September 21, 2011
One of the great pleasures of modern NBA fandom is having the opportunity to watch TNT's "Inside the NBA" crew spend several hours on TV every Thursday. Whereas every other studio team in sports broadcasting engages in the kind of forced banter that only a focus group could love, Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith (and now Shaquille O'Neal(notes), unless he screws everything up) feel fresh, like three friends hanging out watching a basketball game. In an artificial medium, they seem remarkably genuine.
Barkley has always been the biggest draw; he's a larger than life figure whose opinions drive a lot of discussion about the league. He's so popular, in fact, that Rolling Stone recently named him one of the 11 best characters on the small screen. Here's what Matt Taibbi had to say about the Round Mound of Profound:
Sports programming is one of America's great bastions of slavish conformity, ball-washing and non-thought, a place where a star athlete is commended for blindly following, in no particular order, his coach, his owner and the president of the United States. But into this world TNT thrust Charles Barkley, who spices up forgettable midseason games with politically incorrect gibes ("You still owe me 40 acres and a mule — I've been waiting on that a long damn time") and self-deprecating gags (his halftime footrace against 67-year-old referee Dick Bavetta during the 2007 All-Star Game was one of the funniest sports highlights of the new century). Unlike every other sportscaster in the corporate-sponsored TV universe, Barkley doesn't even pretend to care about most of the games, and sometimes he'll even openly bash the product. ("We better not be doing the Bulls this year," he once groused. "Man, they suck! Bunch of high school kids with $70 million contracts.") In the history of gazillionaire athletes, Barkley is alone with Muhammad Ali in having both the gift of speaking his mind and the sense of humor to match. Owing to his Parkinson's disease, we never got to experience the great second career in television commentary that should have belonged to Ali. But we did get Sir Charles, one of the few true things on the air today.
Taibbi's commentary is pretty much right on as it applies to Barkley the personality. He's unafraid of sacrificing various sacred cows, both in the broader culture and basketball itself, and deserves credit for speaking his mind. If more commentators had his lack of filter, we'd all find sports television more tolerable than it often is.
Unfortunately, Taibbi overlooks the fact that Barkley often gets the facts of NBA analysis wrong. While Chuck certainly understands basketball as its played on the court, he misinterprets fundamental statistical issues and sometimes seems to pay attention to few teams outside of the title contenders. Barkley is certainly an entertaining NBA observer, but it's arguable that he deserves the term "expert." He's a lovable character, not quite an authority.
The question, as it pertains to Barkley's job, is whether or not those gaps in knowledge matter. With the rise of advanced statistics and in-depth web analysis, NBA diehards can quite easily find substantive analysis away from the TNT studio. Barkley's role is to appeal to a large numbers of fans as a personality -- he covers general subjects in broad strokes. We just need to identify him as a character and not a regular expert. Taibbi's take on Barkley, then, exists in the correct context.