On the Set With TNT's 'Inside the NBA'
ATLANTA -- Charles Barkley arrives a half hour before the start of the show carrying two bulging bags of groceries. He's got Crystal Light powder and a big bottle of Fiji water as he tries to ween himself off Diet Cokes, but the rest of the bags are filled with cleaning supplies.
Yep. Barkley primarily picked up from Publix a bunch of containers of Clorox disinfecting wipes. He's most excited about the orange and lavender scents.
"I have a cleaning problem,'' said Barkley, saying it goes back to when he was growing up poor in Leeds, Ala., and learned the value of taking care of stuff. "I like to clean. I keep everything immaculate around here.''
Barkley was at the Turner Sports studios last Monday for the second night of TNT's coverage of the NBA playoffs. FanHouse was granted access to watch behind the scenes as the irreverent Emmy Award-winning studio show "Inside the NBA'' hit the airwaves with host Ernie Johnson and analysts Barkley and Kenny "The Jet'' Smith.
Barkley wiping down areas where he sits throughout the night was not one of the sights one had expected to see.
"Charles Barkley includes a lot of images,'' said the show's producer, Tim Kiely. "I'll let you fill in those images. Clean freak isn't one of them. Kenny will throw food all over, like nutshells and pieces of watermelon, and Charles will clean the area 50 times.''
As for the other images of Barkley, what you see is pretty much what you get. Just as he does on the air, he spends other parts of the evening busting everybody's chops, from the cleaning staff (he doesn't do all the cleaning) to the security officer to the highest ranking Turner official who might be around.
Barkley spends the night taking guff from everybody as well. When Smith is asked if he ever spends time socially with Barkley off the set, he responds, "I hate that guy.''
"If you think they're funny on the air, they're 1,000 times funnier off the air,'' senior talent manager Tara August said while sitting in the viewing room, which has numerous television monitors, where Barkley and Smith spend most of their time during the night when not on stage.
The unmarried August, the recipient of regular ribbing from the two, had just gotten done listening to Barkley tell her she needs to marry Larry King because, "I think he's got it down now. His first eight [marriages were] just trial.''
A few weeks ago, Barkley actually borrowed a gaudy necklace August was wearing and wore it on the show. He had the top buttons of his shirt undone, prompting comparisons to Tom Jones.
Meanwhile, back in the viewing room, shortly before the show goes on the air at 8 p.m. EDT prior to Game 2 of the Cleveland-Chicago East first-round series, Smith is trying to sucker Barkley into betting on Game 1 of that series that is being replayed on a monitor. "I'll give you Chicago and 11,'' Smith says.
Cleveland had won 96-83. But even the gullible Barkley doesn't fall for that one.
"He's like Charlie Brown with Lucy,'' Turner senior director of public relations Jeff Pomeroy says of Lucy always pulling the football up before Charlie Brown can kick it in the Peanuts comic strip.
"He's so easy to hook,'' Kiely said. "He's a big tuna, not just physically. He bites on anything.''
With that in mind, the anticipation is building on what gag will be played on Barkley on this night. Johnson lets it out of the bag offstage earlier in the evening, but it remains a mystery to the Hall of Famer.
It actually isn't a trick others on the show have conspired to play on Barkley, although there have been plenty of those in the past. It's more of wanting to see Barkley's reaction involving a favorite topic: his girth.
On the previous night's show, Barkley had revealed he weighs "about 310'' pounds and is trying to lose weight. Johnson had remembered Barkley once yukking it up with others when a commercial had come on for the Shake Weight, a barbell-like device one shakes in order to supposedly lose weight.
The product has been parodied on "Saturday Night Live'' and laughed about on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!'' Now, it was time for "Inside the NBA'' to provide its treatment.
The segment actually was taped during the second of half of the second game of Monday's TNT doubleheader, Utah's 114-111 win at Denver in Game 2 of a West first-round series. But viewers saw it last during the evening, just before the show signed off at 2:24 a.m. EDT.
When the Shake Weight is brought out, the look on Barkley's face is priceless, and he laughs while trying it out. But the best lines end up coming courtesy of Smith, who cracks, "Is this the Playboy Channel?'' and "If you do it too much, you do go blind.''
With those comments, yet another fun show was in the books during this 10th season of "Inside the NBA," which airs before and after TNT games and during halftime. And Johnson, Barkley and Smith could leave in the wee hours of the morning.
'Nobody Asks for Permission to Talk'
Johnson, who lives in Atlanta while Barkley flies in from Phoenix and Smith from Los Angeles for shows, was at the studios for more than 12 hours Monday. On days the show is on, usually weekly on Thursdays during the regular season and regularly for 1 ½ months throughout the playoffs, he comes in about six hours before air time. He reads articles, makes calls and prepares for the show in his office.
It's a little different with Barkley, a star NBA forward from 1984-2000, and Smith, a savvy (although "journeyman" might be a better description from those on the set since he often gets ribbed for playing for six teams) point guard from 1987-97 who won titles in 1994 and 1995 with Houston. Neither has an office, and both stroll in about a half hour before air time.
Barkley and Smith have done their preparation by watching previous games. They're not ones to bring notes with them or take many after arriving.
Shortly after Barkley shows up, he starts talking to anybody who will listen about Bulls center Joakim Noah, who had just ripped Cleveland for being a boring place. "It's best not to insult the whole city before the game,'' Barkley says as Johnson walks by.
But Johnson silences Barkley, saying for him to "save it'' for the show. Johnson, a two-time Emmy winner for top sports studio host, doesn't want anything to come across as rehearsed. So far, it has worked. The show has won five Emmys for top daily sports show
"It's just like the three of us were watching a game, nobody asks for permission to talk,'' Johnson said of the impromptu nature of the show. "If we're watching on a sofa, nobody says, 'Hey, when this commercial is over, I'm going to say, 'Man, I thought that was a terrible shot that Noah took.'
"You can see that on various sports shows where somebody says something, and somebody immediately follows up. And it looks like the fifth time they've been through it.''
Although Barkley sometimes can't keep his mouth shut enough to avoid something slipping, Barkley and Smith generally share in the belief of wanting whatever they say to be a surprise. Johnson said it all started with the first show the three did Nov. 1, 2000, when Barkley asked what Smith was going to say that night, and the response was, "I'm not going to tell you.''
Not knowing what Barkley is going to say can lead to some jaw-dropping by Johnson. Barkley has called 5-foot-9 guard Nate Robinson "a little midget'' and talked about how "Dick Bavetta and Moses parted the Red Sea together'' in reference to the referee being 67 when Barkley beat him in their famous footrace during 2007 All-Star Weekend.
Johnson never will forget what happened early in the 2006-07 season, when the NBA had started using a synthetic leather ball before switching back to leather. Barkley wanted to make a point on the air, so he had a staff worker head to a nearby Checkers and bring him back a hamburger.
"He came out on the set eating a hamburger to protest PETA wanting to go away from a leather basketball,'' Johnson said. "He said, 'I just want PETA to know animals are good for two things, eating and testing.' I was like, 'OK, this is what I'm in store for the next day.'''
Staff members are always ready to run out for a prop on short notice. When Barkley wants his beloved Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, there's a location just minutes up the road from the midtown Atlanta studios.
In 2006, Barkley decided at the last minute to see how long he could hold his breath underwater to make fun of David Blaine having just done it for an amazing 7 minutes, 8 seconds. A fish tank and a pair of goggles needed to be rounded up. The fish tank was found on the Turner campus and the goggles came from Dick's Sporting Goods before Barkley's attempt lasted all of 24 seconds.
As for the craziest item to have been brought in under those circumstances, Pomeroy said an "anatomically correct stand-in'' was needed for Smith's famous 2008 parody of Kobe Bryant's video in which he allegedly jumped over an Aston Martin sports car. Asked where one buys such an item, Pomeroy said "they have specialty stores that provide that.''
The hilarious video of Smith appearing to be run over by a car in the Turner parking lot driven by Johnson ranked No. 1 on the list of top 10 moments from the show's first 10 years shown in a special one-hour show TNT aired in February during All-Star Weekend. The video has gotten millions of hits on YouTube. Graphic designer Alex Houvouras (pictured below), who put it together, said, "Boy Scouts, they love that'' when they come in for a tour.
Houvouras works upstairs from Studio J, where the show is filmed, in the graphics control room. Using a computer called a paintbox, he's the guy who is behind Johnson, Smith and Barkley (mostly Barkley) having their faces imposed upon funny pictures. After the Shake Weight was presented to Barkley, a picture was shown with the former power forward on a Krispy Kreme box.
Houvouras has all sorts of Barkley heads available to be plopped on photos. He showed off ones such as Barkley's head on Uncle Fester and on a pie-eating contestant.
One thing Houvouras really loves this time of the year is putting together the witty "Gone Fishin''' pictures whenever a team is eliminated from the playoffs. Houvouras' past favorites include Boston general manager Danny Ainge in a Speedo and using the HBO series "Big Love,'' which deals with polygamy, on one depicting Utah's elimination. He said that didn't go over well with some Mormons.
"I've heard players say in interviews they don't want to be part of 'Gone Fishin,''' Houvouras said. "If they say they don't want to be in it, then that's the first person I put in it [when that player's team is eliminated].''
But while the graphics and gags are all fun, what really makes the show is the banter between the three. Sometimes Johnson, Barkley and Smith are joined by former NBA star Chris Webber, whom one could consider like the fourth Marx Brother.
The chemistry on the set is unmatched perhaps among all sports studio shows. The three (or four) often sit around and chat with each other while following Keily's No. 1 rule to make nothing seem stodgy: Don't look at the camera.
"We're not trying to cure cancer. ... Sometimes guys take themselves too seriously,'' Barkley said of some other sports studio shows. "People who watch our show want to have a good time. ... We could stick to basketball Xs and Os and bore people to death, but that would be no fun.''
No it wouldn't. No wonder Johnson, who often plays the straight man but is said by Barkley to have a "very good sense of humor'' but is "too wonderful of a person to insult anybody" on the air -- that is, except Barkley and Smith -- describes his job as being like a traffic cop gone haywire.
"You watch a traffic cop and he doesn't want anybody to hit anybody, and everything to go smoothly,'' Johnson said. "I'm trying to wave Kenny into the intersection so Chuck can broadside him. So I'm a bad traffic cop.
"Charles is a lighting rod. Kenny is like the street-smart New York guy who comes at it from a different angle.''
Smith is more careful about what he says than Barkley, whose 1993 autobiography was appropriately entitled Outrageous! Before Monday's first game, Smith said he believed Chicago, a big underdog, would win at Cleveland. Asked if he was going to say that on the air, Smith said, "If I get enough courage.''
Turns out Smith said on the air he wasn't "brave enough'' to predict an outright Bulls win. But he did say the Bulls have a "fighter's chance,'' and they made him look good by staying close throughout the game before falling, 112-102.
On the post-game show following Utah's win, though, Smith all of a sudden turned bold. With Portland, a No. 6 seed in the West playing without injured star Brandon Roy, having surprisingly won Game 1 at No. 3 Phoenix, he said, "Portland will win the series.''
"They all put me on the spot,'' Smith said later. "I'm not a predicting guy. I can tell you why you lost and why you won. But they make us do it every now and then in the playoffs [making a prediction].''
After Smith's gutsy prediction, all Barkley could do was say, "Wow.'' If you can get Barkley to be surprised, that's something.
'I Criticize Everybody'
Despite the title of his book, when Barkley was asked if he believes he ever says outrageous things, he said, "Never.'' Barkley believes he has credibility not just from being a former star, but by being an equal opportunity criticizer.
"I don't have a hidden agenda,'' Barkley said. "I try to be as honest as I can. I don't care who wins. I just try to make it as fun as possible.
"I think the thing that gives me credibility [from NBA players] is I criticize everybody. I criticize Kobe. I criticize LeBron [James]. ... I criticized LeBron for talking about where he was going to play [next season after likely becoming a free agent this summer], and he called me a [expletive]. But I still feel like I was right.''
Smith said some of what Barkley says comes from another dimension in the mind.
"He speaks from the place of the subconscious instead of the conscious a lot of times,'' Smith said. "He speaks in the form of that dark voice in the back of your head, and it never reaches your lips.''
Neither Barkley nor any TNT officials said they've ever heard from the NBA about censorship. Any censorship of Barkley has come from Turner officials, and it hasn't been much.
In the early days of "Inside the NBA,'' TNT would show movies afterward and Barkley often said how bad he believed they were. After he was kindly asked to stop doing that, Johnson said Barkley said on the air, "They told me if I didn't like a movie I shouldn't say anything so I'm keeping quiet.''
Barkley recently said on "The Jay Leno Show'' he didn't like "Avatar.'' But with Turner having signed a deal involving the movie, Barkley said, "I can't say it on the air anymore'' that he doesn't like it.
There is no time delay on the show so whatever is said live is heard. Barkley ended up apologizing Tuesday for having used a profanity on that night's show when he was giving Johnson and Smith grief about a segment in which viewers ask Barkley questions. In this particular segment, a blond woman and brunet woman asked Barkley if he prefers blonds or brunets.
Barkley does have his quiet moments, but only when he's wearing headphones. While Monday's Cleveland-Chicago game was on in the viewing room, Barkley looked as if he was focusing intently on the game.
"Actually, I'm watching 'The Big Bang Theory,''' Barkley said of using headphones to listen to that show while also keeping tabs on hoops.
Later that night, Smith is listening to his iPod while watching Denver-Utah. "I've got Biggie on,'' he said of the late rap star.
Smith and Barkley banter with one another during breaks on the set in Studio J. The set rotates throughout the night to give different angles of the studio.
One side includes a miniature city complete with model buildings from all over the world, such as the Empire State Building and even the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, once the world's tallest buildings. Other sides feature NBA action photos on the wall.
Barkley, though, spends more time during breaks talking with workers on the set than with Johnson or Smith. He tells camera operator Cybele Forbes she really didn't really beat him last season in an on-air push-up contest between the two even though everybody else in the world believes she did.
Barkley accused a male camera operator of having "man boobs.'' Later, Barkley, when asked if he has man boobs himself said, "I'm in the neighborhood.'' It's no wonder Barkley says, "I can laugh at myself better than anybody. I think that's a key.''
It certainly is. That's why the gags keep coming Barkley's way, although Smith has received his share.
Smith said the all-time favorite gag against him came in 2006 when Magic Johnson was appearing at times on the show before Johnson went to ABC. With Barkley and Johnson having had their numbers honored by NBA teams, Smith's Houston No. 30 was officially retired in a TNT ceremony.
"That was funny as heck,' Smith said. "They had the jersey hanging on a clothesline going across the studio. That was pretty funny. Magic was really laughing. ... Our show is not world news.''
Smith's jersey came across on a clothesline alongside various undergarments. Adding to the fun, it actually was a Tracy McGrady Rockets jersey with Smith's name taped over his on the back.
As for the greatest gag played on Barkley, he's also able to single out one. And it didn't include the two most worn topics about when he gets ribbed: His weight and that he never won a championship ring.
"That New Year's Eve party they threw was probably the best one,'' Barkley said. "That was the funniest thing they ever did to me. That was hilarious. ... I'm used to all the championship stuff [of not winning one]. They do that to me every year, but that party really [messed] me up.''
It came about when Barkley, who throws a big New Year's Eve party every year in Phoenix, was complaining throughout last fall about "Inside the NBA'' being on for the first time on New Year's Eve. So others on the show sprung into action.
A fake New Year's Eve party was filmed a few days earlier in another studio. It included Webber and other Turner personalities dancing around wearing party hats and having a great time. Throughout the New Year's Eve show, clips were shown of the party, and Barkley was told he could go over there at the end of the night.
"You can't make Charles mad,'' Kiely said. "He actually likes it when you bust his chops. ... Charles is like Pavlov's dog. I can't believe some of the stuff we've pulled on him all these years and he still believes something good is going to happen. ... So Charles has been hearing about this party for five hours, and he's all lathered up and he's talking faster to get through the [night's final] segment.''
Finally, the show ends and Smith walks Barkley over to where the party is supposedly taking place. The door is opened and the room is empty except for a guy cleaning up party hats and other debris.
All Barkley can do is look on in disbelief. He eventually says, "I hate you all,'' and walks away while Smith is laughing hysterically and reveals the party had been taped days earlier.
It was one of the few times neat-freak Barkley had no desire to do any cleaning up himself.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson