Rating the Broadcast Talent: TNT
By Paul Benedict
You’ll notice in this second installment of network talent evaluations that my jokes are much more scarce, my criticism is few and far between, and the resulting grades are indeed a lot higher. It probably goes without saying that it’s no coincidence this chapter centers entirely on the TNT personnel, the network that I’ve spoken so highly of all season for their outstanding all-around coverage of the NBA.
While this article focuses exclusively on the talent at TNT, it is probably worth mentioning that the quality of their production and direction both during games and with their studio coverage far outperform those of ABC and ESPN. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that everyone at ABC and ESPN is more inept at their jobs and duties as people sharing the same responsibilities over at TNT. I think it comes down to 3 factors:
1- TNT has a long-standing relationship with the NBA and has been perfecting their coverage for some 20 years now. ABC and ESPN kicked off their NBA coverage a mere three years ago.
2- TNT, because it covers practically nothing else sports-related besides the NBA, can focus all of its energy in producing a high-quality product. ESPN (who set the bar for almost all of the sports it covers) is left in a precarious situation as it attempts to meet the high expectations TNT has set for them. Not only has the available talent pool been picked relatively clean, but the fact that the NBA’s ratings don’t measure up to those of other sports they cover means that ESPN isn’t willing to fork over the dough required to ensure that their NBA coverage measures up.
3- TNT approaches their coverage of the NBA as a means to entertain. ESPN delivers their coverage more as a way to inform and scrutinize. ESPN’s approach to all of their sports coverage over the past 3-5 years has drastically changed. Suddenly, ESPN has adopted the “no news is good news theory” as a much higher percentage of their stories center on the negativity going on in sports. As far as the NBA is concerned, the topics recently discussed and the stories/interviews aired within the last couple of weeks involve the likes of a superstar calling his former GM an “asshole” (T- Mac/Weisbrod), the Shaq/Kobe “feud”, Chris Webber disliking his new coach, and Allen Iverson admitting to wanting out of Philly had Billy King not addressed his request to bring in better talent. This is all news, but there’s more out there! Why hasn’t anyone done a piece on the resurgence of the Bulls thanks in large-part to a young team led by inexperienced players proving to be far more mature than their ages might imply. Or how about an interview with Nate McMillan asking how he’s managed to set aside his personal contract issues with Seattle as well as those of over half his roster in leading the Sonics to a remarkable season? What about a feature on how Earl Boykins time and again deflected any negative advice or criticism in becoming the most valuable bench player in the league? Would anyone not be interested in any of these stories? And I’m not directly bashing ESPN because TNT doesn’t go this route quite enough, but at least they make an attempt.
As always, I’m getting a bit carried away, but I’m allowed to do that because nobody limits how much I can write. My point is this– sports are a pastime, a means of entertainment, and basketball, especially the NBA, is no exception. We want to enjoy and appreciate the league for what it is– a spectacular display of athleticism, teamwork, and gamesmanship. When us NBA afficionados are beginning to feel as though the coverage of this sport we have come to love so much is being overshadowed by the negativity surrounding anything and everything to do with the league, it’s just not okay. There’s news in the NBA, but only on the rarest occasions is it life or death. The NBA is a getaway for so many of us from the daily realities that affect our existence, and when the TV coverage is infiltrated with the same negativites, our safe-haven for reliable entertainment is taken away from us. I have a dream– just kidding. Enough with my rants, here’s the evaluations. As always, feel free to chime in.
TNT’s studio crew never fails to provide laughs and a lot of that has to do with the material and scenarios the production team creates for them.
Marv Albert- Play By Play
-Marvelous Marv has long been considered the NBA’s top voice and teams up with Steve Kerr to form TNT’s #1 team. Marv is witty, has the great voice, and has been around the game for years. His grasp of how to call a game comes easier to him than anyone else which almost makes it seem as though Marv isn’t even trying sometimes. But in reality, calling a basketball game just comes naturally to Marv Albert and the result is always as smooth a broadcast as you can get.
David Aldridge- Insider/Courtside Reporter
-ESPN made a huge mistake when they let go of David Aldridge in favor of Stephen A. Smith last Fall. Aldridge may not have had the flair that Stephen A. thinks he has, but he has always had a reputation for being a reliable, credible, and accurate reporter who had great rapport with players and personnel. So TNT scooped him up and now DA can be seen on an almost weekly basis either contributing a story, working the sidelines, or providing a special report. He might not boast an electric personality that revs you up every time he hits the screen, but you do know that every word he says can be taken seriously and for an “insider”, what else more can you ask for?
Charles Barkley- Studio Analyst
-”Chaaaaales”, as Magic Johnson refers to him, is simply the most likeable personality covering sports on television right now. It says a lot about Barkley when you could fault the guy for a number of things– he often gets people’s names wrong; he admits to sometimes not even watching games before discussing them; he sometimes has so much fun on the set that you tend to forget he’s part of a show that covers the NBA. Yet it would be impossible for me to not give Charles a high mark because he is the driving force behind the studio show that puts all others to shame. Charles is himself when he is on camera, and considering that the man is as well-liked in the NBA community as anyone, that’s all us viewers are really asking for. Barkley has never been bashful about acting out on his impulses and speaking his mind, and that has a lot to do with why he was such a popular player in the NBA. Nobody wants him to conform to any standards other than the ones he has set for himself throughout his career as both a legend and a goofball, and because of this, he ceases to amaze, and never fails to entertain.
Barkley (usually) doesn’t kiss ass and instead always says whatever the hell comes to him, and 50% of the time he spits out gold.
Rex Chapman- Game Analyst
-Chapman made his TNT season debut a couple weeks ago alongside Kevin Harlan and John Thompson while doing the Sacramento/Golden State game and caught my attention with his honest approach and dry, clever humor. We’ll likely see Rex again come playoff time when TNT signals to the bullpen.
Doug Collins- Game Analyst
-Only Hubie Brown can analyze a game as well as Collins can. His ability as a broadcaster can be largely attributed to three facts about him: 1- He’s a former NBA player; 2- He’s a former NBA Coach; 3- He’s a former “Players” Coach. While Hubie’s basketball mind is essentially unequaled today– Collins’ diverse perspective as an announcer sets him apart from anyone else. Nobody else has the capability of enabling you to see the game from both a coach’s and players’ standpoint and because he genuinely loves and cares about everyone involved in the game, he puts a lot of thought into his words. For instance, Collins doesn’t criticize when he announces, he rather points out and clarifies. He also doesn’t preach, but instead sheds light on and appreciates. Big-ups to Doug Collins, the best game analyst covering the NBA today.
The best in the biz: Hubie Brown and Doug Collins.
Chuck Daly- Game Analyst
-Daly has only called one TNT game this season, partnering up with Kevin Harlan and John Thompson. Though he has broadcasted games for years now, Daly’s work was a bit rough around the edges and he didn’t quite have the approach or tone necessary to call a game alongside colleagues Kevin Harlan and John Thompson. If you’re going to be talking between Harlan and Thompson, you better speak loud and with authority, otherwise your words will get lost among those of two men who carry profound, bellowing voices. Daly also seemed a bit out of touch with today’s game and spent chunks of the broadcast reminiscing with Thompson about their glory days on the sidelines.
Matt Devlin- Play By Play
-Devlin, who’s the Charlotte Bobcats play-by-play man, called his first TNT game last Tuesday while filling in for an ill Marv Albert. I’d seen Devlin do a few Bobcats games before, and well, if you don’t mind feeling like your on dramamine while watching the game, then Devlin’s your man. TNT needs to find a better fill-in than this guy.
Kevin Harlan- Play By Play
-Harlan has the best voice and makes the best calls of any play-by- play man that covers the NBA. The enthusiasm and excitement he brings to broadcasts is captivating and saccentuate the drama of games in crucial moments. Harlan and Doug Collins, as I stated earlier, are the best broadcast duo going with Harlan’s ability to intensify and stimulte complementing Collins’ passionate analysis to the point that they can get viewers to not only jump out of their seats, but also to always have a solid understanding of what’s going on at all times. “Tony Parker for 3…Oh yessssss! And the Spurs have battled back to tie the game thanks to the brilliant play of Tony Parker!” A simple call right? But can’t you hear Harlan’s voice so clearly in your head when you read that to yourself? Maybe only Harlan and Marv can make a simple play out to be a life-or-death moment, and at least for me, I love there to be extra drama in a basketball game.
Nobody lets it rip like Kevin Harlan. “And Shaquille O’Neal THROWS it down over Mutumbo as the Heat grab a 2-point lead!”
Jim Huber- Essayist
-Huber only comes on about once a month during Inside the NBA with a story or “essay” on a serious topic pertaining to the NBA. He did a piece earlier this year on the mentor/protegè relationship of Al Harrington and Josh Smith in Atlanta that allowed viewers to become more familiar with what it’s like for kids to come straight to the NBA from high school and how important it is for them to have the right people around them. It’s stories like these, where we’re able to see players as real people, that I wish we could see more of. Too often we’re subjected to interviews delving into players’ problems and left with a feeling that we’re not supposed to officially deem someone a superstar in the NBA until they’ve made a mistake that can be scrutinized.
Ernie Johnson- Studio Host
-The TNT studio crew is like a bicycle: Ernie is the peddles, the brakes, and the handle bar– he gets the show in motion, keeps it on course, and controls when the wheels start and stop; Kenny and Charles are the wheels– they keep the show moving, help it to build up acceleration and momentum, and ultimately decide how far the show can go. Magic is the pegs– he occasionally jumps on board and provides another option for what’s already a functioning mechanism. My point is that the crew works as a unit, and though the team isn’t quite the same without Magic, it can exist without him, but if you take away EJ, Kenny, or Charles, the bicycle falls flat and the show goes nowhere. EJ’s job is the toughest because he has to balance numerous responsibilies and manage multiple personalities all at once otherwise the show spins out of control, crashes and burns. And luckily for TNT, there isn’t a studio host in the sports broadcasting spectrum that comes close to touching Ernie Johnson: exceptional delivery and poise in how he speaks and carries himself ; perfect timing and command in running the show; an affable and authentic personality that reaches out to viewers; and his most magnificent skill– the ability to recognize when Charles’ mouth might run them into trouble, and when it will have them (and the viewers) falling out of their chairs in uncontrollable laughter.
Ernie’s the best, and it’s not even close.
Magic Johnson- Studio Analyst
-Magic doesn’t always grace his presence in the TNT studio, but it’s always a nice treat when he does. A lot of what makes Magic Johnson such a joy to listen to is merely the fact that he’s Magic Johnson– one of the game’s greatest legends, part of the biggest rivalry ever in the NBA, winner of 5 rings– hearing what he has to say about basketball is like listening to Jimi Hendrix talk about playing the guitar. And though we all know Magic can’t carry a show by himself (umm…”The Magic Hour”?), he is indeed a welcomed addition to Inside the NBA when almost anyone else could potentially be a subtraction.
Magic always did have a way of making the people around him look better. Though this might be a bit of a stretch.
Steve Kerr- Game Analyst
-Kerr, now in his second year with TNT, is still in the process of developing as an announcer. His concept of how to call a game is fine, but he often gets caught up in trying to be Marv’s sidekick, rather than being his broadcast partner. Marv has always had a way of utilizing the many personalities he’s worked with as a way to add a humorous element to a broadcast. With Kerr, it’s a similar schtick: Marv pokes fun at his career as a 3-point specialist, as a straight- edge, homely guy who once played in a league populated by hip-hop- influenced personalities who are known as much for their off-the-court antics as there careers on the hardwood. Kerr undoubtedly recognizes this and too often takes it upon himself to try and play to Marv’s quips rather than just being who he is and doing what he does best, which is providing intelligent and knowledgeable analysis on the games.
Cheryl Miller- Courtside Reporter
-Reggie’s older sister Cheryl has got one thing going for her that no other courtside reporter does– she’s a former player. And because of that, she generally takes a lighter approach to her job, rarely seeking to push a player’s buttons by asking a tough, personal question. She obviously has an excellent understanding of the game and so her player interviews always involve her asking intelligent, relevant questions. Many reporters will abuse that air time to ask players off-key questions having nothing to do with the game or questions concerning the game that either aren’t worded right or make no sense and sound ridiculous. Although it’s hard to consider Cheryl as one of the top reporters covering the NBA because it’s apparent that she cares more about her rapport with players than her actual responsibilities as a reporter, she does excel in communicating and most of the time, that’s all viewers are really looking for.
I always knew Hall-of-Famer Cheryl Miller could straight-up ball with the best of em’, but who knew she had a Hall-worthy sense of fashion? High socks? Check. Knee Pads? Double-time. Short-shorts? No doubt. Soul Glo? You betcha.
Craig Sager- Courtside Reporter
-Sages sometimes comes off a bit forced and cheesy, but his personality suits the TNT broadcasts rather well. By going deeper as a reporter than say, Cheryl Miller, Sager is able to work more efficiently and thus becomes more reliable as an information source. He utilizes his long-standing relationship with many of the players quite well, often joking around with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett, which makes many of his interviews enjoyable (even if he is the butt-end of the jokes most of the time). Sager has encountered a couple of mishaps this season, including on-air verbal beatings from Paul Silas and Reggie Miller that made him look foolish. Yet because of the personality and role he has created for himself on TNT, a spin is always put on Sager’s antics and the result is always pleasing and no harm is done.
Kenny Smith- Studio Analyst
-Kenny “The Jet” Smith, as I explained earlier, is part of the TNT studio vehicle that is essential in keeping the show plodding along in what is an enjoyable ride for viewers. His personality offsets Barkley’s in that he’s more low-key, in-control, and on top of the responsibilities expected of him as a studio analyst. He constantly uses this to his advantage as he pokes fun at Barkley for his imperfections and makes the most out of his role on the show as the main source for expert analysis. Though his air time is sometimes noticeably less than Barkley’s or even Magic’s, Kenny recognizes this and makes the most out of the brief time alotted to him by making stringent and poignant points and still maintaining a small enough ego to defer to what he understands are the main attractions of the TNT studio shows. Kenny recently re-upped with TNT for a few more years, but stated that he’ll likely move on there after to accept either a coaching or front-office job with an organization. With an engaging personality and an enlightening savvy for the game of basketball, Kenny will succeed no matter what he ultimately ends up doing.
Who could ever forget the time Justin Timberlake burned Kenny Smith for two? 5 years later, the crew still doesn’t live it down.
John Thompson- Game Analyst
-Big John built a reputation for himself while coaching Georgetown as a father-figure to young men seeking guidance both on and off the basketball court during their college years. It’s no coincidence that some of the most respected guys in the NBA played under Thompson at Georgetown and have continually spoken out about their gratitude for Thompson in helping them become the individuals they are today. And then there’s the older stars in the NBA today– the Garnetts, the Shaqs, the Rasheed Wallace’s who all grew up admiring what Thompson had going on at Georgetown and developed a respect for the man throughout the years that carries into this day and has spread to the younger generation of players who were not as familiar of what he did for so many kids at Georgetown. Thompson is like a grandfather to the NBA right now, a man who has earned a certain level of respect through so many years of giving back, and so it makes perfect sense that Big John has become the ideal man to have interviewing some of today’s stars on personal matters. Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis, Grant Hill, Vince Carter– you could see in each of these guys’ eyes that they cared about what Thompson was saying to them and that they were speaking from the heart when talking to him. There’s nobody else right now that can interview a player like Big John can. As an analyst, Thompson holds his own, but he simply cannot call a game as part of a duo. He doesn’t talk enough and engage the listener enough to work as a solo partner to a play-by-play man, yet when he has ample time to observe and put thought into what he is saying, his contributions to a broadcast can be valuable.
Grade: Interviewer: A; Analyst: B-