When it comes to network broadcasts covering the NBA, there is no universal standard for what we’re looking for. Just what do we expect from play-by-play and commentary professionals—during the game, at halftime, and before and after the things? A broad census would be required to give us any real answers here—the kind of thing that networks most assuredly do embark upon internally. Some viewers are looking for ultra-sharp analysis of on-court strategy; others, just a good time. There are those looking for telling numbers and those in search of takes too hot to be handled without reinforced oven gloves. There’s lots more that people want from these television moments, and from the people who speak throughout them. Too much to account for, really.
Criticism of these personalities is, thus, often fallacious. What is sometimes perceived of and explained as a broadcast flaw is usually just an instance of a TV professional not driving into a critic’s specific wheelhouse. Reggie Miller, like a lot of former players to go pro in the media, is on the nasty end of such critiques pretty frequently. An eminently fun guy, his performance in the booth receives a lot of rhetorical punishment from differently minded fans and bloggers, typically hoping for more pointed strategic insight. Such shrewd, detailed perspectives are of course more than resplendent, elsewhere, in 2021—there is an entire eco-system of podcasts, websites, and even alternative broadcasts, in some cases, that bore into the finer schematic, statistical, and even financial textures of the game.
All of that is good and well, but it is perhaps too granular for a large share of the millions of people who tune into TNT after a long work week, to watch large men run and jump competitively. Ebullient exclamations, reverent appreciation, and sloppy charisma may be more suitable for the mood of the audience. In the case of TNT, a remarkably consistent steward of the sport, such a conclusion has clearly been reached. It’s not one that pleases everyone, as we see with the enduring annoyance with Miller (whose reception, I suspect, may have a little something to do with how well and how arrogantly he once played against the team that represents America’s largest media hub, during one of its rare bouts of relevance).
More central to the network’s coverage and how it’s spoken of, though, is its iconic pre-game, halftime, and post-game crew. Flanking straight men Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith on both sides are Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal: men who are here because, as great as they were as players, they are somehow even greater at being people on your TV. This is not the same thing as you liking them. More accurately, it means you caring about them. Even, and this is often the case, when they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. Houston Rockets center Christian Wood underlined just how chronically this is the situation, in a recent post-game interview, when he called Shaq “a casual.”
My own personal piece of evidence against Shaq’s knowledge about the contemporary state of the league is when, on the eve of Nikola Jokic and his ascending Denver Nuggets making their first playoff appearance together two seasons ago, O’Neal spoke skeptically of Jokic, seemingly relying on mostly dead tropes about the limited ceiling of European superstars. But no more than a month later, Shaq had completely changed his tune, affectionately dubbing Jokic “Big Honey,” singing his praises, and shouting “barbecue chicken” when they ran the Serbian’s game highlights. It appeared, at least to me, that Shaq had simply just started to watch Jokic for the very first time.
This sort of thing happens all the time on the show, and it doesn’t really bother me. Rather than feeling mad at the fact that O’Neal hadn’t done his homework, I was enjoying the experience of watching him fall in love with a new player. And in general, I don’t consider Shaq or Chuck to be experts on the current talent of the league, nor do I ask them to be. Them throwing the weight of their personalities around is not effective direct commentary on the NBA, but instead a different and complementary sport that occurs before, within, and after its games. The league has changed too much, since they played, for their wisdom about how it’s today played to mean as much as it once may have. This is far from a qualitative statement; NBA rules have altered so fundamentally that entire typologies of player have become marginalized to the point of near-extinction. When O’Neal and Barkley were still in the sport, every team had at least one guy on their roster whose position was usually power forward, but which I’d more accurately describe as Enforcer. Shaq and Chuck both had to survive tornadoes of them, every season they played. Today, there don’t seem to be any of those left. Kendrick Perkins may have been the last one.
There is a lot more running in the NBA now, a lot more shooting, a lot more demand to guard multiple positions, and many more variables to account for mentally, overall—both on the floor and off. Shaq and Chuck do understand this, but, as is the wont of multi-millionaires who’ve already put in their hardest work, they’re not trying to get into the full depth of all that, and instead relying on the nostalgic framework that got them to where they are. This is, again, a theater of frustration for many of the more attuned viewers. But for me, and many others—I have had many housemates and friends who only casually or flat don’t watch the NBA ask me, “when are Chuck and Shaq on tonight?”—their silliness is instead a reliable tonic.
Shaq’s recent tiny drama with Wood, and also with Donovan Mitchell, gave more fuel to those who dislike what he and Barkley bring to the analysis desk. That’s fair enough, because if you understand their jobs to be what they nominally are, it’s obvious that they’re bad at them most of the time. But in reality, neither is a true analyst, but that much more rare thing: they are entertainers. That is what they’re paid for, and also the basis for a steady team in a media field that’s in constant turnover elsewhere. They are two men who understand and play with both their fame and cosmically large bodies, to an incredibly humorous and endearing end—and that is, at the end of the day, what a beleaguered people wants.