Inside the meeting that led Charles Barkley to re-sign with Inside the NBA
How do you convince Charles Barkley to re-sign with your network?
Well, $1,700 worth of wine and tequila is a nice place to start.
Last week Turner Sports announced it had extended the contracts of Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith—the quartet that makes up TNT’s Inside the NBA—through the length of Turner’s deal with the NBA, which runs through the 2024-25 season. The news is particularly significant given Barkley had told Sports Illustrated repeatedly over the years that he thought it would be a struggle to complete his current contract when it expired in 2016. Now, NBA fans will see Barkley long past that date.
The plan to retain Barkley included an in-home pitch last January by Turner executives when Turner Broadcasting System president David Levy and four of his key management staffers—Tara August, Craig Barry, Lenny Daniels and Tim Kiely—traveled to Barkley’s home in Scottsdale to convince him to stay in broadcasting beyond next year.
Prior to the in-person meeting, a six-hour Italian feast featuring two magnums of 2009 Bond Estates St Eden Napa Valley Red, two bottles of 1942 Don Julio tequila and plates of pasta and meatballs – the Turner management group had gathered to determine a game plan on how to keep the Inside the NBA crew for the long-term.
“We started thinking about this when we signed our NBA extension [last October],” said Levy. “We would sit around thinking, 'What’s our game plan?' Do we believe they will stick with us? A lot of these guys have been with us for a long time, so some questions were, Are they still into it? Can they last for another 8 to 10? We all said, “Yes, they could.” Because it’s evolved past an NBA show.”
As part of the sales job for Barkley, the Turner group compiled a tribute video made up of production people and on-air staffers reflecting on how much they enjoyed working with him. Levy said he was also willing to work out any kind of schedule with Barkley, including assigning him to games as an analyst and opportunities on CNN away from sports.
“We wanted to show Charles how much he’s loved and not just from a sports perspective but from a company perspective,” Levy said. “And we wanted to come to his house to do it in person. Charles said, 'If you guys are coming, I want to cook dinner for you.' We felt very good after the night that he would be with us for a long time. He did tell us he would stay before we left, but you really want to hear the next morning.”
The next morning Barkley and Levy played golf near Barkley’s house. “After the round of golf, he basically said he was staying,” Levy said.
“My agent never got involved,” Barkley said. “That's how much respect I have for David. David bought two bottles of wine, two bottles of tequila and we killed them. The money at this stage of my life does not matter. At this stage of my life, I’m not concerned about money. I shook David’s hand and said, 'We got a deal.' I told my agent, 'We are not haggling or negotiating. Do the deal.'"
Barkley’s new deal includes access to appear on CNN for issues beyond sports including race, education and politics. Now here's something that might surprise you: Barkley will also be covering the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Or at least he has the option to do if he wants. (We like that idea very much.)
“We don’t know exactly what he’ll do yet but, for instance, the Bleacher Report assignment is just one of the other pieces to the puzzle other than 'Hey, you are just an NBA studio guy,'” Levy said. “We wanted to give him more opportunities within the Turner family. He may not do any of this stuff but he will have the opportunity."
While he loved his job and his Turner colleagues, Barkley had been consistent in saying that he had trouble seeing himself staying in broadcasting for this long. But he has since shifted his thinking.
“Number one, I didn’t get the [NBA] GM job opportunity that I was hoping for,” Barkley said. “I’ve always said I have a great job. But I’ve also always said I wanted to be a GM but that did not happen. So when these guys re-signed, I didn’t want to be an awkward situation have them worried about what they will do next year. They told me they were all coming back and that kind of put me under the gun a bit. As much as love working for Turner, that would have been a very unfair for me to do. So now I get to criticize GMs on television.”
The deals for Johnson, Smith and Shaq were done individually and without knowledge of each other. Johnson was the easiest to complete given he bleeds Turner and has been with the company since 1989.
“Very rarely do you have lightning in a bottle,” Levy said. “Maybe there were a few football studio shows or the Howard Cosell booth on Monday Night Football but this is one of those groups, one of those iconic shows. I knew if I could keep them together and keep evolving this franchise with Tim Kiely’s guidance, then we have something special. To lock this down was very important to Turner. We don’t know how this business will change. Do I think these guys will be part of our organization for the next 8 to 10 years? I do. Do I think it will be exactly what you see on air today? Probably not.”
“I had no idea what was going on with the other guys but I knew mine (contact) was coming up next year,” Johnson said. “They [Turner management] came to me and said, 'Here’s what we’d like you to do,' and I said, 'Wow.' They said Chuck was doing it, too. But Turner is home to me so it didn’t matter how everything else turned out. This is where I want to stay. This is where I want to be. The company has been so generous to me so this is a no-brainer. But what makes it more special is that everybody is back. It puts to all the rest about “Chuck is going to leave.” I never thought we’d be sitting here 16 years in with Chuck and be saying, here’s another chunk of a time.”
Smith said he felt that the Inside The NBA collective would be impossible for him duplicate elsewhere.
“I think we all have great opportunities individually but collectively our unit is so much bigger,” Smith said. “Collectively our unit is something I’ve never seen on television. I don’t look at our show as a basketball show. I look at our show as a sports and entertainment show.
On the issue of Barkley, Smith took a nice shot at his on-air colleague and sparring partner. “I never believed he would retire,” said Smith. “He fooled David Levy and got two bottles of good wine and tequila out of it."
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest stories in the sports media.
1a. With sheets of rain, a nasty wind and lightning over Pimlico Race Course in the final hour prior to the race, it was a trying time for the NBC Sports production crew assigned to the Preakness Stakes. One of those staffers was steadicam operator Jeff Zachary, who has worked for NBC Sports for 27 years including 36 Triple Crown races. I emailed Zachary over the weekend so he could give readers a sense of what it was like for a cameraman handling those conditions. Zachary was with reporter Bob Neumeier and trainer D. Wayne Lukas during the walkover to the track. Then he was with the jockeys during their walkover to the outdoor paddock. He picks up it from there and his words are below:
“After re-looking at the radar and hearing from our production team and technical manager John Roche, who kept us abreast of the lightning and the storm that was getting closer to the track, I proceeded to rainproof the Steadicam and camera gear. I had never done a post parade when the conditions went from dry dirt to complete slop and one of the challenges was walking because there is a "Suction Cup effect” It would have been even more interesting if there were 20 horses in the race!
"One of the biggest challenges was trying to keep the shot level, which is the design of the Steadicam for stability and level shots. When you add rain covers to the electronics, with the gusts of wind that we encountered, it became like a spinnaker on a sailboat. It makes it very difficult to keep it stable with the unpredictable gusts.
"The other challenges along the way were my prescription glasses, my monitor/viewfinder, and the rain that was coming directly into the lens. I couldn't wipe the lens because it was a continuous shot and visibility was decreasing.
"The last jockey in the post parade was Gary Stevens and I remember him saying, 'I can't believe you guys are out here. You guys are the crazy ones!’
"After the post parade, my next shot was the horses loading the gates, then I headed to the finish line to receive the winning horse (American Pharoah).I then American Pharoah into the winner's circle. The rain had subsided slightly and images were becoming a lot clearer by then.
"This is the wettest and muddiest I have ever been on a show and I could not have done it without my team of Rob Lombardi and David DeKime. Honestly, there was such calmness in the production truck.
"As the challenges increased, the calmer it got. Director Drew Esocoff and producer Rob Hyland were dealing with many cameras going away due to them having to come down off the cranes and platforms because of lightning and a swinging track screen (due to the wind). They kept us connected as a team and there was a lot of compassion for what we were going through. All and all, weather is always a challenge, but I had not quite experienced it like that! The gusting winds, the lightning, the mud, the visibility, the heavy rain and the distance needed to be covered, it certainly added additional excitement to the event."
1b. Esocoff is one of sports television’s most accomplished directors, having directed five Super Bowls, multiple Olympic Games and remaining at the helm of Sunday Night Football since 2005. On Saturday afternoon he was in the production truck for NBC’s coverage of the Preakness Stakes. He said the weather knocked out the production’s "raised cameras" including the airplane and high tower in the second turn. But despite the challenges, the production and technical group did a solid job, from the post parade to the race. “It was also difficult for the cameras to pick out horses but they did a great job,” Esocoff said. “The technical crew kept everything working. Bottom line, it was a real challenge but I think we did well considering.”
1c. Kudos to Preakness host Tom Hammond and NBC’s research team for informing viewers that the last time the Preakness was run on a sloppy track was 1983. Analyst Jerry Bailey was also excellent explaining the impact of the rain on jockeys.
1d. Sports TV Ratings reported that the Preakness drew a 5.8 overnight rating, down 7.9% from last year’s 6.3 overnight. The highest rated markets were: 1. Baltimore; 2. Louisville; 3. Ft. Myers; 4. Tampa; 5. Indianapolis; 6. Richmond; 7. Orlando; 8. Nashville; 9. Tulsa; 10. Buffalo.
2. The second Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a conversation with CBS Sports broadcaster Verne Lundquist. Over the course of his five-decade career, Lundquist has had the opportunity to call some of the most iconic sports moments, including Jack Nicklaus's 17th hole birdie putt at the 1986 Masters ("Yes, sir!"), Christian Laettner's jumper at the buzzer in the 1992 NCAA tournament ("Yes!"), Tiger Woods's famed chip at No. 16 at the 2005 Masters ("In your life, have you seen anything like that?!") and Auburn’s Chris Davis's kick-six in the '13 Iron Bowl ("An answered prayer!"). The podcast focuses on Lundquist’s career in broadcasting, his iconic calls, his future with CBS, as well as his work as a 20-something Austin, Texas radio reporter on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
3. Megan Armstrong is a 21-year-old senior journalism major at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in magazine writing. I’ve come across her work a couple of times through Twitter—she also works as a contributing writer to The Cauldron—and upon graduating from Missouri in December 2015, she hopes to work in narrative writing for her career. She’s already interned for NBC Sports in New York City, The Kansas City Star and freelanced for Bleacher Report and espnW.
Last week Armstrong released her debut novel, Night Owls (the foreword was written by ESPN’s Jemele Hill), which is available online in paperback or Kindle at Barnes & Noble or Amazon and also on iBooks. Impressed that someone so young had churned out a published novel as well as those who vouched for her (Hill and Michelle Beadle), I asked her to write a quick post on what prompted her novel. Her words are below:
"I attempted suicide on August 22, 2013.
"I attempted suicide because, in that moment, I wanted to die and I wanted to relieve my loved ones of all of the stress I was unintentionally putting them through.
"I began writing a novel exactly three months later on October 22, 2013, as a sophomore at the University of Missouri studying sports journalism. I was having an ordinary conversation with my roommate, Molly, when she mentioned something about how the author of the Divergent series wrote those books while still in college. I thought, If Veronica Roth can write about a post-apocalyptic world, why can’t I write about my chaotic little world?
"I got up from the couch, went in my room, locked the door and started outlining what would become my first novel, Night Owls. Night Owls is a fictional depiction of my experiences with depression, anxiety and an unspecified mood disorder alongside my late friend Jake Cavanaugh’s life with osteosarcoma. It’s told through characters named Theo Stone and Calvin Jabber, roommates at Jasper College forced to confront life’s teeth because of their dire circumstances. I think I just needed to give myself permission to try and write down this world and these characters that had been knocking on my heart and living inside of me for so long. Maybe they could help me help others. It took me until December 23, 2014 to finish, which just so happened to be the fourth anniversary of Jake’s death.
"My former therapist, Dr. David Grand, suggested that I contact Dog Ear Publishing. I thought about searching for an agent and going the traditional route, but I wanted to get my book out there as soon as possible to build the foundation of my career on something extremely personal and authentic to me. Plus, I’m only 21 years old.
"I’m nearly two years removed from the darkest of places. I have learned that, deep down, I attempted suicide because I wanted to tell them this: 'Look. This is serious. I'm not making this up. This is real, and it hurts.'
"I believe we all have a token vulnerability, one that looms above the others, and we all work our whole lives to be seen as more than that one token thing. For me, it’s my mental illness. For Jakey, it was cancer. For you, well, that’s for you to decide.
"Nobody is immune to this. Not me. Not you. Not your favorite athlete or celebrity. We all need empathy in some form, and I want my book to help supply whatever dosage you might need.
"I don’t want to die. Certainly not before I have the chance to really live.
"And that’s why I brought these characters to life. I wrote Night Owls because I still want to get the message across to whoever will listen that this is real, and it hurts.
"Night Owls is available online in paperback or Kindle at Barnes & Noble or Amazon and also on iBooks. I don’t have a scheduled book tour at this time but want to talk about my book and mental heath wherever and to whoever will have me."
4. Sports pieces of note:
• San Jose Mercury News writer Jon Wilner on the impact Malcolm Kerr had on son Steve.
• Bleacher Report’s Lars Anderson reexamines his relationship with former college football superstar Lawrence Phillips.
• Via Robert Klemko of the MMQB: The inside story of how La'el Collins became a Dallas Cowboy.
• The Washington Post’s Alex Prewitt wrote a terrific piece on deadline and off Game 7 of the Rangers-Caps series.
• espnW’s Mechelle Voepel asks: What if Jim Dolan naming Isiah Thomas as Liberty president was done to extort the WNBA?
Non sports pieces of note:
• "I was on the third car of Amtrak Train 188." Foreign Policy editor Seyward Darby offers a heartfelt piece about the crash.
• History junkies will love this Alan Peppard piece on George H. Bush's actions after the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt.
• Via Andrew Jacobs of the NYT: An interesting and disturbing piece on the torture tactics of Chinese police to get confessions.
• The story on young alcoholic who died in rehab after appearing on TV doc. Great work by John Hill of Mother Jones.
• Via Corey Kilgannon: Two sisters, separated at birth, reunited in classroom at Columbia University.
• This Slate interview of Seymour Hersh is all kinds of fun.
• CJR’s Trevor Timm goes after the critics of Hersh.
5. Frontline’s Raney Aronson stands for everything right in journalism. This is exceptional news.
5a. Here's a direct link to the first SI Media Podcast with Rachel Nichols and Adam Schefter.
5b. Last week Rangers-Capitals overtime Game 7 averaged 2.7 million viewers, the third-most watched NHL Round 2 game ever on cable.
5c. Grantland staffer Bill Barnwell wrote a short post on Bill Simmons: This was notable because 1) It highlights, as I’ve often wrote, just how much Grantland’s staff loved working for Simmons; 2) It was ballsy because ESPN management as a rule does not want staffers commenting publicly on personnel decisions.
5d. Kevin Blackistone, the longtime sports journalist and a visiting professor at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, has been hired by The Washington Post to write regular commentary for the sports section. He’ll also be a contributor to Post TV.
5e. This will be a strong contender for the 2015 Sports Media Tweet of the Year.