From the couch: Best damn halftime show

BY foxsports • November 29, 2010

LeBron James returns to Cleveland this week, providing a marquee showcase for a trio of superstars.

As in TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley — for my money (with apologies to FOX Sports for adapting a title it coined), the best damn halftime show, period.

The NBA. has staked a lot on the Miami Heat, and James’ return to his old haunts — having so publicly spurned the Cavaliers to take his “talents” to Florida, where his new franchise is struggling — will inevitably be covered from every conceivable angle. Players have gone back to play in cities they fled before, but as TNT’s Marv Albert noted on Thanksgiving night, “Nothing like this.”

Still, rest assured at least the TNT team — led by the ever-quotable, irrepressible Barkley — will be up to the challenge.

What makes this particular threesome work on air? Like any successful squad, they know their roles.

Johnson, in essence, is the ringmaster, setting up Barkley, who is so brutally honest — in a completely unforced way — he almost can’t help but be entertaining. Many commentators actively seek to be outrageous; Barkley does so naturally — appearing just to be stating how he feels, without laboring to provoke a reaction — which makes all the difference.

The onetime Round Mound of Rebound was certainly in rare form on Thanksgiving, proclaiming that night’s games — Atlanta vs. Washington and the Los Angeles Clippers vs. Sacramento, both blowouts — “the worst doubleheader in TNT history. … Ug-lee.”

Barkley was just warming up. He quipped that Paul Westphal should be named “coach of the year” for wringing four wins out of Sacramento’s talent-challenged Kings and joked that a U.S. serviceman from Detroit sending a holiday message was “safer in Afghanistan” than his hometown.

Not everybody can get away with that kind of mouthing off, and Smith, fortunately, knows it. Yes, Smith clowns around, too, but like Johnson, he seems to recognize who the superstar is here and that his primary task is to function as Barkley’s straight man — the Hardy to his Laurel, albeit with the physical dimensions reversed.

Larger than life in every way, Barkley brings a former player’s insight to the game without taking anything too seriously. Cut through the jokes, though, and he’s actually one of the savviest basketball analysts working right now — such as early in the season, when he chided the Heat for allowing small guards like Rajon Rondo and Nate Robinson to penetrate to the basket repeatedly in an early season loss to the Celtics, identifying their lack of inside presence early on.

Last week, he spoke about the Clippers having a bright future — comparing the freakish athleticism of rookie Blake Griffin to a young Shawn Kemp — before adding the wry disclaimer that the long-suffering franchise, alas, must live in the present.

Mostly, the TNT crew exhibits the kind of effortless, free-spirited rapport that sports analysts are invariably coached to pursue these days — be big, bold, brash — but which generally proves elusive, or annoying.

Indeed, the give-and-take among commentators often looks as staged as WWE wrestling — Lou, you argue red; Mark will take blue — which explains why it made “news” recently (or at least caught some websites’ attention) when ESPN’s Matt Millen snapped at Steve Young on air while discussing the Minnesota Vikings’ coaching situation.

With so many Heat games scheduled for broadcast this season, every NBA-associated network harbors an inordinate investment in the team, even if all that attention currently appears out of whack with their performance. The trio of free-agent superstars is simply too good a story. It’s hard to compete with that level of star wattage, unless you’re getting divorced from Eva Longoria.

For all that, it’s difficult to imagine Barkley doing anything but speaking his mind — cannily, candidly and, best of all, while being flat-out funny, reminding fans watching on TV that, for them, anyway, it’s just a game.

In that respect, however the Heat performs Thursday, its headliners could learn a little something by taping the game and studying the chemistry on display during the halftime and postgame shows. If you can fake that, to quote an old saying, the rest looks easy.

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