With the playoffs looming, it’s fair to finally conclude one of the NBA’s biggest off-season acquisitions turned out to be a total if somewhat predictable bust.
I’m talking, of course, about TNT adding Shaquille O’Neal to its pregame and halftime “Inside the NBA” studio crew.
The former All-Star center might be a jolly giant to have around, but in terms of basketball analysis, all he proves is that the bigger they are, the harder they can be to listen to — and that star players, for whatever reason, generally have a hard time graduating from playing the game to talking about it.
Charles Barkley, the outspoken centerpiece of TNT’s coverage, is a clear exception to that rule and flanked by sidekick Kenny Smith and host Ernie Johnson, has created a breezy standard-setter for NBA blather. Yes, Barkley and the show can be irreverent, outlandish, even silly, but the insights are often dead-on, and even when they’re not, the coverage is anything but boring.
TNT certainly didn’t need to shake things up, but the powers that be couldn’t resist enlisting O’Neal, an attention-getting hire who won championships with the Lakers and Miami before retiring. Always media-savvy, his career included detours to star in movies (“Blue Chips,” “Steel”) and novelties like the ABC reality show “Shaq Vs.,” so in theory, the transition wouldn’t be a huge leap.
Still, he’s never exactly been a natural as a commentator — for starters, he has a tendency to mumble and laugh at his own jokes — and he almost immediately felt out of place in his new assignment. Recent sampling of TNT suggests matters haven’t improved much over the strike-shortened season.
Having O’Neal join the gang has subtly altered the chemistry, and at times made the show even more juvenile — which until now had been one of its assets.
The nadir might have come during an April 19 telecast when O’Neal wondered aloud who had farted on the Miami Heat bench as players were shown holding their warm-up suits over their noses.
The discussion carried the whiff of something, all right, though that smell mostly represented desperation to be the life of the party and class clown.
There have been other minor embarrassments — gaffes such as cussing on air (Johnson faked washing his mouth out with soap) or trying to convince his companions an 18-for-39 free throw-shooting performance was above 50 percent. Yet those miscues appear relatively minor weighed against O’Neal’s overall impact.
Great players will always be in demand for such gigs, but they often struggle in adapting to these on-air roles, having seemingly fared better in the NFL than the NBA. Even Magic Johnson — despite his enviable success as an entrepreneur — has never been especially smooth on TV, getting by on ESPN mostly thanks to being personable, if not particularly illuminating.
There’s also an art to the inherent give-and-take that has become commonplace in these settings — which encourage arguing and disagreement without being disagreeable — that can be harder than it looks. It’s also possible that former players who weren’t high-profile stars work more intensely to master this particular crossover move because they didn’t amass the same kind of fortunes from their on-court careers.
O’Neal offers a big target, obviously, but criticism comes with the territory. On the plus side, given his past dabbling in entertainment and the connections forged during those years in LA, he certainly won’t be hurting for opportunities if TNT writes this off as a failed experiment. (To be fair, it’s possible network honchos weren’t as clear as they should have been in terms of spelling out the former center was cast in a supporting role, with Barkley serving as TNT’s go-to guy.)
Last week, when O’Neal turned the chatter from making the playoffs to breaking wind, there was a bit of fidgeting among his colleagues. “I had no idea we were going that direction,” Johnson muttered dryly.
TNT didn’t need to and in hindsight shouldn’t have. But in putting Shaq on the team, they did inadvertently provide a reminder that in broadcasting, if not basketball, bigger isn’t always better.