NEW ORLEANS — I got a chance to hang out with the TNT crew tonight. Watched the production of the network’s wildly popular NBA studio show down here in New Orleans.
And what a cool experience it was.
I arrived at Musical Legends Park at 5:15 p.m., with an appointment to get a guided behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Two days prior, I had conducted an interview with the show’s very gracious host, Ernie Johnson. By the time I arrived, Johnson already was on set, sitting solo high above the patrons in the pavilion. It was clear then that the crew of Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal aren’t kidding around when they say Johnson is the only one that works. The other guys just show up.
At about 5:25, Ernie came down from the set and began rehearsing his opening to “NBA Tip-off,” conducting a walk and talk that started from the curb on Bourbon Street and led viewers into the venue. He did this twice as a growing crowd looked on. He then shook hands, posed for pictures and cracked jokes with any and all who drummed up enough courage to chat.
The rest of the talent started showing up about 20 minutes later. And given the expected traffic in the cramped French Quarter/downtown section of New Orleans, it’s a minor miracle they all arrived on time. Webber was the first to appear, walking into the venue while chatting on his iPhone. Smith emerged next, also with his iPhone in hand but with the setting on the camera mode, either recording video or snapping pictures of the scene as he entered.
Naturally, the biggest star of them all was last. No, not Chuck. Shaq.
Barkley couldn’t be with the crew tonight because of a somewhat important previous engagement. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to interview President Barack Obama. The interview will air prior to the All-Star Game on Sunday night.
Meanwhile, Shaq made a grand entrance. If I’ve learned anything in my eight years covering the NBA and being up close to celebrities it’s that when someone famous appears, commotion, and sometimes chaos, generally ensues. Such was the case with big Shaq. Concealed by an awning in the pavilion, Shaq’s presence became clear to me only through the crowd that quickly had gathered around the entrance and its collective chants and camera flashes.
But unlike his two analysts sidekicks, Shaq strolled through the gallery sporting a gold pair of over-sized headphones, like Kevin Garnett making his way to the arena in a Beats by Dre commercial and choosing to “hear what you want to hear.” As Shaq got closer to me, I noticed his LSU-colored Reebok sneakers, which Smith immediately pointed out as Shaq joined the set.
At this point, it’s roughly 5:50 p.m., 10 minutes to air time. Nothing’s been rehearsed. Nothing has been discussed. The analysts spent much of the final moments before the show went live texting and talking casually. The show is as unscripted as Johnson repeatedly claims, the reason why he also says it’s so successful. But you wouldn’t know it by watching from home. The chemistry is too strong, the topics too interesting.
Cleveland guard and two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving joins the set in the first half of the show. As soon as he steps one foot on set, it’s palpable how much of a fraternity the NBA is. The three former players showed tremendous respect for Irving, and Irving reciprocated that reverence for those that came before him. And as quick as Irving came, he was gone, off to enjoy himself in the New Orleans night.
Pete Holmes was up next. He’s an actor and comedian and a guy I’ve never heard of. But he apparently has a show on TBS, and Turner Sports must have decided to use this time to do a little cross promotion. Before he sat, Holmes attempted to go over how the segment would go and what he was going to say. Smith immediately shut it down, cutting him off by saying “Save it for the show.” It was another example of how the crew doesn’t just thrive on unscripted segments, they go out of their way to create them.
While all of this is happening, the guy affectionately referred to as “Underdog” is in a small corner atop the stairs. He’s the guy, whose real name is Joe Underhill, that Barkley likes shouting out on air. His a senior researcher for the show. He makes cameos at times. To be honest, seeing Underdog in real life was for me like seeing Shaq was for the crowd. I never met the guy, but it’s something about him that I like. And during my time on set, it was clear that he was one of the hardest working members of the crew. You never saw him without his headset on, or glued to a laptop. Only once that I saw did he even depart the set and go downstairs. It was when he walked out to the Bourbon Street curb to hand Ernie a cue card.
What do the guys do during a commercial break?
If a change is needed on the set, someone will scoot over or give up their seat. But almost anything short of that, the crew remains stationary.
But there was the one time when Shaq asked to be excused for 30 seconds. “Because I’ve got to take a (expletive),” he quipped when asked the reason. Sure enough, the big fella excused himself, ducking off into a diminutive hallway adjacent the set. And as promised, he was back approximately 30 seconds later, ready to shoot.
As the Nets and Bulls, the first game of the night got underway, and the temperature continued to drop on a relatively chilly 50 degree New Orleans night, the crew, after more than an hour in the same position, began to finally pack up. A green room had been set up across the street, on the third floor of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. A suite had a catered meal laid out on one side of the room, with a sole television tuned to the Nets-Bulls game.
Shaq, Kenny and Webber were each kind enough to grant me and two other media members a few moments for interviews, which I will share across various platforms in the coming days. I spoke with Shaq about Durant’s likability, to Smith about Brooks’ coaching and Durant’s continued greatness.
By the time I was done, four minutes remained in the first half of the Nets-Bulls game. Within moments, the crew would return to the set and, without a plan, once again put together the best studio show on television.