Executive producer Tim Kiely wanted TNT’s Inside the NBA to feel less scripted. So he turned off Ernie Johnson’s TelePrompTer. Not after a series of meetings or focus group sessions—just one weekday night, right in the middle of a show.
Johnson wasn’t happy. “He was mad. He walked out of the studio and into the bathroom to get away from me. He had a coffee cup and whipped it against the wall and smashed it,” Kiely recalls.
“It wasn’t like I was throwing it at anybody, but I broke the mug,” says Johnson. “The next day on my desk is a gift-wrapped coffee mug that says ‘Postal Worker Needed’; I still have that mug in my office.”
Hurling a cup would be one of the more mild antics viewers have seen from Johnson and his TNT colleagues Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, who have won 13 Emmys and the devotion of sports fans. They talk hoops, they take shots at each other, create viral videos and sometimes tackle serious issues of civil rights and race.
“The ingredients were bright guys who could take a joke and make viewers feel like they’re sitting in a locker room. That’s the way they talk to each other,” Kiely says.
All of it is done freestyle now. Johnson says turning off the PrompTer was Kiely’s way of saying “just let it rip.” That was easier for Johnson when Smith signed up as he was winding down his playing career in the mid-’90s.
“T.K. and I both looked at each other after that night and we said ‘this guy’s a natural. It would be great to have him on TV once he’s retired,’” says Johnson.
Smith didn’t freeze up on TV but he wouldn’t look into the camera like broadcasters are taught. The director would scream at Smith, but Kiely told the director to stop. “Listen to what he’s saying. He’s saying good stuff. I don’t care where he’s looking. Neither does the viewer.”
The show exploded when Barkley decided Turner’s show looked like more fun than NBC’s. As a jock Barkleywas outspoken, but many tighten up as sportscasters. The “Round Mound of Rebound” remained a loose cannon and became a cable sensation. More important, “Charles changed the landscape. He made it permissible to talk about something other than the basketball game,” Johnson says.
While he has plenty of opinions on topics like the racist comments by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Barkley doesn’t relish the times when those themes dominate the show. “That’s not a fun conversation. We would love to just talk about basketball and have fun. The only time work sucks is when it’s a real serous subject.”
And yet, that ability to balance analysis of goings-on both on and off the court has made the show much bigger than just a vehicle for postgame highlights and Xs and Os. “It’s transcended a studio show and crossed into a pop culture phenomenon,” says David Levy, who ran Turner Sports before becoming president of Turner Broadcasting.
When Turner NBA analyst Doug Collins was coaching the Washington Wizards, his team would watch Inside the NBA during halftime, Levy says. Collins told him players want to see what the guys are saying about them—a tribute to the show’s authenticity.
Inside The NBA occasionally has higher ratings than the end of the games that precede it. During the playoffs, it beats the late-night talk shows among adults and male viewers. Last spring, it averaged 6.9 million total viewers after Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Viewers not only tune in late at night, but DVR it and watch NBA Network replays in the morning. One morning viewer is NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who attended Inside the NBA production meetings when he was president of NBA Entertainment. “It’s a uniquely NBA show in that it’s a combination of basketball analysis, entertainment and social commentary,” Silver says.
When the NBA was renewing its rights deals with Turner and ESPN, Inside the NBA was part of the equation. Silver and the league’s media committee met with Turner in Atlanta, and a highlight was a poem Johnson wrote for the owners. “It was very meaningful and a reminder of how long we’ve all been in business with each other, and how passionate Turner Sports executives and their talent are about the NBA.”
After O’Neal retired, Turner wanted a superstar on the show. During the pitch Levy told O’Neal Turner would be taking a risk adding another big personality. “We really want you but we don’t need you,” is how Levy put it. O’Neal joined Barkley on TV, and then in the basketball Hall of Fame in September, making the B&C Hall of Fame his second induction in two months. “This one I’m going in as a role player,” says O’Neal.
“The first day I got here, I looked in the camera because that’s what we learned at Broadcasting University and the producer, Tim Kiely, came down and ripped me a new one. He said that’s not what we do here. We want you to have fun and talk about what you know,” the Big Aristotle says. “The people when they watch the show, not only do they laugh, they know we know what we’re talking about.”
Smith says he’s proud of his NBA ring, but he’s just as proud to be part of this show. “I’m blessed,” he says. “I don’t know many people who have been part of a championship team and an Emmy Award-winning team.”
Meanwhile, Barkley thinks getting paid to watch sports is a joke. “Then we started winning Emmys. Now they take it to a whole ’nother level with a Hall of Fame to put us in. This is the greatest scam job in the history of civilization.”