can’t see himself finishing the contract.
‘There’s no chance in hell I’m gonna be working when I’m 70,’ Barkley said. ‘Zero.’
Barry admitted that TNT Sports is already preparing for Barkley’s eventual retirement, and although he declined to name any candidates, he’s well aware that Chuck’s ultimate successor will be a major departure.
Charles Barkley kisses the back side of a donkey after losing a bet to Kenny Smith in which he promised to ‘kiss his ass’
‘We want [Barkley] to be here, but we also want him to be happy and to live his life, and when he feels like he’s had enough, it’ll be time to move on,’ Barry said. ‘We have people in mind that we think would be interesting.
‘It’s not gonna be Charles, it’s not gonna be Shaq, it’s not gonna be Kenny, it’s not gonna be Ernie, and it’s certainly not gonna be them together,’ Barry continued, addressing the show’s future. ‘But we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t have ideas of ways we thought we could keep a show – if not this show – interesting and progressive.’
For now, though, Barkley’s continued presence on the panel is significant for TNT Sports, both internationally and domestically.
As one of sports media’s most recognizable faces, Barkley has the power to entertain millions of NBA fans on both sides of the Atlantic, while attracting new viewers as well. And with the NBA’s $24 billion US media rights deal expiring at the end of next season, that’s no small thing.
NBC, Amazon, and Netlix are all rumored to be eyeing NBA rights, but what those platforms lack is Barkley, who only seems to be getting more popular with age.
And to some degree, the same can be said about all four co-hosts.
Whereas Inside The NBA’s post-game show was once used to fill scheduling gaps before a late-night movie on TNT, the program has become appointment viewing for many, necessitating longer and longer broadcasts.
‘Where before, when I first come on, it was like the post-game show would end on the hour,’ Smith said. ‘So if the game ended at 9:40, post-game show would only be 20 minutes.
‘Now it’s like: ”We’re gonna be on an hour, but if it ends at 9:40, that means you’re gonna be at an hour [and 20 minutes].” So we have so much more time.’
And with new audiences in Britain and Ireland, Ernie, Chuck, Shaq and Jet will have even more folks to entertain.
‘Two years from now,’ Smith concluded, ‘there’s gonna be a high appreciation [in the UK], kind of like when European football came [to the US].’