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Forty years later, Penguins feel Mario Lemieux's impact every day

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Forty years later, Penguins feel Mario Lemieux's impact every day

Eddie Johnston, the general manager who drafted Mario Lemieux 40 years ago this month, had only one concern when he announced the historic selection at the old Montreal Forum — and it wasn’t whether Lemieux would pull a Penguins jersey over his head.

Lemieux did not.

Ironically, Lemieux’s first act with the Penguins was to somewhat distance himself from a franchise he would spend the next four decades personifying, influencing and owning on and off the ice.

“That was his agents, not Mario — he didn’t want to do it,” Johnston said. “Mario and I never talked about it. Not that day. Not to this day.

“I’d done my homework. Now, you hear about generational prospects. No, Mario wasn’t generational. He was once in a lifetime, and not just as a player — as a person.

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“We (the Penguins) aren’t here without Mario.”

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NHL 99: Mario Lemieux could ‘do things that nobody else could do’

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the circumstances in Pittsburgh preceding Lemieux’s arrival in 1984:

  • The Penguins were nine years removed from bankruptcy.
  • They averaged fewer than 8,500 fans during the 1982-83 season when they finished with only 45 points and a minus-137 goal differential despite a sixth-best 81 power-play goals.
  • They practiced at a suburban high school rink, then one of only a few around Pittsburgh.
  • They had never made it past two rounds of a postseason and were most known for two crushing playoff losses to the New York Islanders — a blown 3-0 series lead in 1975 and a 3-1 third-period lead in an overtime loss in a decisive Game 5 in 1982.
  • Their owner, Edward DeBartolo, Sr., favored selling the franchise to support the more successful, and popular at the time, Pittsburgh Spirit, an indoor soccer team that also played at Civic Arena.

“When I played for the Oilers, we loved coming to Pittsburgh,” Paul Coffey said. “It was a great sports town. There were Steelers shirts and Pirates hats everywhere. All the same colors, that black and gold. We’d play the Penguins, and the games weren’t very competitive, to be honest, and I’d tell the guys after the game when we were having a few pops, ‘Man, if they ever figure out the hockey thing here, this will be a destination.’

“Well, they figured it out. The answer was Mario. I don’t think any player in our game has meant more to a city or franchise.”

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That is a big statement, though it comes from a past teammate of Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman — so Coffey, a Hall of Famer like those three, is a qualified expert. And it’s not as though Coffey is alone in that opinion.

Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s most accomplished coach, won one of his nine Stanley Cup championships behind the bench with Lemieux’s Penguins in 1992. The Penguins had won their first title in 1991, and Lemieux, coming off a back surgery in 1990 that diminished his wow-gosh shiftiness and afforded him only two more seasons playing in at least 70 games, had been dubbed the new “Mr. Hockey” by Sports Illustrated after averaging 2.05 points per game en route to consecutive Stanley Cup/Conn Smythe wins.

“That was what people called Gordie Howe,” Bowman said. “To give that to Mario, and he deserved it, was special.”

Arguably, he and the Penguins were at their peak, even with his bad back. He began the 1992-93 season with 39 goals and 104 points in 40 games before missing two months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (now called Hodgkin lymphoma).

He returned after eight weeks of treatment, and virtually no time on the ice, to score 30 goals and 56 points in his final 20 games.

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“He wanted Wayne’s (single-season points) record,” said former Penguins great Kevin Stevens, referring to Gretzky’s 215 points. “He was going to wipe it out if you ask anybody on our team.

“If Mario doesn’t get cancer that season, he might have got 100 goals and 230 points. I’m not kidding. And we win the Cup again, and he goes down as the greatest ever — even over Wayne.”

In the decades-old debate of Gretzky or Lemieux, Gretzky wins pretty much everywhere but Montreal and Pittsburgh. It’s Pittsburgh where Lemieux is universally viewed as the greatest, and not because of his three Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and those two Cup wins.

“He’s Paul Bunyan in Pittsburgh,” Bryan Trottier said. “I mean, the story of Mario has so much that you wouldn’t believe it’s real.

“He was never healthy by the time I got to Pittsburgh (1990). He had the back. He had the cancer. His hips were a mess. He couldn’t tie his own skates. Through all of it, he was still the best player in the league, but it went beyond that with Mario.

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“He literally made the Penguins what they’ve become.”

Again, perhaps you’ve heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the circumstances in Pittsburgh following Lemieux’s Hodgkin’s disease diagnosis in 1993:

  • He played in only 22 games in 1993-94 and sat out the 1994-95 season.
  • He returned to capture another Hart Trophy, his third, and two more Art Ross Trophies, his fifth and sixth, but retired for three-plus seasons after the 1996-97 season.
  • He was not paid the bulk of a then-record contract because of ownership’s financial issues.
  • Amid ownership strife and crippling debt, the Penguins declared bankruptcy a second time and were at risk of being relocated or dissolved in the late 1990s, and Lemieux was their largest owed creditor.

“The Canadiens and Rangers were willing to pay him $25 million to play for them one season,” Johnston said. “He could have done it and made most of his money. But there was no chance. Not Mario.

“The Penguins meant too much to him.”

So, after doing the once-thought impossible by bringing the Penguins even with the Steelers and Pirates in popularity in the early 1990s, Lemieux ended the decade by forming an ownership group to purchase them from bankruptcy. A feel-good story — except that previous ownership had taken renovation money for Civic Arena instead of getting in on the sports facilities legislation that Pennsylvania politicians passed for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s teams. Lemieux owned the Penguins, but they remained in a bleak financial situation, especially with Jaromir Jagr’s hefty contract and an unfavorable revenue arrangement at their arena.

“Things weren’t great even after he had control of our team,” said Mike Lange, the longtime voice of the Penguins. “I’ll tell you, if Mario doesn’t come back in 2000, I don’t know if we make it long enough for ‘The Kid’ to arrive however many years later.”

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Lange means Sidney Crosby — “Sid the Kid,” whom the Penguins drafted first in 2005. A lot was asked of Crosby, but it was nothing compared to what had been asked of Lemieux.

“Not even close,” said Crosby back in 2016. Crosby played with Lemieux briefly before the latter retired for good in 2005 and spent a couple of seasons living in Lemieux’s guest house.

“I mean, when you think of everything we have here — this (practice) facility, the (current) arena, the expectations — it’s all from what he did for the Penguins. It’s a special thing with Mario and this franchise. I don’t know if people outside of Pittsburgh really appreciate what it is. It’s unique. You just don’t see it very often.”

Michael Farber, who wrote about Lemieux often for Sports Illustrated, cited Babe Ruth with the New York Yankees and Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics as the only comparable athletes to Lemieux in terms of influencing a franchise. Unlike Lemieux, both finished with stints elsewhere — Ruth as a player with the Boston Braves, Russell as a coach/general manager with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Lemieux remains a minority owner of the Penguins.

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His ownership group sold to Fenway Sports Group a few years ago, but Lemieux kept a fractional share. He’s not involved in any day-to-day decisions. However, as was evident when he returned for Jagr’s jersey retirement this past February, there is one Penguin who stands above all.

The Penguins carefully planned Lemieux’s participation in Jagr’s jersey retirement ceremony. He did not want to take away from Jagr’s big night. Still, when it came time for Lemieux to be introduced to a sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena that evening, extra time was built in because the Penguins’ game night operations crew anticipated fans would want to give Lemieux a lengthy standing ovation.

They did. They always do.

“Of course they do,” Trottier said. “It’s not just that Mario was a great player for the Pittsburgh fans. It’s that they saw him deal with the health struggles. They see his charity doing work with the local hospitals. They know he saved the team twice.

“And, let’s be honest, the Penguins became the Penguins — high-flying, high-scoring, big stars like Jags and Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin — because of Mario. The identity of the franchise is still based on what he was and did.”

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Mario Lemieux waves to the crowd at Jaromir Jagr’s jersey retirement ceremony in February. (Justin Berl / Getty Images)

Forty years after drafting Lemieux, Johnston shared his one concern from that day in the Montreal Forum. He had planned to announce the pick in his native French tongue, but he was nervous his excitement would “mess it up.”

He did not.

“I’d spent so much time telling Mr. DeBartolo how special Mario was. He finally said, ‘Eddie, he’s just one man — no one person can live up to what you’re telling me,’” Johnston said.

“I told him, ‘Just watch. Mario’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to this team. They’ll be talking about him long after we’re gone.’”

They are, and perhaps nobody captured Lemieux’s importance to the Penguins better than Farber.

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“Ruth and Russell are pretty good company,” Farber said. “Even if you want to look at just hockey, you get to Wayne, as you always do when you discuss Mario. But Wayne belonged to the sport.

“Mario belongs to the Penguins. And he has since he finally put on that jersey.”

Lemieux did don the Penguins crest a few days after the 1984 NHL Draft. There is a picture of him in it, standing atop Mount Washington, Pittsburgh’s skyline as the background.

Johnston loves that photo.

“Mario, wearing our jersey, our city — that’s all you see, and it’s perfect,” he said.

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(Top photo: Allsport / Getty Images)

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Culture

My front row seat on 'Inside the NBA,' the greatest studio show in sports TV history

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My front row seat on 'Inside the NBA,' the greatest studio show in sports TV history

The first day I went down to Atlanta in 2005, to TNT’s Techwood Drive studios to do “Inside the NBA,” the show’s producer, the legendary Tim Kiely, made things simple for me.

“If you look at the (bleeping) camera, I’ll wring your neck,” he said.

I smiled. This was going to work out.

Kiely and I were former employees at ESPN. So I knew exactly what he meant.

TK, as everyone knows him, had gone to what was then called Turner Sports years before I did, and was the driving force behind “Inside” becoming the greatest sports studio show in the history of television, a Sports Emmy-winning Leviathan.

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At ESPN, the network was the star. You could be on the network for a while, and if you were deemed essential for a while (it was, with few exceptions, not for all that long), you could be on the network a lot. But no one anchor or reporter was indispensable. The iconic SportsCenter set? That was indispensable.

So, when you were on an ESPN show, it was important for you, representing the show when you were on it, to connect with the people watching at home, not the people sitting next to you in the studio. You were told, early and often, when you wanted to make a point, to literally turn your body away from the person sitting next to you, who may have asked you a question, and to look into whatever camera to which you were assigned. Then, you could disseminate your information, or make your point, to the people watching.

By contrast, in Techwood’s Studio J, from where TNT’s “Inside” was broadcast, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith and, later, Shaquille O’Neal were the stars, along with the best studio host of all time, Ernie Johnson. But, and this is why the show worked, they weren’t cast in bronze. If you were on the set with them, you were, as far as everyone on set was concerned, their equal. If you thought they were wrong about something, you were allowed – you were expected – to challenge them. Just because they were former players, and great ones, didn’t mean your opinion didn’t count. But, it had to be genuine, not forced, canned “debate.”

TK would say, over and over, “Charles is right there. Talk to him! Kenny’s right there! Talk to him! You disagree with Chuck? Say so!”

During Kiely’s 28 years of producing the show, “Inside” took the top place in the NBA firmament. It has remained there since he retired last year. There was, and is, no game crew or league-ancillary programming on any other network that was, or is, as good as what came out of that studio every Thursday night during the season. And that extended to the “40 games in 40 nights,” as TNT called it, of the playoffs. Nothing, including the finals, or draft coverage, was as good. “Inside” was the gold standard.

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I was on a bunch of NBA studio shows when I was at the Four-Letter, including “NBA Today” and “NBA 2 Nite.” I loved them all. We did good work, occasionally excellent work, in the years I was there, with Mark Jones, Jason Jackson and Stuart Scott. It was an honor and an education to work on those shows with coaches such as the late Jack Ramsay, and Fred Carter. I learned so much from them.

But we all knew “Inside” was better.

That’s why TK’s words made me smile. At Turner, I didn’t have to play the role of the “information guy,” even though that was my job. I could just be me. And that was what I did when I made appearances on the show over my 14 years at Turner.


In over 14 years on “Inside the NBA,” David Aldridge, left, held his own with Shaquille O’Neal and others. (Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

And thus, the lamentations about the future of “Inside” after next season, when the NBA’s new media rights deal begins, are heartfelt and genuine. The NBA’s Board of Governors, on Tuesday, approved the new deal, which begins with the 2025-26 NBA season. It introduces Amazon Prime Video as a media rights streaming partner and reintroduces NBC, which had the NBA package from 1990 to 2002, for both broadcast and streaming rights (via its Peacock streaming service).

As part of the new deal, which will run for 11 years, starting with the 2025-26 season, and pay out $76 billion to the league’s 30 teams, NBC would broadcast games nationally on Tuesdays, while Peacock would have games on Mondays. Both NBC and Amazon would put NBA games into their current slots for NFL broadcasts, on Sunday nights (NBC) and Thursdays (Amazon), after the NFL season concludes.

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ABC/ESPN would continue to broadcast the NBA finals, while airing slightly fewer regular season games, and have a conference final every year. Amazon and NBC would alternate years carrying the other conference final.

And Turner, now Warner Bros. Discovery, would be the odd network out.

But, WBD will have a five-day window to match the terms of the new package and hold onto its Thursday night package of games, as well as an annual conference final – and, of course, “Inside” – once the league formally delivers the package to WBD’s corporate offices. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at a news conference following the Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas Tuesday that the media deals were not yet done, and wouldn’t confirm if or when the five-day window for WBD has opened.

So, the waiting will continue for WBD/Turner employees, who’ve been in limbo for months as the parent company negotiated with the league, yet have continued to produce the kind of memorable programming for which Turner and “Inside” have been known for three decades. Silver felt compelled to apologize to WBD/Turner employees for leaving their futures twisting in the wind in his news conference at the start of the finals last month.

It’s something no one wants to truly contemplate. There’s never been anything like “Inside the NBA” in sports media, and there’s not going to be anything like it if it’s gone after next year.

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It was, as a friend put it a while back, the TV manifestation of where people who love the NBA assemble every week, a communal hangout. A place where you’d feel comfortable getting a beer, or another substance, maybe, with your friends, and loud talk about your favorite teams and players, or the teams and players that you hated, while inhaling a sandwich and watching the game together, either in person or via group chat.

It was a place where you felt … safe.

You felt like you knew Chuck and Shaq and Ernie and Kenny because their actual personalities, who they really were off-camera, came through so clearly on camera. The show had some scripted elements to it, and Ernie did the best he could to keep the show on topic, but for the most part, every week, they went out there and … winged it. Barkley, Smith and Shaq never went to the production meetings before airtime. It was just four guys who actually enjoyed being in each other’s company, riffing off one another. But that requires tremendous trust. The television business does not often engender trust among people who are competing for air time and money and keeping their jobs.

It all started with Charles.

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Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley became must-see tv on “Inside the NBA.” (Brandon Todd/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s funny. People under a certain age — say, 40 or so — don’t seem to realize this now. But Barkley was as big a superstar in his NBA days as anyone not named Michael Jordan.

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Barkley was on both the NBA’s all-time Top 50 and Top 75 teams. He was the 1992-93 NBA MVP. He was an 11-time All-Star. He averaged 23 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 123 career postseason games, including a 56-point gem against the Warriors in a first-round game in 1994. He was the best player on the Dream Team, in 1992 — a team that included Jordan, Magic and Bird.

Now, to be sure, Magic and Bird were on the back nine of their careers by the time they went to Barcelona for the Olympics, and Jordan was picking his spots after a grueling year leading the Bulls to a successful defense of their championship. But Chuck was nonetheless dominant, a blur in transition, a beast in the paint. And he was, as ever, the go-to guy for anyone with a notepad or camera. (Charles once spent half an hour explaining to reporters in Philly why he wasn’t talking to the local media.)

“I don’t know much about Angola,” he said of the U.S. team’s opening-round Olympic opponent in Barcelona, “but I know they’re in trouble.”

He had as many commercials back in the day as Shaq has now. He hosted “Saturday Night Live” (and beat up Barney the Dinosaur in the process). He got arrested in a Milwaukee bar after punching a weightlifter; he got arrested in Orlando after an incident in a club where he wound up throwing a belligerent patron into a mirror, which crashed through a plate glass window. (Chuck actually didn’t know how many times he’d been arrested over the years. When he got to Turner, TNT, smartly, assigned him a couple of bodyguards.)

He was, then as now, completely fearless, saying whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. In Philly, he’d verbally immolate his boss, 76ers owner Harold Katz, and do the same to his coaches and teammates, or anyone else who got in his craw.

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“I love when they say Magic makes James Worthy better, and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) better,” he’d say at his locker. “I have to make Sheldon Jones better.”

So, when Barkley came to “Inside” after his retirement as a player, he could have put up all kinds of caveats and I-won’t-do-thats, befitting a player of his stature. But he didn’t. In fact, he did the exact opposite. He would do anything, including things that made him look ridiculous.

Barkley battled weight problems throughout his playing career and well into his retirement. An overly sensitive superstar could have insisted that fat jokes were off limits on the set. Instead, Barkley leaned into the constant digs at his girth. Weighing 30-plus pounds more than his supposed 290 pounds early in December 2001, Barkley vowed to be under 300 by the end of January 2002. He made it a thing around which “Inside” could build programming! And he followed through on his promise to get weighed “in my drawers” on the show.

During Yao Ming’s rookie season, in 2002-03, Kenny insisted that Yao, the celebrated big man from China, would score at least 19 points in a game during his rookie campaign. Chuck said if that happened, he’d “kiss Kenny’s ass” on national TV. Ten days later, Yao went 9 of 9 from the floor and scored 20 against the Lakers. Two days after that, with then-Minnesota Governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura on set, Kenny brought a donkey onto the set. If Chuck kissed the donkey’s ass, Kenny said, the bet would be satisfied.

Chuck puckered up.

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I am fairly certain that Jordan would not have done this.

The one time I saw Barkley actually distraught was the night his Suns lost Game 6 of the 1993 Finals, at home, to the Bulls. He drove up to the Houston’s restaurant in downtown Phoenix, alone, after John Paxson’s dagger 3 beat Phoenix in the last seconds. He joined a bunch of sportswriters eating outside. He was down. He really thought the Suns were better than Chicago that season. But he couldn’t get them over the top.

And yet, years later, Chuck let “Inside” clown him for a segment where a set was transformed into “The Champions’ Club,” which you could only enter if you’d won an NBA title. Magic, on set with the crew that week, obviously got in easily with his five championships with the Lakers. So did Kenny, who’d won back-to-back titles with Houston in 1994 and ’95. Ernie got in on Magic’s invite. But after Kenny walked in, with Barkley right behind him, Chuck got stopped at the door by the “bouncer.” Ernie soon stuck his head out of the “club” door, noting all the guys with rings that were supposedly in the club: Fennis Dembo, Mike Penberthy, the late Earl Cureton.

“Oh, y’all are playing a joke on the Chuckster,” Barkley said.

That same ethos applied to Kenny. When Kobe Bryant came out with a new Nike shoe, the Hyperdunk, in 2008, he did a viral ad for Nike with then-teammate Ronny Turiaf  in which he, allegedly, jumped over an incoming Aston Martin, so great were the Hyperdunk’s qualities.

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Naturally, when the Lakers were on TNT, and Kobe had a great game, “Inside” had Bryant on afterward. Kenny said that he, too, had a new Nike shoe coming out — the “Hyperdunk Smiths” — that would soon be in stores. And he, too, could jump over a car!

It didn’t go quite as well as Kobe’s leap.

Shaq also got got, after he joined the show.

“Inside” quickly built a “storyline” where the 7-1, who-knows-how-much-he-weighs self-described “MDE: Most Dominant Ever” center bullied poor Ernie, literally shaking him down for lunch money. But, ultimately, Ernie got his revenge. And, infamously, a moment of extreme clumsiness by the Big Fella in 2017 was replayed, a few thousand times, on “Inside” over the next few years.

Shaq made fun of my headshot. I made fun of his movies. Joe Underhill, a diminutive researcher and field producer who worked his butt off for years, was reborn and became semi-famous as “Underdog,” who’d feed Ernie and others statistical information, appear in skits and be prepared, as O’Neal would say seemingly every week, to put some pithy saying on a T-shirt. And, the portal went both ways: in the last few years, fans have been encouraged to clap back at the crazy things Shaq, Kenny and Chuck said and did, whenever possible.

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“Inside” was not for the Sloan crowd. There was no genuflecting at the altar of True Shooting Percentage or PER or Defensive Box Plus-Minus. If endless video breakdowns of the three best ways to ice a pick-and-roll was your thing, this was not your show. And the Insiders reveled in their ignorance; they were definitely eye- and smell-testers, not Second Spectrum guys.

General managers and executives around the league would occasionally rail to me about how little educating about the game Chuck, Kenny and Shaq did with their large platform. (Interestingly, coaches rarely complained.) I would acknowledge the point, but also point to “Inside’s” growing collection of Emmys. Their approach seemed to resonate with an awful lot of viewers, and voters.


Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was one of many to share a dose of wisdom with David Aldridge during his TNT days. (Soobum Im / USA Today)

Nor did “Inside” make the games the network paid billions to air every week sacred, as other networks did. If TNT had a dog of a doubleheader on in January, the “Inside” guys would say it was a dog. Chuck would talk about shows on other networks that he was watching in the green room while TNT aired its crappy-for-that-night NBA fare. A staple at the start of every season was “Who He Play For?,” a faux game show segment that served only to display Barkley’s thimble-like knowledge of non-superstars around the league.

But — and this was rarely acknowledged by the show’s critics — nothing excited the studio more than a well-played, riveting game. Chuck, in particular, would fall in love with the last good team he saw on the air, pledging that they were the best (or second-best, or third-best) team in their conference. He made Manu Ginobili into a household name with his weekly “GINOBILI!!” fanboying. On the other hand, Chuck’s many wrong “gar-run-teeed!” game/series predictions became their own cottage industry.

When “Inside” did focus on the games and players, though, its analysts’ praise was as welcomed as their scorn was withering. It made clear the lie of so many of the current players who dismissed the “Inside” guys as fossils, incapable of playing or understanding today’s game. If they were so out of touch, why did the players care so much what they said about them?

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O’Neal’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segments became must-watch TV, as he (more accurately, the show’s producers) lampooned the biggest blunders players made in games every week. Shaq crushed JaVale McGee to the point where it became kind of cringeworthy. It wasn’t that McGee wasn’t messing up, occasionally in spectacular fashion, but a) he wasn’t doing it every second of every game, as Shaqtin’ made it seem, and b) Shaq was rubbing his nose in it every week.

When McGee had a good game in 2013 while with the Nuggets and was invited on “Inside” afterward, he told Shaq to his face that he didn’t watch what he called “Shaqtin’ a Coon.” O’Neal’s and McGee’s mothers actually had to step in and squash the beef between their sons.

And there was so much beef over the years. Chuck vs. Durant. Shaq versus Chuck. Shaq versus Kenny. Chuck versus Draymond Green. Shaq versus Shannon Sharpe. Shaq and Chuck versus Kendrick Perkins. Chuck, infamously, versus the women of San Antonio. A postgame skirmish between the Clippers and Rockets, with Houston players supposedly trying to break into the Clippers’ locker room, became part of “Inside” lore when reporter Ros Gold Onwude noted a “police presence” outside the Rockets’ team bus, and Shaq and Chuck eviscerated the softness of whoever thought cops were needed to settle things that the players should have handled themselves.

But it was because everyone watching had seen Barkley’s struggles with weight over the years that his digs at the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson hit so hard. It was because Barkley was fearless with his words (critics might say careless) that he could so effectively lampoon the account of actor Jussie Smollett that he’d been mugged late at night in Chicago by two men, one of whom allegedly yelled racial slurs at Smollett. And it was because “Inside” was so well-respected by so many that it’s “Gone Fishin’” segments, sending every team off into the summer after it was eliminated in the playoffs, were so eagerly anticipated.

Yet, on a dime, “Inside” could, and did, get serious.

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In the midst of COVID-19 in 2020, the crew assembled remotely after George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis. “This plague of racism, which comes at the same time as the pandemic, demands our attention,” Ernie said.

They talked about Jan. 6. They used the start of their pregame show before Game 4 of the Western Conference final in 2022 to discuss the mass shooting earlier that day in Uvalde, Texas, that resulted in the death of 19 children and two teachers. When players in the Orlando bubble refused to play scheduled playoff games in 2020 to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and to protest police violence around the country, Kenny followed suit, walking off the set in solidarity with the players. Ernie talked openly in 2006 about his cancer diagnosis; his partners spoke in his absence, eloquently and emotionally, after Ernie’s son, Michael, died at 33, in 2021.

And they were there for Shaq after Kobe died. They understood. We understood. Shaq and Kobe had mad beef when they were together with the Lakers. But you can fight your brother, call him all kinds of names, in the moment. He’s still your brother. He’s still family.

None of this felt forced. No one brought scorching hot takes to these topics. They talked through things, as friends do with one another at hard moments. They stumbled over their words. They talked over one another. Often, they disagreed. Unique among such shows, the “Inside” crew had the cachet to pivot from the ridiculous to the solemn, and back, in a matter of minutes. All due respect, but you didn’t see that — or, at least, you didn’t remember seeing that — on the Sunday NFL shows, or the Saturday college football shows.

“Inside the NBA” always stood on its own. Just as multiple generations have grown up watching The Simpsons,” the “Today Show” or “Sesame Street,” “Inside” has just been so indefatigably there for so long, and has so rarely failed to entertain or at least make you react, that it’s hard to imagine turning on a television going forward without being able to see what the fellas are up to this week.

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(Photo illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photo: Issac Baldizon / NBAE Getty Images)

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MLB front offices under the most pressure — and the least — this trade deadline

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MLB front offices under the most pressure — and the least — this trade deadline

Major-league front offices have completed the amateur draft and All-Star week and now can turn their full attention to the July 30 trade deadline.

Contending teams are trying to find ways to improve their rosters for the pennant race and the postseason through trades with “sellers” as well as other contenders. They’re also trying to add organizational depth to protect against unexpected injuries the rest of the way, knowing they can no longer make August waiver trades.

The phone calls, texts and even occasional emails are in full swing between front offices despite a difficult trade marketplace due to the cloudy, crowded playoff picture; exiting the All-Star break, only six teams — the White Sox, Marlins, Rockies, A’s, Angels and Blue Jays — sit more than 7 1/2 games out in the wild-card standings.

Life as a general manager at the trade deadline is a hectic, intense time, and every front office — regardless of market, track record or place in the standings — is under the microscope to some degree. But certain front offices, from clear sellers to aggressive buyers, face more pressure to deliver difference-making deals.

Here are the front offices and executives that are under the most pressure to make significant moves this trade season, as well as the teams that by contrast I believe don’t face as much pressure to swing deals.

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Six front offices under the most pressure


Chris Getz has been in the GM chair for less than a year but this trade deadline could define his tenure. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

1. White Sox, GM Chris Getz

The White Sox are set up to be the headliners of this year’s trade deadline. They are 27-71 and a whopping 32 1/2 games out of first in the AL Central. Getz has told the other GMs that there are no untouchables on his major-league roster; he is open to trading anyone if it expedites their rebuild, and that includes ace Garrett Crochet, mid-rotation starter Erick Fedde and Gold Glove center fielder Luis Robert Jr. Now, the White Sox don’t have to trade any of them, but if they do, the returns in those trades will significantly shape the legacy of Getz and perhaps even eventually determine the longevity of his tenure in this role.

2. Blue Jays, president Mark Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins

In my opinion, the Blue Jays need to extend the contracts of both first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and shortstop Bo Bichette between now and July 30, and if they can’t sign them to long-term deals, they should trade both and do a complete rebuild. I understand the Jays instead could trade one or both of them in the offseason or at next year’s trade deadline, but their trade value will never be higher than it is now as an acquiring team would get them for two pennant races, not one. (Both players will be eligible for free agency after next season.) Some will argue that Bichette’s down year would hurt his trade value too much, but according to several major-league executives, teams would value him the same as they always have despite his subpar season. And the interest would be there: For example, the Dodgers would move Mookie Betts to second base, once healthy, if they traded for Bichette; the Yankees would play him at third base if they pulled off a deal with their division rivals.

But even if the Blue Jays stick to their stance from June of not trading either superstar at the deadline, at a minimum they need to be shopping them. They are in last place, eight games under .500 (44-52) and have a weak farm system, so they need to make trades to improve their short- and long-term future. If the Blue Jays could make two blockbuster trades and land five to 10 solid prospects in return by dealing both, then it might make some sense. But if they maintain the position that Guerrero and Bichette won’t be dealt, then their focus at the deadline will be on trying to trade some of their top starting pitchers, including Chris Bassitt, Yusei Kikuchi and maybe even Kevin Gausman. The Blue Jays must make trades to get better and younger and they must improve their prospect cabinet at the same time.

3. Mariners, president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, GM Justin Hollander

The Mariners have arguably the best starting rotation, one through five, in the American League, which gives them a legitimate shot to run the table in the playoffs if they can win the AL West or secure a wild-card spot. However, the big question is whether this team can score enough runs to not only make the postseason, but also compete with the offensive juggernauts — such as the Orioles, Yankees, Guardians and Astros — in the potential AL playoff field if they get there. Executives around the league still can’t understand why the Mariners let Teoscar Hernández sign with the Dodgers last offseason, and it must have been hard for them to watch him win the Home Run Derby this week. (Hernández, who did not receive a $20.325 million qualifying offer from Seattle after last season, signed a one-year, $23.5 million contract with Los Angeles.) The front office’s job at this trade deadline is to add offense, and whether that’s Luis Robert Jr. from the White Sox or Jazz Chisholm Jr. from the Marlins or hitters such as the A’s Brent Rooker or the Nationals’ Lane Thomas, Seattle is under serious pressure to add bats.

4. Yankees, GM Brian Cashman 

The Yankees front office and Cashman will make this list every year because that’s the deal when you run this storied franchise in New York City, where the fan base always views it as World Series or bust. The Yankees need a starting pitcher, and whether it’s an ace such as Garrett Crochet or a mid-rotation starter like Chris Bassitt (who has a limited no-trade clause), the need is real. They also should improve their offense at second, third or the DH spot, and they have a deep enough farm system to fill both needs (a starter and an offensive upgrade). What will Cashman do? The Yankees’ longtime GM has had some trade deadlines where he’s made big moves and others where he’s largely stood pat, and this year could go either way.

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5. Dodgers, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman 

The Dodgers have had more injuries to starting pitchers than any team in MLB, with Tyler Glasnow, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Emmet Sheehan all on the injured list. Glasnow should be back soon but Yamamoto can’t return until Aug. 16 at the earliest; they are the two most important starters the Dodgers need to be healthy. The Dodgers don’t know how effective Buehler and Kershaw will be when they are activated, and Gonsolin, May and Sheehan are out for the season. With all that uncertainty, the Dodgers have to make a move for a starting pitcher and they match up well with teams like the White Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers and Angels, all of whom could be trading starters. They have been searching for another outfield bat as well. In the offseason they committed more than $1 billion for two players, Shohei Ohtani and Yamamoto. When you invest that type of money, you can’t stop there in this scenario, when the goal is to win the World Series. The Dodgers must trade some top prospects to improve their pitching staff for both the regular season and postseason.

6. Marlins, president of baseball operations Peter Bendix

The Marlins will be selling at the deadline and they’ve made it clear to the industry that they are going to trade infielder/outfielder Jazz Chisholm Jr., closer Tanner Scott and first baseman Josh Bell. Chisholm probably won’t get traded to the Yankees or Phillies because many evaluators question how he would perform in those markets and fit in their clubhouses. Instead, most execs think he’ll end up being moved to the Pirates, Mariners or Giants. The Marlins have another good trade chip in Scott, one of the best-available closers, and teams like the Orioles, Astros, Rangers and Dodgers would love to land the All-Star lefty. Bendix, who was hired away from the Rays last offseason, is on the clock and under huge pressure to get strong returns, especially in the trades of Chisholm and Scott.

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Five front offices under the least pressure


Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld will look to make the right additions to a strong roster with an eye toward October. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

1. Phillies, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, GM Sam Fuld 

The Phillies have the best team based on win-loss record (62-34), scout evaluations and many of the game’s key metrics. That doesn’t mean they don’t have needs, especially in the outfield, where they could use a long-term solution for center field and a right-handed platoon outfielder for left field. A trade for the White Sox’s Luis Robert Jr., or the Diamondbacks’ Jake McCarthy, or maybe even the Marlins’ Jazz Chisholm (if the Phillies front office thinks the fit with their clubhouse would work) could make sense if they address center field. For left field, they can upgrade their right-handed-hitting options to pair with Brandon Marsh, and the trade candidates include Lane Thomas of the Nationals, Tommy Pham of the White Sox and maybe Mark Canha of the Tigers, among others. As one of the favorites to win the World Series, there’s always pressure to pull the right levers at the trade deadline. But this team is pretty strong as is.

2. Orioles, GM Mike Elias

The Orioles sit atop the AL East and are in for a great race with the Yankees and Red Sox for the division title. They arguably have the best team in the division but also are not strong enough, at present, to put away either New York or Boston. They could use another starting pitcher, having lost Kyle Bradish, John Means and Tyler Wells to season-ending injuries, and more bullpen depth. But no one has a better or deeper farm system than the Orioles, which puts them in a strong position to address both areas. At the same time, they don’t want to trade any of their top five prospects, and who can blame them when they didn’t have to do so when they acquired ace Corbin Burnes from the Brewers earlier this year.

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The Orioles would love to add another ace such as the Tigers’ Tarik Skubal or the White Sox’s Garrett Crochet, and they are one of the few teams with the farm system and major-league roster to acquire one of them without giving up their top two or top three prospects. If they can’t land either of them, they could pursue one of the Blue Jays’ starters like Yusei Kikuchi, or the Angels’ Tyler Anderson, or the Rockies’ Cal Quantrill or Austin Gomber. Bottom line: Given their trade assets compared to other teams, the Orioles will be able to add pitching at the deadline, so there’s relatively little pressure on Elias and the front office.

3. Padres, president of baseball operations A.J. Preller 

Preller and the Padres have already made two big deals — they just did them earlier in the season. They acquired ace Dylan Cease from the White Sox just before Opening Day and then traded for one of the best hitters in the sport, Luis Arraez, in a May deal with the Marlins. Preller may not have the open checkbook he enjoyed under the previous owner, the late Peter Seidler, but he does have the backing to trade the prospects it would take to make a difference-making trade. The Padres could go big at this deadline — Preller could still make a splash and pull off a trade with the White Sox for Garrett Crochet — or they could just tweak the bench and bullpen. Either way, he faces much less pressure to make a major move after already acquiring Cease and Arraez.

4. Guardians, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, GM Mike Chernoff

The Guardians are a legitimate World Series threat and they begin the second half with the best record in the American League (58-37). They have the best bullpen in the league, led by Emmanuel Clase, the league’s best closer; the best hitter for average in baseball, Steven Kwan; two of the best middle-of-the-lineup bats in José Ramírez, who’s also the best third baseman in baseball, and first baseman Josh Naylor, who’s having a career year; not to mention first-time All-Star David Fry, who’s played six positions and reached base at a .388 clip. The Guardians’ biggest area of need is a starting pitcher, and they’ll try to acquire one even if they have to trade from their strength in the bullpen or their middle-infield depth in the farm system. They probably aren’t going to be in play for Garrett Crochet or Tarik Skubal, but they do match up well with the Blue Jays for one of their starters based on the strong relationship they have with Toronto’s front office. The Guardians also could be in play for the Nationals’ Trevor Williams (currently on the injured list), the Rockies’ Cal Quantrill (a former Guardian), the White Sox’s Erick Fedde, the Angels’ Tyler Anderson or the Tigers’ Jack Flaherty. But at the end of the day, I don’t think they’re under much pressure.

5. Braves, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos

Despite losing Spencer Strider and Ronald Acuña Jr. to season-ending injuries, the Braves sit atop the NL wild-card standings and entered Friday with nearly a 94 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Chris Sale is having a Cy Young Award-caliber season and Reynaldo López has surpassed all expectations en route to an All-Star nod, which have helped the Braves deal with the loss of Strider. They have the NL’s fourth-best record even though several of their stars, such as Matt Olsen, Austin Riley and Michael Harris II, underperformed in the first half of the season. The Braves need to add another outfielder or two and perhaps another veteran starter for the back of their rotation, but there really isn’t much pressure on the front office to address either area. The industry does not expect a big move from them, and it will be relatively easy for Anthopoulos to deal with those two minor needs. Remember, three years ago, he traded for four outfielders at the deadline after the Braves lost Acuña to an ACL surgery, and they went on to win the World Series.

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(Top image: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Ross Atkins: Cole Burston / Getty Images; Dave Dombrowski: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images) 

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The Open Championship psychology: How to thrive at one of golf's toughest tests

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The Open Championship psychology: How to thrive at one of golf's toughest tests

The gusts are practically blowing you over. Your socks are getting soggy. A treacherous pot bunker lingers in the corner of your eye. These are the physical sensations of the Open Championship, but the real challenge of this major test is psychological.

This week at Royal Troon, you’ll hear the broadcast analysts talk about the best links players as the ones who stay patient. They take their medicine. They grind it out. But beyond the cliches, what do the mental hurdles of an Open actually entail? What are the specific goals and necessities that allow one to prevail during a championship like this one at Royal Troon?

Acceptance

At the Open, players face a mental examination that doesn’t just require plotting around well-protected greens and fairways. Much of this test is simply out of the player’s control. You cannot control the wind and the rain. Nor the tee time draw: Only Mother Nature knows if you’ll play in a light breeze or just short of a hurricane. Discovering what lie you end up with in the sand is a relentless shock to the system.

Dr. Morris Pickens, a veteran PGA Tour sports psychologist, said accepting unfavorable outcomes is a learned skill specific to the Open. It all stems from knowing how to evaluate shots.

Pickens defines four categories for how to “label” a golf shot, and he maps it out in a four-quadrant graph, with two axes: “execution” and “result.” The four sections of the chart are as follows: good execution-good result, good execution-bad result, bad execution-good result, and bad execution-bad result.

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Pickens, who coached Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink to Open Championship victories and currently works with Keegan Bradley and recent PGA Tour winner Davis Thompson, asserts that in this tournament, you have to both anticipate, accept and appropriately react to the “good-bads” — in other words, a well-executed shot that didn’t turn out how you desired.

“In the Open, you’re going to get a lot of ‘good-bads,’ especially when you turn back into the wind,” Pickens says. “Maybe you played well on the front, maybe it’s been pretty easy and you’re 4-under. But you’re still going to hit some good shots that get bad results. And if you’re not careful, you’re going to lose your mind. Instead of shooting 1-over coming in, you’re going to shoot 4-over.”

At The Open, Pickens advises his players to control their emotions using this visual evaluation. The uncontrollable nature of the tournament conditions means that you’re going to get some “good-bad” outcomes, but you’re also going to get some “bad-goods” — in other words, lucky breaks. You have to appreciate and anticipate both, truly embracing the peaks and valleys of links golf, to keep your mental game in check.

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“You hope to grind out a decent score,” said Jon Rahm, who posted a 2-over 73 on Thursday.

Commitment

When dealing with factors out of one’s control, the best practice is to be ultra-specific with your pre-shot vision. Pickens describes commitment as “knowing where you want to hit the ball,” but many players mistake commitment for confidence or comfort. And that conflation can be a dangerous path.

“Confident means, ‘I know where this ball is going to end up.’ But you can’t know that. There are imperfections on the green. There are wind gusts,” Pickens says. “You don’t have to feel ease over the ball to hit great golf shots. You don’t have to feel comfortable, emotionally. There’s not one player, if they’re honest, who feels comfortable over the 18th tee shot at Augusta or at TPC Sawgrass. Those are physically demanding shots. I talk my players away from that — it’s not the goal. The goal is to be committed, and to trust your routine.”

Seeking confidence and comfort over the ball will only lead to disappointment and unrealistic expectations, and at the Open Championship, that can cause a quick downward spiral.

Commitment means utilizing the information at your disposal, devising a plan, and sticking to it. Crosswinds — which many players have described as one of Royal Troon’s most devilish challenges — make that practice particularly difficult. During links golf, the known variables can change in an instant, but it is the player’s job to know when to adjust. There’s a difference between feeling physically uncomfortable before a swing — because of improper aim, swirling winds, etc. — and feeling mental discomfort. Pickens advises his players not to ask questions while walking up to the ball, whether they’re asking themselves or their caddie. The self-talk has to be determined before the execution: Whatever happens in the lead-up to the shot is the only thing a player truly has control over at the Open. You can’t risk derailing it.

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Scottie Scheffler and other top contenders in the Open Championship will have to handle tough lies. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Resilience

You’re going to get kicked in the teeth at the Open. Whether it’s a funky bounce or a sudden gust at the worst time possible, there are going to be moments that force you to pick yourself up off the ground. But not every player has it in them. Acceptance, moving on from a wayward shot or a big number, is one thing. Finding the will to bounce back from the blips is another. It’s difficult to do — especially multiple times throughout a round.

“At some point, people lose their resilience,” Pickens says. “Then they start short-changing the process. They don’t pick good targets, they slap the ball around. They do that because they know they’re not going to be disappointed — because they didn’t put that much into it. It’s a way to protect your ego.”

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Open champions don’t let that happen. They pick themselves back up. Over, and over and over again.

“Resilience is saying no, I’m willing to put myself out there again to be disappointed again,” Pickens says. “A resilient player thinks to themselves, I’m not going to slap it around and let that habit start. Even if I miss the cut by five shots, I’m going to play this out.”

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A score will determine this Open. Some sort of concoction of birdies, pars and bogeys or worse. A three-putt. A hole-out. A 350-yard drive. But the eventual winner and his competitors will know that this championship is conquered first and foremost between the ears. The Open Championship is a mind game.

(Top photo of Rory McIlroy: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

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