NBA TV is, understandably, at a loss with regards to programming. In most Novembers, the network is showing a few live NBA games a week, running a long highlight show a few times daily and pulling in material for less timely interview shows. With the NBA lockout blotting out NBA TV's raison d'etre, it's been a slog full of old games and repeated showings of movies like Teen Wolf.
But with its new series Open Court, NBA TV might have its lockout salvation.
Open Court features seven former players employed in Turner Sports' NBA broadcoast corps, including Thursday night TNT staples Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, NBA TV stalwarts Chris Webber and Steve Smith, game analysts Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller and new addition Shaquille O'Neal. Inside the NBA host Ernie Johnson moderates the discussion.
The premiere, broadcast Tuesday, showed the immense potential of the show, and particularly of Shaq: Television Star. The retired MVP stole the show with a brilliant brand of story-telling, buffetted by some actually great stories. O'Neal's telling of the circumstances around his 61-point game in March 2000. Shaq says he saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a Laker legend, of course) on the bench giving Clippers big man Keith Closs advice on how to stop O'Neal, which angered Big Diesel and fueled the career-high night. (Of course, that reveals a problem with Open Court that everyone involved seems aware of: these are often tall tales. Closs actually didn't get into the game in which Shaq scored 61, so it's unclear what good tips from Kareem would have done.)
Barkley, Smith and Webber are as bombastic, thoughtful and naked (respectively) in Open Court as they are in their other Turner duties. Miller is like a different person than his in-game self, which most would consider a good thing. Kerr and Smith provide different perspectives; in particular, Smith's story on having the best game of his career while trade rumors swirled around him was fascinating.
As is the case on Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson navigates the discourse masterfully; it's impossible to imagine anyone doing as good a job pulling out the right anecdotes and managing the personalities while letting them breathe. Johnson and Turner's production staff respects the audience like no other sports crew on TV, and it gives the show (like Inside the NBA) an easy but well-paced feel.
The glaring problem with Open Court? It's only scheduled to run five more episodes, with the series wrapping up on December 20. Obviously, everyone hopes NBA TV's programming can be dedicated to preseason basketball by that point (can't a boy dream?). But even with an end of the lockout, NBA TV has plenty of space for good original programming like this. The panel of ex-players could run out of stories or steam, but that seems like a good excuse to pull in non-Turner personalities. Imagine Johnson moderating a discussion between Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Shaq. Or Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle. Add old coaches to the mix -- they have as many great stories to share as do the players. Turner has the right personnel to make this a series worth watching ... even when there is pro basketball available.