The NBA season is finally here, and only slightly less ubiquitous than LeBron James' chalk toss or Kevin Durant's 10-step handshake is the presence of the best broadcast team in the business, TNT's very own Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal. The TNT crew has captured the mystical blend that every type of TV show aspires to be - a genuine affability combined with creative dissonance that allows for each member to shine while still being part of the greater whole. (Bill Simmons captured this chemistry in a post a few years back, which I would encourage you to read)
I had the opportunity to visit with the TNT team this past Monday, as the network pulled back the curtain and welcomed approximately 25 reporters to lunch with the team and pepper them with questions as we all prepare for the 2013-14 season. Special thanks to Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal, who helped set up the connection, and also to the immortal Nets Daily managing editor (or as he would say it, immoral), Tom Lorenzo, who also jumped at the opportunity (and to address the obvious question, the answer is 'yes.' Lorenzo is taller and better looking than you imagined). Two bloggers sitting side by side is a rare sight indeed. Even being out in the daylight takes some adjustment.
Without going to the tape and trying to quote everything that was said verbatim, this much I can tell you. The product you see on TV, with Charles making fun of Shaq, Shaq making fun of Charles, Kenny offering up common sense, and Ernie trying to keep things moving in a general direction, very much mirrors what we saw at the luncheon. This tells me that it is also very similar to real life. To wit:
"[Turner] allows us to be ourselves...You all know Chuck's an a**hole, we all know Kenny thinks he knows everything, we all know Ernie's a genius and you guys all know I mumble."
The line got plenty of laughs, but what it underscored is something very human - each of the guys knows on some level that their input is always going to be colored by some imperfection, but that's ok because they can still bring great things out of each other. There were a number of other cracks throughout, some definite censored comments by one or more of the guys, but you cannot shake the feeling that they have a deep appreciation and camaraderie toward each other.
A few general observations:
- We sometimes like to bust on Charles for his positions on the Thunder, but as Darnell Mayberry has written in the past, it's hard to stay mad at a guy who is so genuinely affable. Barkley was the only one of them to intentionally go around the entire room and introduce himself, which look like it took some effort due to his bad back.
- Charles' most interesting comment on the day was that he believes that there are 8 legitimate contenders, four per conference. In the East, he likes the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, and Nets. In the West, he likes the Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, and...Warriors. No Spurs? No Spurs. He thinks they got lucky last season, not having to face the Thunder in the conference finals.
- Charles applied some chapstick to his lips during the luncheon. It immediately reminded me of this.
- I was startled at how tall Ernie Johnson is. I've become used to the idea that the majority of media personalities are short, so to see him stand shoulder to shoulder with Kenny Smith was a bit jarring, but only to my own artificial expectations.
- Ernie knows the game though, and he knows how to make everyone in the room comfortable. For example, when the hosts opened up the floor to questions, everyone was a bit nervous to take the first bite. Ernie eased the tension by showing us how easy it is - he proceeded to ask each of his cohorts how their summer has gone. Just like that, the ice had been broken.
- If Ernie's size was a surprise, Shaq's was both expected and unexpected. I knew he was big. However, there is a difference between looking big next to Alonzo Mourning and looking big sitting next to me. I felt like a child sitting in his shadow.
- Shaq is notably deferential to his partners, heaping high praise on Ernie in particular. He started out quiet, but as things got rolling he got more and more gregarious and funny.
- I was worried that I might be overdressed in my suit. Shaq wore a suit as well. A sweat suit. That said, Shaq's sweat suit probably cost more than my actual suit. His watch was also the size of a salad plate and is probably more valuable than my entire net worth. Shaq commands attention, no doubt, but he was still willing to sit and answer every question that came his way.
- Kenny is unflappable. Every one of them knows what they know, but he's the one guy who it is clear has a level of cache where his opinions matter the most.
After the group questions, the crew opened it up for one on one's, where writers were able to delve into greater detail in their questions and get meaningful quotes. Being the dork that I am, I ended up talking to Turner Sports Sr. VP of Creative & Content, Craig Barry. He patiently engaged with me, as I peppered him with questions about the direction of the league, the change in management, and the difference between the NFL and the NBA (confession - I may or may not have referred to the NFL product as 'sterile').
As our time ran down, I figured I probably ought to take advantage of the moment and took the chance to sit down with Kenny, and naturally the conversation turned toward James Harden. It simply can't be helped. Our brief conversation centered around an idea he put forth which he calls "the law of attraction." This law states that great players will attract other veteran players who are looking to reach the next plateau in their careers. Most recently, we've seen LeBron James do this in Miami, drawing Shane Battier and Ray Allen down to South Beach. I wanted to know who else in the league Kenny considered big enough to have a gravitational pull after LeBron.
Sherman: Kenny, you talked about how there is a law of attraction amongst the best players and how this gravitational pull draws veterans to players. Which players have that pull?
Kenny: LeBron, obviously. KD...
Sherman: I'd argue that Durant does not have that pull yet, because when the Thunder have tried to draw veterans, they have failed.
Kenny: I think he does. You know who does? James Harden has it. He drew one of the best players in basketball away from Los Angeles. The Lakers are one of the most storied franchises ever. The guy looks down and says, "I'd rather play with THAT guy."
It doesn't always happen so glaringly in your face. It's the subtleness. You think maybe 15 years ago. Doc Rivers created a style of play in Orlando that attracted Tracy McGrady AND Grant Hill, and there was some subtleness that made players see it and go, "They have that. I want to come down and play in that." In that year they went 41-41. They didn't make the playoffs. .500 team had 2 of the best small forward/2-guards in basketball. Law of attraction. Some people have it, some people don't.
Sherman: This is why I think Durant doesn't have it yet. Some of the critics of the Thunder have said, "You didn't get better."
Kenny: They didn't get better because they chose not get better. They chose NOT to sign guys. They chose to say, "We're going to go with draft picks in the future." They chose to say, "We're not going to sign James Harden. We're probably not going to sign Kevin Martin. We're going to have Jeremy Lamb, draft picks, or Reggie Jackson." They'll probably have two draft picks next year. They chose to be in this situation. They didn't have to be.
Sherman: Was this the right decision in terms of winning a championship?
Kenny: If it's solely on winning a championship, you never change. You never let James Harden leave.
Sherman: Acquiring a number of opportunities to win a championship?
Kenny: I only look at it from a player's perspective. I don't look at it from dollars and cents. If I'm winning a championship, I'm keeping James Harden. Financially, you've got a team in Oklahoma, you've got some other things, you might say, "I can't do it." But from a basketball standpoint, you never would have done that.
Pure basketball. Like in the park, you say, "I got him, I got him, I got him." And you're saying, "Ok, you give me him?" And you're like, "No, I've got my team!"
We finally had to all part ways, but as I expressed my thanks to Mr. Barry, he offered the opportunity to me to sit in studio in the near future during the halftime broadcast. I hope I can capitalize on that opportunity. In the end though the generous invitation underscores what the production is all about - the feeling that at the end of the day, you're just watching basketball with your friends. And one of them happens to be a 7 foot, 300lb multimillionaire with a watch the size of a salad plate.