Several years and five Emmy Awards ago, TNT’s “Inside the NBA” secured the title of the best studio show in the history of sports television. The effortless chemistry between Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith is the envy of every producer in the business, and Ernie Johnson is an expert traffic cop who can trade quips when the moment demands it. Shaquille O’Neal, charming when engaged but too often an inert mumbler, hasn’t damaged its appeal.
For years ESPN/ABC has been mixing and matching ingredients on its NBA studio programming while trying to concoct a similar recipe. The results have been uneven through the various tweaks to the cast, though they are on to something auspicious this year with Sage Steele, Bill Simmons, Jalen Rose, and Doug Collins.
I’m not sure “Inside the NBA” has ever been better than it was this week, during two separate but related aftermaths: The one following the TMZ-reported revelation Saturday that Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been recorded making racist remarks, including saying he did not want African-Americans attending his games. And the one following NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s extraordinary drop of the hammer Tuesday in announcing Sterling, among other punishments, had been banned for life from the league.
In fact, it wasn’t just Barkley — whose candor is always anticipated and fulfilling, whether he’s talking about Dwight Howard defending the pick and roll or something so much more relevant, such as this — and the TNT crew that rose to the occasion in those agonizing days between the revelation of the recordings and the punishment. If there were negatives or missteps in sports television’s coverage of this story, I must have missed them while tuned in to a channel that was getting it exactly right.
It wasn’t just TNT that had many poignant and on-point discussions regarding the effects of Sterling’s words and actions through the years. ESPN and NBA TV were both exceptional in their coverage, every day, virtually every time I clicked over and checked in. No one I watched misread or dismissed the cultural magnitude of what happened this week. It was almost reassuring to see so many perceived “talking heads,’’ a term not often meant as a compliment, take on a serious matter with such grace and insight.
I’ll get to some individuals, especially with ESPN, who deserve particular praise. But this needs to begin with Barkley and the “Inside the NBA” team. In a sense, they set the agenda for discussion around the league because of their popularity. They did not hesitate to go full throttle into the Sterling story at halftime of Sunday’s game between the Pacers and Hawks, the first game since the comments.
The most compelling point was made when Johnson turned to Barkley and said, “You can read these statements over and over, you can read the story over and over, and you still cannot believe what you’re reading.”
That set up Barkley to broach Sterling’s documented history of discrimination.
“When you’re in a position of power, and you can take jobs and economic opportunity from people, that’s what crosses the line,’’ said Barkley, his seriousness and percolating emotions strikingly unfamiliar. “But we cannot have an NBA owner discriminating against a league that — we’re a black league, Ernie. We are a black league.”
The fourth game of the Clippers-Warriors series aired later Sunday afternoon on ABC. A jarringly sad-eyed Magic Johnson, whose name was explicitly mentioned by Sterling on the tapes, joined “NBA Countdown” before the game. Johnson, who actually left “NBA Countdown” after last season, was as cogent as he has ever been on television as he explained how affected he was by Sterling’s comments.
“I had a friendship with him,” Johnson said. “So for him to then make these comments, or alleged comments, about myself as well as other African-Americans and minorities, there’s no place in our society for it. There’s no place in our league, because we all get along. We all play with different races of people when you’re in sports. That’s what makes sports so beautiful.”
It was a smart move of ESPN and ABC to bring back Johnson to address the comments. It was smarter still to allow Jeff Van Gundy — who called the Clippers-Warriors game with Mike Breen — to speak his mind during the broadcast, though you got the sense that his bosses weren’t going to be able to stop him if they wanted to.
“The only action that would be wrong is inaction or neutrality. From what the Clippers players did [wearing their warm-up jerseys inside out and piling them at center court], I’d also like to see them make a statement before the game to the crowd about how racism has no place in this basketball arena,” said Van Gundy. “Or just sit on the bench silently protesting for 15 minutes. Or even wait until commissioner Adam Silver imposes whatever discipline is coming. Any of those, to me, would have been a great statement.”
Even after the game began, Van Gundy didn’t seem particularly interested in discussing basketball-related matters for the Clippers. When Breen asked him how this might affect the team’s pursuit of a championship, his reply was delivered with blunt force.
“Mike, who cares?” said Van Gundy. “There are some things that are bigger than pursuing a championship. Pursuing a championship is worthwhile. Making a stand on something that impacts society is even more important.”
When Tuesday came around, Silver made a stand as well as a reputation. That night on TNT, it was Barkley and Smith who delivered perspective. Smith called it “one of the proudest moments being in the NBA family” and said it lifted his spirits. Added Barkley, “I hope that not just the NBA but every person who gets humiliated at work, they all stand together. It was just a great day.”
The fitting punctuation mark on a tremendous few days of NBA television coverage in a trying few days for the NBA itself came when TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge, a pro’s pro, chose to share a personal moment just before the opening tap.
After revealing that the Warriors had made plans to leave the court in solidarity and protest had Sterling not been permanently banned — something other teams around the league had also considered, he said — he closed his report with these words:
“Indeed this has affected all of us, including me,’’ said Aldridge, who is African-American. “Yesterday, my 7-year-old son asked my wife if they were going to let Daddy come to this arena tonight. Well, I’m here, son. All of us are here. Let’s play ball.”