Atlanta A night with Charles Barkley at TNT's Studio J isn't going to be an ordinary night.
Greeting a visitor, Barkley makes it clear this is not a typical night for the "Inside the NBA" crew. Executives brought in steak and lobster Tuesday night to celebrate the show recently winning an Emmy.
"It's not like this every night," Barkley calls out from across the viewing room. "Tomorrow night we're back to chicken."
The menu might be the only thing that's predictable when Barkley gets together with host Ernie Johnson and fellow analyst Kenny Smith. On Tuesday, Magic Johnson joined them for one of the 12 or so appearances he makes during the season.
They currently are in the midst of TNT's "40 games in 40 nights" coverage of the NBA playoffs. With Smith pushing Barkley's buttons, they put on what is probably the most irreverent and brutally honest studio show in sports television.
Barkley obviously drives the engine with his frank insights and unique perspectives on life in and out of basketball. And what takes place behind the scenes is no less entertaining.
"I've had people say we should put a camera in there and market the green room," Ernie Johnson says.
Barkley, Smith and Johnson sit in front of a bank of televisions, with the NBA game dominating a large screen in the middle.
With his feet up on the table, Barkley has perfected the art of watching several shows at once.
"Uh-oh, 'House' is on. Got to watch my show," Barkley says, shifting his attention to the Fox medical drama.
Later that night, Barkley will notice that the Anaheim-Colorado hockey game is going into overtime. "Hey, can we get (the Outdoor Life Network) on in here?" he asks. "There's nothing better than overtime in the playoffs."
Just when you think Barkley has completely ignored Detroit running up a big lead over Cleveland, he throws in a comment that shows he is paying attention.
Noting a LeBron James ad for Nike with the slogan, "We are witness," Barkley shouts, "Yeah, we're witnessing a (butt-kicking)."
Barkley carries the tone into the studio. The crew's only preparation seems to consist of putting on their jackets.
"The fact that there is no rehearsal makes for our chemistry," Ernie Johnson says. "The reactions are genuine. You can't manufacture it."
It helps to have somebody as spontaneous as Barkley. Magic Johnson may have been the floor leader as a player, but in this set-up, he knows he has a secondary role.
"Charles is the star," Magic Johnson says. "He doesn't hold back. A lot of times we all would like to say what Charles says, but that's not our personality. That's why people tune in. They know Charles will tell it his own way."
Barkley's way often sparks controversy. Last week he found himself in the headlines after saying he has lost an estimated $10 million gambling. The subject came up when he was asked about John Daly and his gambling losses.
"I was just trying to help a friend," Barkley says. "I was asked an honest question and I was trying to explain what he was going through. It was something I needed to say."
Saturday of last week, Barkley came down hard on Kobe Bryant for his poor play during the Lakers' loss to Phoenix in Game 7 of their first-round series.
"I think he was being very selfish," Barkley had said after the game. "I think he stopped shooting so he could say, 'Those guys didn't help me."'
The next day, Bryant sent Barkley 20 angry text messages. That upset Barkley because he didn't expect Bryant to take the criticism so personally.
"I like Kobe," Barkley says. "I said for the last year that Kobe is the best basketball player in the world. Now all of the sudden I've got a vendetta against him? I have no vendetta. I said what I saw during the game. I don't know what he was thinking. I was happy with what I said."
Barkley insists he doesn't show up at the studio looking to rip somebody. He says it's about being honest on any and all issues.
One of the reasons Barkley chose TNT over other network offers is its executives offered him the opportunity to veer off sports. The immigration issue has dominated Barkley's thoughts of late.
"Rich people do a really good job of keeping the poor people from liking each other," he says.
Barkley acknowledges that he may not always be right, but don't begrudge him his right to speak out.
"Why should I be treated different just because I'm in the limelight?" he says. "I'm supposed to make a difference, not just be rich and famous."
Basketball, though, is his primary forum. By the time he got off the air at 1:15 a.m., Barkley had criticized Sacramento for firing coach Rick Adelman and implored Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat teammates to play better, calling them "slugs," among other knocks.
It was a typical night at the office.
"I have no idea what will happen in the game," Barkley says. "I just promise to be honest and fair. I hope people appreciate and respect that. That's what I do."