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.
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