ORLANDO, FLA — Charles Barkley spotted an ABC/ESPN staffer and announced, loudly, what was on his mind, in the form of a question.
"How much stuff did you have to use on Jeff Van Gundy's head?" he asked. "Like a whole bucket of powder? Tons. His whole head is bigger than Ernie's. At least Ernie's got a big forehead."
Ernie would be Ernie Johnson, and not surprisingly, this run from Charles, unplugged, included a discourse on Barkley's fellow announcers Johnson and Kenny Smith.
"As good-looking as I am, I'm not good enough to make them two look good," Barkley said. "I'm working with two ugly guys. Kenny said, 'At least I'm not in third place.' But the gap between first and second is humongous. Kenny, I'm good-looking. You're not. You're a nice guy."
Barkley was laughing, and if it seemed as though he was merely warming up for his pregame stint on NBA TV on Tuesday night before Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Magic here in Orlando, that would be inaccurate.
He doesn't need to rehearse to get where he needs to be: Barkley was already there in full, original form, just the way he has always been during his long partnership with Johnson and Smith.
"All of a sudden he came in and he just put gasoline on it," Smith said. "He's our gasoline. Our gunpowder. We already had the fuse, the lighter, and he's the gunpowder."
The loose byplay and chemistry among the three stars is unmatched in current sports television, and the NBA is attempting to capitalize on their immense popularity by putting them on NBA TV before and after the Lakers-Magic contests.
"It's a different thing," Johnson said. "We're hoping that folks will watch a pregame show for half an hour, watch the game and look back to NBA TV and see what Kenny and Charles have to say about it. It's all part of the process of trying to grow NBA TV and make it a real player.
"It's the TNT show on NBA TV. It's basically what we do. What's going to be funny is not doing a halftime. Now it's going to be: 'Where are the hot dogs?' "
Johnson said the tone for their eight years together was set on the night of the first show when Barkley asked Smith what he was going to say about a certain issue. And Smith replied: "You'll find out."
Since then, it has been unrehearsed, unplugged mayhem.
"I think it's an insult to really good traffic cops when they call me a traffic cop," Johnson said. "A good traffic cop will direct this guy through the intersection and stop everybody else.
"I'm in the middle and I say, 'Kenny, you come here. Now, Charles, you broadside him.' I'm not a really good traffic cop. I'm trying to create collisions. Sometimes it's a circus and sometimes there's real good, earnest NBA basketball discussions."
The unpredictability makes the show, as does the nature of the casual conversation. Smith, Johnson and Barkley could easily be talking in a bar or in a living room.
"If you're watching the game, we're not going to talk about only Xs and O's," Smith said. "We might talk about Xs and O's and we might talk about his shorts are a little too short. We talk like we're sitting on a couch.
"We listen. We're in a conversation. I'm not a talking head. Never been. Can't be. I don't know how to do it."
Said Barkley: "We're funny. At least I am. People want to have fun when they watch the games. They know they're going to get straight shooters.
"When I first got the job, I said, 'We've got to have more fun.' That's a big deal for me, to make sure . . . the fans enjoy the game."