Behind-the-scenes at NBA on TNT with inside access on Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley’s antics on live TV set

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SHAQUILLE O’Neal enters the Inside the NBA studio and snatches one of the nearby basketballs, betting Kenny Smith $100 he will hit a baseline jumper.

Shaq doesn’t miss. Smith loses. It’s just minutes before the show comes back on at halftime during a Tuesday clash between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

Inside the NBA has returned for another season of on-air antics from Shaquille O’Neal and Charles BarkleyRalf Nowak/TNT Sports
Ralf Nowak/TNT Sports
The U.S. Sun has visited TNT’s studios in Atlanta, Georgia, where Inside the NBA is produced[/caption]
Ralf Nowak/TNT Sports
The tour included a behind-the-scenes look at the Inside the NBA crew live during a halftime show on November 14[/caption]

The casual wager is just a glimpse of the chemistry that is almost palpable on the set, The U.S. Sun observes during a tour around Warner Bros. Discovery studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 14.

The star-studded Inside the NBA cast, featuring Barkley and Smith as well as Shaquille O’Neal and host Ernie Johnson, has fun both on and off the air.

At the same time, they constantly challenge one another, be it to make an unlikely shot in the studio – Shaq drained just one 3-pointer in his NBA career – or come up with a clever remark during the show.

“We still compete against each other – to have more information, to be funnier, to be more intuitive, to be a better listener, a better talker,” Smith says in an interview after the halftime segment.

“We compete with each other at the same time as we know that we elevate each other, and we know that we can’t do it without the other.”

That mix of competitiveness and playfulness emanates from every corner of WBD’s 300,000-square-foot Techwood campus.

Odd moving shapes appear on one of the small screens showing a live feed of Studio J, the home of Inside the NBA, as a small group of reporters invited by TNT arrives in the control room about 40 minutes before the Spurs-Thunder halftime show begins

It turns out it’s members of the studio crew doing pushups and squats to keep themselves nice and warm before O’Neal and Co. return.

They race to 100 reps, WBD Sports technical directors explain, a tradition that started during one edition of March Madness, a hectic tournament that can keep the production facility operating at full speed from midday to about 2 am.

When it comes to the Inside the NBA, the work starts around four hours before the show begins at 7 am on Tuesday.

But O’Neal, Barkley, and Smith don’t take their custom-made seats until just before the show starts.

“They’ll show up five minutes before we go to air, or however long it takes them to get powder and put their jackets on,” Warner Bros. Discovery sports executive vice president and chief content officer Craig Barry says.

Only Johnson attends production meetings, going through the loose format of the show and the pre-planned elements that O’Neal, Barkley, and Smith only see for the first time while on air.

It’s Inside the NBA’s “non-secret sauce,” Barry explains, causing the analysts to give their authentic – often emotional – reactions to the stories and highlights featured on the day.

“They have no idea what’s coming at them next and we throw them curveballs all the time,” Barry says. “That is kind of the controlled chaos of the show, which makes it special.”

It adds the much-desired authenticity to the show, Smith adds.

“It’s real conversation. It’s real dialogue,” Smith said.

“You see Shaq who Shaq is. When he’s mad at Chuck, he’s really mad. He didn’t have a segment to practice it and get mad, and then calm down and do the segment.

“No. He’s mad in that moment. [Or] he’s happy in that moment. I think that’s what separates us.”

The on-air talent and the production team have a lot of trust in each other, Smith says, as well as a great degree of understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

O’Neal sank a baseline jumper to win a $100 bet with Smith a few minutes before the halftime show startedDamian Burchardt / The U.S. Sun
Ralf Nowak/TNT Sports
O’Neal (left) is the most recent addition to the Inside the NBA crew, joining the show in 2012[/caption]

Those translate into specific roles the analysts perform on the show.

“Shaq comes up with most of the stuff when it comes to hardcore slapstick comedy,” Smith explains.

“The controversy always – 99 percent – comes from Chuck.”

Smith’s job is to explain to the viewers why O’Neal – the most recent addition to the crew, who joined in 2012 – and Barkley feel they feel they do on certain subjects, the two-time NBA champion continued.

“I’m the team psychologist and Ernie is the overall referee – he’s there to make sure that it all just moves.”

Johnson might be Hall of Fame-bound, but his zeal for the job and the game of basketball in general remain unchanged 33 years after he assumed the Inside the NBA host’s role.

As the tour around TNT headquarters continues, he feverishly takes notes on the day’s games in the solitude of his office while his partners in crime watch them in a separate green room.

EJ is the first one to make his way to Studio J before the halftime show begins, finishing up the prep at the large desk at the center of the humongous set, which went through a major overhaul last year.

It features basketball court markings on both sides and a sturdy hoop that WBD staffers swear can endure a thunderous slam dunk by O’Neal, whose two-handed jams famously broke several backboards back in his playing days.

Ironically, the sheer power that the 7-foot-1 giant still possesses contrasts with his hardly audible voice, a TNT studio manager points out as The U.S. Sun enters the Inside the NBA studio.

Barkley is the first of the three NBA icons-turned-analyst to appear on the set. “It’s hard work,” he quips semi-seriously before joining Johnson on the stage.

Smith and O’Neal join a few moments later with the former Los Angeles Lakers center still munching one of the snacks, which are generously scattered around the Techwood campus.

Ralf Nowak/TNT Sports
Smith (left) thinks Inside the NBA is the No. 1 sports entertainment show in America[/caption]
Ralf Nowak/TNT Sports
Inside the NBA is now shown in the UK after the launch of TNT Sports, overseen by London-based WBD exec Scott Young (right) and US counterpart Craig Barry (left)[/caption]

Shaq sinks his bet-winning jumper, puts his blazer on, gets his makeup taken care of by one of the makeup specialists, and the halftime show starts.

As it concludes, street-ball icon PeeWee Kirkland and ex-NFL cornerback Champ Bailey make a cameo and pose for pictures with the Inside the NBA stars.

The work might be hard, as Chuck suggested, but neither the panelists nor the rest of the crew appear to be startled by the pressure of producing the arguably most popular sports entertainment show in America.

Even as they are observed by a bunch of reporters sitting by the steel hoop, it’s just another day in the office.

On the way back to the green room, O’Neal breaks out his dance moves to entertain the makeup ladies in another example of the close relationship between all parts of the Inside the NBA team.

“It’s a very family atmosphere,” Smith says, adding the panelists tend to give on-air shoutouts to those who work behind the scenes in appreciation of their work.

They mention their colleagues by name, particularly when a major event takes place in their lives – like WBD vice president of strategic brand and talent communications Tareia Williams’ wedding in September.

“We’re gonna say it on the air,” Smith continues. “But Charles would say it in a funny way. ‘Somebody want to marry you, Tareia?’ He’s not going to say it in a nice way, but he’s gonna bring it up.”

That’s the entertainment aspect of Inside the NBA, alongside the iconic broom Barkley breaks out after a playoff sweep, O’Neal’s crazy hair-dos, and countless other comedy bits that go viral on social media every week.

Firmly in line with TNT’s embrace of the intersection of sports and culture, they’ve become a staple of the show and a large part of its success – one that will now be a major part of the NBA coverage in the network’s venture into the UK market.

“Because let’s face it. In the sports business, we’re in the business of moments,” Barry says.

Smith adds: “I think we’re the number one entertainment show. Not sports – entertainment. Because it just happens we’re talking about basketball.”

And the formula translates even in remote parts of the world with the ex-Houston Rockets star recalling how he once received compliments on the show during a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Smith still can’t believe that TNT viewers want to see more of the Inside the NBA cast’s antics, oftentimes tuning in to watch them rather than the basketball itself.

“That would be like, ‘I don’t want to go see Beyonce’s concert. I want to hear you talk about it.’ Like, wait a minute. If you really think about it, that doesn’t even make sense,” he says of some of his interactions with fans.

“We hear that all the time and it’s the greatest compliment. Every time someone says it, that feels so good inside.”

And so the jokes and pranks will continue for as long as the current cast stays together, which is likely to be the case for years to come with the feel-good crew renewing their deals with TNT last year.

So will the on and off-air bets, even if Smith doesn’t intend on paying O’Neal for the jumper he hit earlier in Studio J.

“Shaq owes me more than that,” Smith says. “You know how many bets he hasn’t paid?”

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