Just about a year ago, as NBA fans fretted about the eventual lockout, TNT announced that it would add Shaquille O’Neal, the recently-retired legend, to its Inside the NBA team. The bidding war between the Time Warner network and ESPN had to have been fierce considering he was a walking quote machine during his playing career. When he was signed, there were already ponderings on how he would mesh with friend and former on-court adversary, Charles Barkley. It seemed to be as close to comedy heaven as sports TV could get.
Yet, already hiding in our bunkers from the theoretical nuclear winter, Shaq’s arrival compelled many of us – this Scribe included – to ask one question, and for good reason.
“What’s going to happen to C-Webb?”
Chris Webber, the previous major addition to TNT’s broadcasting team, has made quite the name for himself since retiring from the NBA in 2008. Beyond his other interests and efforts – the restaurant business, music production and a longtime appreciation of African-American artifacts – his media work has been largely well-received by fans and media.
Say what you will about his relative lack of on-court successes – and many of you think of that first – but Webber was probably one of the more cerebral players in the NBA. If not for his offensive gifts, you would have probably never heard of Peja Stojakovic or Hedo Turkoglu, may have forgotten about Mike Bibby, laughed Jason “White Chocolate” Williams out of the league, and dismissed Vlade Divac for nothing more than the king of big man floppers. With those players, and countless more, Webber developed strong rapports with each using his court vision.
Said rapport, along with his penchant to call things as he would see it, put him on TNT’s radar rather quickly. So quickly, in fact, that two days after his retirement, he was on the Inside the NBA set, throwing verbal jabs with Barkley and Kenny Smith while finally giving Ernie Johnson a semi-sane analyst to bounce questions to. That rapport was easily translated from the court to the studio in one of the smoothest athlete-turned-analyst transitions of any sport in recent memory.
We truly got to see Webber step up to the plate in the early 2009 absence of Charles Barkley, who took a hiatus from ‘Inside‘ after his DUI arrest on New Year’s Eve ‘08. During those two months, Webber showed that he could not only bring the comedy to and against Smith – the banter between Smith & Barkley has been an integral part of the program’s success – but he could provide a better perspective from the player’s point of view. That C-Webb’s retirement was more recent allowed him to relate to the current players much better than either Smith or Barkley, as he was not too far from playing with and against the majority of them. As if he was still looking at game tape on an off-day between games, he could relay tendencies of certain power forwards in a way that Barkley couldn’t. He could spin Smith’s telestrator-assisted analysis on its ear with a contrasting comment or question.
Most importantly, he didn’t try too hard to replace the outsized personality of Barkley, even when Sir Charles returned from hiatus nor did he kick ‘Kenny’s Pictures’ to the side. While respecting the veterans of the show, he found his voice quickly, and rarely let any personal biases overshadow his analysis (Let’s be for real: Charles & Shaq hate the Knicks, and you know it.)
During show prep before one of the first broadcasts of The Exchange last year, my co-host Sumit Dasgupta had a pretty apt description of Webber’s approach to his television work, once stating that “he is versatile on the mic as his game was on the court.”
It’s that versatility that answered producers’ questions on what to do with him when Shaq arrived. Besides sticking with the ever-expanding team at NBA TV, he’s provided color commentary to many games this season, even as part of TNT’s ‘C-team’ with Dick Stockton. The jury still seems to be out on his live commentary at games, but he’s less of a cause of aneurysms among basketball fanatics than Reggie Miller seems to be.
It seems that C-Webb has a home with TNT/NBA TV, something to appreciate considering the alternatives. He could be on the host-less ESPN halftime shows; seemingly stifled by the tighter, faster pace of commentary that forces each analyst to be heard. Arguably, worse yet, he could be a hidden gem with a local outlet with little national exposure.
There’s no doubt that he shines brightest in the studio, where fans clamor for strong insights before, during, and after the games. Yet, as his former on-court rival struggles to find his on-air groove, Chris Webber may finally have the edge on Shaquille O’Neal where it counts these days: at a television near you.