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How The 4 Faces Of Inside The NBA Make 1 Great Show

“In an industry where everyone has an opinion about everything and everyone, no one has much bad to say about Inside the NBA.”

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The 2019-2020 NBA season is upon us. How will one of the most interesting and unpredictable offseason’s be paid off? Well, starting tonight the talking is over and we’re on a road to finding out.

Most Americans will turn to TNT this season when they want someone to make sense of the league’s biggest stories or see some of its biggest matchups. This is the 30th anniversary of the network being in the basketball business, and that deserves to be celebrated.

We’re not going to lay out a retrospective of all three decades. Hell, outside of the “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday!” song, there wasn’t much notable about TNT’s NBA coverage until the year 2000. That is when the show that put the network in heavy rotation for NBA fans was launched.

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Today, we are going to take a look at Inside the NBA. This isn’t a history of the show. Four of us here at Barrett Sports Media are going to look at what makes the show great by looking at what makes each of its four stars great.

In an industry where everyone has an opinion about everything and everyone, no one has much bad to say about Inside the NBA. That is a testament to the men and women both in front of and behind the camera, but for today, let’s focus on the men we see before, during, and after every game on TNT.

JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF WIT, SARCASM AND PROFESSIONALISM: ANDY MASUR ON ERNIE JONSON

While many may think it’s, Kenny, Shaq and Charles that make Inside the NBA the show it is, I disagree. It’s all about having a quality, well-seasoned, witty and capable host. It’s all about Ernie Johnson. Let me tell you why. 

As a studio host it’s not easy to just walk onto a set and be tremendous. Johnson has the added task of working with big personalities who have not been trained as broadcasters. That’s what makes this show, hosted by Johnson so special.

He is among the best studio hosts around. Johnson handles the three ringed circus with just the right amount of wit, sarcasm and professionalism to make it all work. I love the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and allows the “players” to be the stars of the show. Johnson isn’t afraid to laugh at himself either which is a tremendous quality. If he’s not there to act as the traffic cop, the show would run itself out of control.  Inside the NBA wouldn’t work without Johnson.

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When you are working with some “wildcards” that have varying opinions and varying ways of expressing them, as a host you’ve got to be ready for everything. It’s very easy to tell that Johnson comes well prepared for every show. Sometimes he needs to jump in to make sure that facts are presented correctly and Johnson does this in such a way as to not look like he’s correcting one of his teammates. That is an art form and I’m sure appreciated by the guys on the set with him. 

Johnson has been around the game of basketball for quite some time and knows a lot about the NBA. He is smart enough though, to defer to the guys that played it at the highest level, when it comes to breaking down a game. His knowledge allows him to nudge the guys in the right direction, with excellent follow up questions or analogies. It’s fun to watch. 

Johnson is a versatile broadcaster, which allows him to transition from the NBA to the NCAA Tournament pretty seamlessly during the run up to the Final Four. Even when paired with different people on set, he just continues to do what he does and makes the shows flow like he’s worked with them for years. That is not easy to do. 

HE’S NOT CHANGING FOR ANYONE: JASON BARRETT ON CHARLES BARKLEY

Honest, fearless, comedic and spontaneous are the first four words I think of when it comes to Charles Barkley. For nearly twenty years basketball fans have enjoyed his raw and unfiltered approach on Inside The NBA, making the show a must-watch. It hasn’t mattered that the league enjoys a business relationship with TNT or that players have friendships with Charles because if he has an opinion, it’s being delivered with a purpose, and if it ruffles a few feathers in the process so be it.

Though his lack of structure may drive executives nuts at times, it’s Chuck’s off the rails and unpredictable style that helps make Inside The NBA one of the best sports shows on television. Another attraction is the cast’s authenticity and credibility. Their experiences are well documented and their discussions are honest, funny and spirited. That helps the viewer feel like they’re watching four well known respected friends talk about the NBA and providing a mixture of laughs, insights and unscripted ball busting in the process.

If there’s an attribute that sometimes gets undervalued it’s Charles’ ability to be self-deprecating. We love his strong opinions and willingness to venture into odd conversations, but he’s also more than comfortable being the butt of the joke. When laughter ensues on this show, it’s impossible to change the channel. One minute Charles may butcher a foreign player’s name, the next he’s either losing his train of thought during a commentary or taking part in a produced bit that leaves you in stitches. 

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Not many personalities on the air today can piss off NBA executives by telling viewers a particular game is bad or an NBA service isn’t worth paying for, but the league is wise enough to recognize this is who Charles Barkley is and he’s not changing for anyone. When you combine his credentials as a hall of fame basketball player and his larger than life unique personality with the team of Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, you have a sports television show that’s first in class and the envy of every other sports network.

HARDLY JUST A GLUE GUY: JACK FERRIS ON KENNY SMITH

“Glue Guy” is a term tossed around in sports to describe a teammate who may not be the biggest star, may not have the best resume and flat out may not be a house hold name.  He is, however, a locker room guy, everyone’s friend.  The proverbial straw that stirs the drink.  While this might be a relatively accurate description – Kenny “the Jet” Smith is hardly just a “Glue Guy.”

If Ernie is the point guard, Chuck the power forward and Shaq the center – Kenny is without question the team’s versatile shooting guard/small forward.  

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Consider your typical halftime show.  Ernie will welcome the audience and distribute to his three analysts as he sees fit.  If a marquee big man is struggling or excelling – he’ll look to Shaq for comment.  If a player or team is disproving an adamant point Chuck made in the pregame, he’ll lob it over to the quote machine.  You might see one, both or neither of these happen in any NBA on TNT halftime show – one thing you can always count on is Kenny’s Big Board.

Kenny’s Big Board, outside of being a tool to show off the comically large set, is arguably the most insightful element the best NBA studio show has to offer.  Whether it’s guards going under screens, big men not rotating fast enough, or just flat out bad shooting – Kenny will show you exactly why the first half of a game played out how it did.  The bells and whistles of the segment are always impressive – but it’s Kenny who shines as he points out small details the casual NBA fan would never notice.  It’s well known that Inside the NBA is built on personality, but it’s these moments that offer the best analysis in what might be the best studio show in sports television.

As for each show’s inevitable off-the-rails banter, Kenny Smith easily holds his own.  When Chuck is making a point, the Jet knows exactly what to say to antagonize the star of the show.  More times than not – it’s merely reminding Barkley of a different point he made the day before that completely discredits his current rant.  He may not have the MVPs or the hall of fame credentials of his counterparts, but Kenny is well armed with the ultimate equalizer in NBA debates – two rings.  And no, it’s not his fault Jordan left the league for two years.

Kenny may not make the controversial statement that runs through the media cycle the next day – but his knowledge of the game and Chuck’s head make him an invaluable member of the squad.

A GIANT GOOFBALL, A KID AT HEART: DEMETRI RAVANOS ON SHAQUILLE O’NEAL

There isn’t a guy alive in my generation that didn’t look at Shaquille O’Neal with absolute wonder and awe when we were kids. We all wanted to be like Mike. We knew no matter what we did, we’d never be like Shaq…at least on the court.

Off the court, Shaq was just like us, and he’s still just like us. How can a physical freak also fill the role of Inside the NBA’s everyman? It’s because Shaq is a giant goofball, a kid at heart that is as shocked by the spoils his profession has brought him as anyone watching is.

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Shaq can explain how the role of the big man has changed. He can point out when someone is dogging it on defense. He can do both by making jokes at the expense of his work ethic or free throw shooting. That isn’t when he is most valuable to this show.

Inside the NBA gets the most out of Shaq when he is dancing with the Jabawokees or when he is eating the world’s hottest chips. He is comfortable in the role of basketball’s clown prince because he operates from a place of emotion. Sometimes that leads to genuine hostility with Charles Barkley or his other co-workers, but Shaq shows up to the studio looking to have a good time and more often than not, he does and so do the people around him.

Pregame and halftime shows across all sports are built on fake laughter. That is what makes Shaq and Inside the NBA a welcome and needed change of pace. His smile and laugh are infectious. Seeing someone that size, that legendary in his sport genuinely having fun is genuinely fun.

BSM Writers

Who Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion Best?

Rex Ryan, Rodney Harrison, and Boomer Esiason stood out with their commentary on the Tagovailoa story.

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The major story going into the bulk of Week 4’s NFL action on Sunday was the concussion suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Thursday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

Amazon’s Thursday Night Football telecast, particularly its halftime show, faced heavy criticism for neglecting to mention that Tagovailoa had been tested for a concussion in his previous game just four days earlier. Additionally, the NFL Players Association called for an investigation into whether or not the league’s concussion protocols were followed properly in evaluating Tagovailoa.

In light of that, how would the Sunday NFL pregame shows address the Tagovailoa concussion situation? Would they better inform viewers by covering the full story, including the Week 3 controversy over whether or not proper protocols were followed?

We watched each of the four prominent pregame shows — ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Fox NFL Sunday, CBS’s The NFL Today, and NBC’s Football Night in America — to compare how the Tagovailoa story was covered. With the benefit of two extra days to research and report, did the Sunday shows do a better job of informing and engaging viewers?

Here’s how the pregame studio crews performed with what could be the most important NFL story of the year:

Sunday NFL Countdown – ESPN

ESPN’s pregame show is the first to hit the air each Sunday, broadcasting at 10 a.m. ET. So the Sunday NFL Countdown crew had the opportunity to lead the conversation for the day. With a longer, three-hour show and more resources to utilize in covering a story like this, ESPN took full advantage of its position.

The show did not lead off with the Tagovailoa story, opting to lay out Sunday’s schedule, which included an early game in London between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. But the Countdown crew eventually got to issue on everyone’s minds approximately 28 minutes into the program.

Insider Adam Schefter provided the latest on the NFL and NFLPA’s investigation into the matter, particularly the “gross motor instability” Tagovailoa displayed in stumbling on the field and how the Dolphins initially announced that the quarterback had suffered a head injury, but later changed his condition to a back injury.

Schefter added that the NFL and NFLPA were expected to interview Tagovailoa and pass new guidelines for concussion protocols, including that no player displaying “gross motor instability” will be allowed to play. Those new rules could go into effect as early as Week 5.

“This is an epic fail by the NFL,” said Matt Hasselbeck to begin the commentary. “This is an epic fail by the medical staff, epic fail by everybody! Let’s learn from it!”

Perhaps the strongest remarks came from Rex Ryan, who said coaches sometimes need to protect players from themselves.

“I had a simple philosophy as a coach: I treated every player like my son,” Ryan said. “Would you put your son back in that game after you saw that?

“Forget this ‘back and ankle’ BS that we heard about! This is clearly from head trauma! That’s it. I know what it looks like. We all know what it looks like.”

Where Sunday NFL Countdown‘s coverage may have stood out the most was by bringing injury analyst Stephania Bell into the discussion. Bell took a wider view of the story, explaining that concussions had to be treated in the long-term and short-term. Science needs to advance; a definitive diagnostic tool for brain injury doesn’t currently exist. Until then, a more conservative approach has to be taken, holding players out of action more often.

Grade: A. Countdown covered the story thoroughly. But to be fair, it had the most time.

The NFL Today – CBS

CBS’s pregame show led off with the Tagovailoa story, going right to insider Jonathan Jones to report. He cited the key phrase “gross motor instability” as a significant indication of a concussion.

Jones also clarified that the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who helped evaluate Tagovailoa made “several mistakes” in consulting with the Dolphins’ team doctor, leading to his dismissal by the NFL and NFLPA.

The most pointed remarks came from Boomer Esiason, who said any insinuation that the Dolphins, head coach Mike McDaniel, or the team medical staff put Tagovailoa back in the game in order to win was “off-base.” Phil Simms added that the concussion experts he spoke with indicated that Tagovailoa could miss four to six weeks with this injury.

Grade: B-. The opinions from the analysts were largely bland. Jones’s reporting stood out.

Fox NFL Sunday

The Fox NFL pregame show also led off with the Tagovailoa story, reviewing the questions surrounding how the quarterback was treated in Week 3 before recapping his injury during Week 4’s game.

Jay Glazer reported on the NFL’s investigation, focusing on whether or not Tagovailoa suffered a concussion in Week 3. And if he did, why was he allowed to play in Week 4? Glazer noted that Tagovailoa could seek a second, maybe a third medical opinion on his injury.

Jimmy Johnson provided the most compelling commentary, sharing his perspective from the coaching side of the situation. He pointed out that when an injured player comes off the field, the coach has no contact with him. The medical team provides an update on whether or not the player can return. In Johnson’s view, Mike McDaniel did nothing wrong in his handling of the matter. He has to trust his medical staff.

Grade: B. Each of the analysts shared stronger opinions, particularly in saying a player failing “the eyeball test” with concussion symptoms should be treated seriously.

Football Night in America – NBC

Sunday Night Football was in a different setting than the other pregame shows, with Maria Taylor, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison broadcasting on-site from Tampa Bay. With that, the show led off by covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, its effects on the Tampa area, and how the Buccaneers dealt with the situation during the week.

But after 20 minutes, the show got into the Tagovailoa story with Mike Florio reporting what his peers told viewers earlier in the day regarding pending changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol and “gross motor instability” being used as a major indicator.

Florio emphasized that the NFLPA would ask how Tagovailoa was examined and treated. Was he actually examined for a back injury in Week 3? And if he indeed suffered a back injury, why was he still allowed to play?

When the conversation went back to the on-site crew, Dungy admitted that playing Thursday night games always concerned him when he was a coach. He disclosed that teams playing a Thursday game needed to have a bye the previous week so they didn’t have to deal with a quick, four-day turnaround. That scheduling needs to be addressed for player safety.

But Harrison had the most engaging reaction to the story, coming from his experience as a player. He admitted telling doctors that he was fine when suffering concussion symptoms because he wanted to get back in the game. Knowing that was wrong, Harrison pleaded with current players to stay on the sidelines when hurt because “CTE takes you to a dark place.”

“It’s not worth it. Please take care of yourself,” said Harrison. “Don’t depend on the NFL. Don’t depend on anybody. If something’s wrong with your head, report it.”

Grade: B+. Dungy and Harrison’s views of the matter from their perspective as a coach and player were very compelling.

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BSM Writers

Jason Barrett Podcast – Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt, BetRivers

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Sportsbooks are creating their own media now, and no company is doing that using more guys that have made their names on sports radio than BetRivers. Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt talk about the strategy behind that decision for today and for the future.

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Joe Rogan Betting Admission Reveals Gray Area

Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not.

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Joe Rogan

For nearly a decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the football and basketball programs for the University of Kentucky in some form or fashion. Whether writing for blogs or working with ESPN Louisville as co-host of the post-game show, I’ve gotten to know people around the program I grew up supporting, and other individuals in the media doing the same. I’ve made some terrific friendships and cultivated quite a few relationships that provide me with “inside information” about the teams.

As an avid sports bettor, that information has sometimes put me into some difficult personal situations. There have been times when I’ve been alerted to player news that wasn’t public, such as a player dealing with an injury or suspension. It’s often been told to me off-the-record, and I’ve never put that information out publicly or given it to others.

I wish I could also say I’ve never placed a wager based on that information, but that would be a lie. While it’s been a long time since I’ve done so, I’ve ventured into that ethical gray area of betting on a team that I’m covering. I’ve long felt uncomfortable doing so, and I’d say it’s been a few years since I last did it.

At least I know I’m not alone. On his latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan told guest Bert Kreischer that earlier in his UFC broadcasting career he regularly bet on fights. He claims to have won nearly 85% of the time (which I highly doubt but that’s another discussion for another time), either via bets he made or ones he gave to a business partner to place on his behalf.

From his comments, Rogan doesn’t seem to have been using sensitive information to gain an edge with the books, but he also didn’t state that he didn’t. He indicates that much of his success stemmed from knowing quite a bit more about fighters coming from overseas, and he said he “knew who they were and I would gamble on them.”

But Rogan undoubtedly has long been in a position where he knows which fighters might be dealing with a slight injury, or who are struggling in camp with a specific fighting style. It’s unavoidable for someone whose job puts him into contact with individuals who tell him things off-the-record and divulge details without perhaps even realizing it.

But let’s say Rogan did get that information, and did use it, and was still doing so today. The fact is…there’s nothing illegal about it, not in the United States at least. While it’s against the rules of some entities — the NFL, for example, has stated they could suspend or ban for life individuals who use inside information or provide it to others — it’s not against any established legal doctrine. Unlike playing the stock market, insider betting is not regulated by any central body or by the government.

However, Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not. Many of the after-the-fact actions that have been taken in the realm of legalized sports betting in this country, or those being discussed currently (such as advertising limitations), fall in line with changes made in Great Britain following their legalization.

One of their big changes was making it illegal to utilize insider information, with very specific definitions about the “misuse of information” and what steps the Gambling Commission may take. It lays out what information can be used, the punishments that may be levied, and at what point it might venture into criminality.

Sportsbooks do have recourse in some instances to recoup money on insider betting, but not many. If they can prove that a wage was influenced, they can cancel the bet or sue for the money. The most well-known instance is the individual who bet $50,000 at +750 odds that someone would streak on the field during Super Bowl LV –which he did– and then was denied the payout when he bragged about his exploits. But unless someone foolishly tells the books that they’ve taken them with information that the public wasn’t privy to, they have little to no chance of doing anything about it.

There are ramifications to insider betting that raise truly ethical dilemmas. Just like stock trading, information can be immeasurably valuable to those with stakes large enough to change prices. If I’m placing a $20 prop bet with the knowledge that a team’s starting running back might be out for a game, or dealing with an ankle injury, I’m not going to harm anybody else playing that line. But if I give that information to a shark, who places a $20,000 wager on that same line, I’ve now enabled someone to move a line and impact other bettors.

Online sports betting in this country continues to grow, and every day we are reminded that there are still aspects of the space that can feel like the wild west. As individuals in the media, we have to decide personally what our ethical stances are in situations like this. We also have to keep in mind the impact that betting can have on our biases–especially if we’ve bet using inside information. A prime example is Kirk Herbstreit, who won’t even make a pick on College Gameday for games he is going to be doing color commentary for lest he possibly appears biased on the call.

At one end of the spectrum, you have someone like Herbstreit, and on the other end, you have folks like Rogan who, while he no longer does so, was more than happy to not only wager on fights himself but gave the information to others. And in the middle, you have hundreds of people in similar situations, who might lean one way or another or who, like me, may have found themselves on either side of that ethical line.

There is no black or white answer here, nor am I saying there’s necessarily a right or wrong stance for anybody in the sports media industry to take. I would say that each person has to take stock of what they’re comfortable doing, and how they feel about insider information being used. Rogan didn’t break any rules or laws by gambling on the UFC, but his admission to doing so might be the catalyst towards it no longer being accepted.

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