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He shoots from the lip and scores

You never know what Charles Barkley is going to say, and that makes TNT's show on the NBA a fan favorite.

May 21, 2008|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — At 10 minutes to 6, Ernie Johnson walks on to the "Inside the NBA" set in Studio J, a Turner Network Television facility. The set's focal point is a desk, where Johnson sits, with empty chairs on either side.

The set is a dizzying, dazzling array of red and blue light. It includes a little living room, a full-height, half-court basketball playing area, enough pennants to outfit a Mardi Gras parade, and a mock night-time high-rise skyline. The set is gaudy and somewhat ridiculous for a venue where what mainly happens is three guys sit around and talk, mostly -- but by no means exclusively -- about basketball.

At five minutes before 6, however, Johnson has no one to talk to. He's alone at the desk.

At three minutes before, he's still alone.

At two minutes, alone.

At 90 seconds to air, Kenny "The Jet" Smith saunters on set and takes the chair immediately to Johnson's left. He's followed by Charles Barkley, conducting a loud and profane discussion with one of the show's staff.

As soon as he sits down, he starts loudly recounting another argument, this one with producer Tim Kiely, who, Barkley says, is censoring free speech and threatening the future of civilization by prohibiting Barkley from using a slang word for feces on the air.

"I'm bitter and angry tonight," Barkley announces almost exactly at the moment Johnson looks up and, in the steady, comforting tones of the professional broadcaster, welcomes several million fans around the world to another edition of "Inside the NBA."

The show, which originates in Los Angeles tonight for the Western Conference finals, is without much contest the world's best show about basketball.

With the NBA playoffs in full flower, we're reminded again that the most entertaining figure in professional basketball, maybe in all of sport, is not Kobe or LeBron or any other mere player. It is Barkley, just one-third, or sometimes one-fourth, of a talking-head panel -- most of it bald -- that introduces and analyzes the games.

In addition to these duties, Barkley, 45, is a declared 2014 candidate for governor of Alabama; a member of the basketball Hall of Fame; co-star of a mobile telephone advertising campaign wherein he, nearly a decade past his playing days, and not the current NBA star who shares billing with him, is clearly the main attraction; a compulsive gambler (on Tuesday he paid off a $400,000 debt to a Vegas casino); an erstwhile hero of the political right, from within which one blogger hailed him as a philosopher, poet, genius and the next president of the United States; inspiration for the chart-topping group Gnarls Barkley; and gracious butt of a thousand jokes.

Barkley, above all else, is someone who will say whatever occurs to him when it occurs to him, whether or not he's on the air.

To wit:

Talking during a game recently about a free throw missed at a crucial time by a high-percentage free-throw shooter, he said: "That 90% doesn't mean nothing when you have a tight sphincter."

Talking about a bad team: "The Nets are like the Democrats . . . they don't win even though the rest of the division sucks."

Talking about whether New York Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas' job is safe: "He's about as safe as me in a room full of cookies. If I'm in a room full of cookies, the cookies ain't got no damn chance."

Ernie Johnson recalls that the first time Barkley appeared on the show, in 2000, Barkley asked Smith during a break what he was going to talk about during the next segment. Johnson recalled, "Kenny said, 'You'll find out.' "

This was perfect, said Kiely the producer. Kiely's notion was to have a show that was spontaneous, dynamic, like an overheard conversation. His ideal was closer to the PBS political shout-fest "The McLaughlin Group" than to conventional television sports post- and pregame analysis.

Barkley was more than accommodating. That first year, he accused the league of giving TNT all the bad games: "NBC gets all the good games. We get the Little Sisters of the Poor." He said he could beat the Detroit Pistons with a team of studio technicians. He said All-Star Grant Hill's ears were too big. He delivered these comments and many, many more in a voice that ranged between a bray and a sonic boom.

His weight became a recurring subject of conversation. By NBA standards, he is not tall; he's slightly more than 6 feet 4 inches, yet he carries more than 300 pounds, much of it in a backside that his wife, Maureen, once said was "the size of New Jersey."

To simply call Barkley fat, however, is to disregard the physical power at his command. As a player, he was the shortest man ever to lead the league in rebounding, a skill derived more from desire and ferocity than height.

"If you want to be a rebounder you have to approach it like, 'Let's just beat the hell out of each other all night.' It's all you've got," Barkley said.

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