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Shaq signs on to join TNT’s studio crew

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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Shaquille O’Neal was last seen begging for a job at his backyard retirement bash last month.

“TNT, ESPN, CNN,’’ he said. “Whoever wants to hire me, give me a call.’’

Soon enough, the phone rang.

Not long after he announced he was done playing basketball after 19 years, 28,596 points, and four championships, ABC/ESPN called. They had exclusive rights to the NBA Finals and Stuart Scott’s “boo-yah’’ in their corner if O’Neal was interested.

But when Turner Sports contacted him, O’Neal didn’t think twice about joining Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley, the reigning king of off-the-cuff basketball commentary, for some late-night hijinks. O’Neal signed a multiyear deal to join TNT’s “Inside the NBA,’’ adding one of basketball’s biggest personalities to its award-winning studio show.

“It was very tempting,’’ said O’Neal, who finished his career this past season with the Celtics. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for ABC and ESPN, but I felt that Turner and TNT was the place for me. It’s always been my favorite show. I’d love to be up there hanging with Charles and Ernie and Kenny. I thought that was the best pick for me. It was a deal that I couldn’t resist.’’

Johnson, Smith, and Barkley’s alchemy of brutal honesty and lighthearted humor has made them one of the most popular basketball broadcast teams. O’Neal said he watched TNT’s team after every game.

“They like to, as we say in the sports world, ‘Keep it real,’ ’’ O’Neal said. “And I thought it was the best fit for me. The good thing about this show is everybody has their own opinion.’’

When he was approached by executives about the possibility of O’Neal joining the show, Barkley was immediately on board, said David Levy, TBS’s president of sales, distribution, and sports.

“Charles is a funny guy, he’s a guy that says what’s on his mind,’’ O’Neal said. “We’re going to make it very fun. We’re going to make it very exciting for the fans to watch.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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