Its Future in Doubt, the Freewheeling ‘Inside the NBA’ Is on Edge Instead

The future of “Inside the NBA” was already a sensitive topic when Charles Barkley stepped into an elevator in Minneapolis after Game 3 of the Western Conference finals late Friday night. Barkley’s on-air candor as an analyst is a key reason that the studio show has become so influential and beloved among basketball fans and around the league.

But these are tense times for the show and those who work on it. Warner Bros. Discovery has not secured the rights to continue broadcasting N.B.A. games on TNT beyond next season. Without those, the long-term future of “Inside the N.B.A.” is uncertain. So when Barkley, who had already batted away several attempts by security and public relations officials to prevent him from doing an interview, ushered me into an elevator filled with his co-workers, not everyone was happy.

Kenny Smith, Barkley’s on-screen foil, voiced his irritation. But Barkley, as he has done throughout his decades in the public eye, made clear that he wouldn’t be muzzled.

“Hey man, I can talk to who I want to,” Barkley said to Smith, using an expletive. Others in the elevator shifted uncomfortably.

“You should do that out there,” Smith said, suggesting the interview be done outside the elevator.

Barkley turned to me: “Don’t worry about him.”

“She should clear it through Turner,” Smith said. “She should do it the right way.”

Why was it so important for him to talk, I asked Barkley, even if others around him didn’t want him to? He nodded to the impact the uncertainty has on staff members who work on the show. And not just the well-known, on-air personalities: Barkley, Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and the host, Ernie Johnson.

“It’s people’s lives,” Barkley said. “Not my life. Not Ernie’s life. Not Kenny’s life. Not Shaq’s life. But all the people who work here. We probably have 100 people who do work on the show. So they’re, like, real people. I’ve seen their kids born, graduate high school, graduate college.”

“Inside the NBA” began when Turner Sports acquired the rights to broadcast N.B.A. games in 1989. Johnson became the host in 1990, and Smith joined him in 1998. The arrival of Barkley, and his unfiltered opinions, in 2000 firmly established the show as appointment TV for basketball fans and an integral piece of the league’s culture. O’Neal joined the broadcast in 2011, and the group’s irreverent and astute basketball analysis, unfettered by concerns about access or egos, has endeared it to viewers and critics. Now this mainstay of N.B.A. coverage may be endangered — at least in its current format.

Warner Bros. Discovery did not reach a deal with the N.B.A. during their exclusive negotiating window, leading to reports that it might lose the rights. David Zaslav, Warner’s chief executive, has said the company had the right to match any offer. When asked by TMZ on Thursday about the possibility of losing the show, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said, “We’re all still talking. Who knows how it’s going to work out?”

The jittery feeling surrounding the negotiations is in sharp contrast to the freewheeling style that has made “Inside the NBA” so popular.

Early in his tenure, Barkley colorfully stated that he would kiss Smith’s rear end if the Houston Rockets’ Yao Ming, who was then a relatively unproven 7-foot-6 center from China, scored 19 points in a certain game. On another show, to collect on the bet, Smith brought out a donkey for Barkley to kiss.

In 2018, players from the Houston Rockets, including the former Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, tried to approach the Clippers locker room after a tense game. The sideline reporter, Ros Gold-Onwude, said there was a police presence at the arena to make sure the incident didn’t escalate. By the end of her report, O’Neal and Barkley were laughing uncontrollably, while Smith and Johnson tried to calm them.

When he caught his breath, O’Neal imitated an imagined 911 call: “Hello, police? Chris Paul’s trying to beat me up.”

Barkley countered by referencing a Clippers player: “Hey, this is Blake Griffin. Chris Paul is trying to get into the locker room! Get down here and save me!”

The people working behind the scenes create cheeky graphics that often punctuate the on-air banter. Other times, writers’ and producers’ ideas became indelible parts of the show. The show is known around the league as a place where employees feel embraced by a family-like atmosphere.

“Inside the NBA” tackles serious issues, too. In 2014, for instance, after a white police officer who killed a Black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., was not indicted, the show opened with a frank discussion about the situation.

And its influence among players is unquestioned. Dereck Lively, a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks, appeared on a segment this month because a player from the Oklahoma City Thunder had chased him all around the court like they were playing a game of tag. Lively’s friends excitedly sent him the video.

“There’s not a lot of people who get to be in those moments,” he said.

A few days later, Lively’s teammate Daniel Gafford was a postgame guest on the show’s in-arena set. During the game he had roared and thumped his chest. On the “Inside the NBA” set, he smiled bashfully, even when Barkley called him by the wrong name.

“Excited to be on here with y’all,” Gafford said. “It’s a great honor.”

Barkley told Gafford that there were times during his own illustrious N.B.A. career when he would cry, wondering if he was actually any good at basketball. He asked Gafford if he had ever wondered that about himself. Gafford said he had.

If the show goes away, Lively said, the league would lose “one of the lighthearted but also one of the places where people aren’t afraid to say what they want to say. All those four guys, everybody has a lot of respect for those four guys. Whenever they talk, people listen.”

He added: “To lose that connection, it’s going to hurt the league.”

When the Timberwolves beat the Denver Nuggets to make it to the conference finals, Barkley told the Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards he hadn’t been to Minnesota in decades. Edwards replied, “Bring ya ass,” creating a civic rallying cry for everyone from the local symphony orchestra to the governor of Minnesota.

“Inside the NBA” is typically filmed in a studio in Atlanta, but the show was on site at the Target Center for the Western Conference Finals between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks.

As fans filtered into the arena in Minneapolis on Friday night, many found the set and waited for the stars to arrive. They held jerseys and signs just as they would for an N.B.A. team.

Karen Steele, 51, held up a hand-drawn sign that said “We love Charles.” Her sister had bet her $50 she couldn’t get a photo with Barkley, so she was there to try.

“He’s real,” Steele said. When Edwards made his comment, “some people might not have responded well. He responded great. Our city loves him. He was an incredible basketball player. He’s fun to watch.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Barkley has been the most vocal about the future of the show.

Earlier this month, Barkley said he had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave if TNT lost the N.B.A.

On a more recent appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show,” Barkley excoriated Warner Bros. Discovery’s management. He never mentioned Zaslav, the chief executive, by name, but called the company’s leaders “clowns.”

“When we merged, that’s the first thing our boss said: ‘We don’t need the N.B.A.,’” Barkley said. “Well, he don’t need it. But the rest of the people, me, Kenny, Shaq and Ernie and the people who work there, we need it.”

The other “Inside the NBA” stars have been quieter.

Before the pregame show on Friday, O’Neal sat courtside and chatted with passers-by. Asked for an interview, he grinned and said, “We aren’t allowed to talk ever since Chuck’s outburst.” He might have been joking, though a public relations official with TNT said later that the cast had not been asked not to speak.

Approached for an interview, Johnson pointed me to the public relations team. TNT had declined to arrange interviews with its talent for this article. After the game, Johnson interrupted the interview with Barkley as he left the elevator to castigate me for approaching him without permission from the company.

Because TNT does not broadcast the N.B.A. finals, the show’s season will end after the Western Conference finals. Game 4 is Tuesday night, with Dallas holding a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Inside the NBA” will return next season, but whether that will be its last remains to be seen.

“I love my job,” Barkley said. “Been working with these people for 24 years, we have a lot of fun together. And we’re hoping it continues. We’re hoping, but we have no control over it.”

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Kim browne

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