By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
The Associated Press
Sitting on a mahogany throne, wearing a casual red sweater, tight grey jeans and sneakers, Kevin Garnett turned to the rapper and actor Ludacris in a lounge chair beside him and asked the obvious question.
“Let’s say you can dunk and you had all these league skills, how would you use the afro on offense and defense to your advantage?” Garnett said.
“Man, I would pass it with the fro, block shots with the fro,” Luda said.
It’s the kind of irreverent, off-the-wall conversation that happens across the country when buddies get together to watch sports, razz each other and have a good time. But this one was taking place on national television.
For years, TNT’s NBA coverage has been known for “Inside the NBA,” a studio show featuring Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal. All four crack jokes and break down the highlights while wearing suits and sitting behind a desk. In his first year of retirement, Garnett has infiltrated the television world with “Area 21,” a wholly unique take on the athlete-turned-analyst that now appears every Monday night during the playoffs.
“A lot of times I’m with friends when I’m watching sports and it turns into like a barbershop atmosphere and there’s a lot of opinions,” Garnett said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s intense. If you throw in some salsa dip and some chips along with some cigars, it gets really intense.
“Obviously, we don’t have the cigars and the salsa and the guac [in the studio], but there’s the same kind of energy in the sense of watching multiple monitors and multiple games and being passionate about an opinion, about what you’re looking at.”
Turner built Garnett his own studio in Atlanta, separate from where Kenny, Charles, Ernie and Shaq go over the night’s games in a more traditional, albeit standard-setting, show. His segments appear sporadically throughout the night’s coverage, with Garnett inviting a guest or two into Area 21 to put their own spin on the production.
“Not only do we want to straddle the line between pop culture and sports, and he’s a great evangelist for both of those mediums, but we like to create access,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports. “Access can come in all forms. The most direct description is how to get the fan as close to the player as possible.”
And it’s not always laughing and joking around. Just last week, Garnett led a riveting discussion with Isiah Thomas and Tayshaun Prince on the modern athlete’s responsibility to speak out on social justice issues. He also got the mercurial Randy Moss to open up about things he wished he would have done differently early in his career, talked with Candace Parker about the criticism she received when she announced she was pregnant and spoke bluntly about Rajon Rondo’s problems with teammates in Chicago.
“You can get on there and relax,” said Gary Payton, who has appeared on the show. “A lot of people like to see things like that because they’re on their couch and they’re kicking it with their homeboys and they’re talking smack back and forth. That’s what they want to see on TV. That’s what he’s doing. That’s why they like it.”
One of the featured elements of the show is a cuss button that sits on a table right next to his throne, something the famously foul-mouthed player can press any time he needs get a few four-letter words off of his chest. Occasionally, he forgets to hit it.
“Shooters shoot the ball,” Garnett deadpanned. “Sometimes when you miss it, it’s to prove a point or send a message. Sending a message is only going to happen once or twice.”
Among the guests to appear in Area 21 are Rasheed Wallace, Latrell Sprewell, Jason Williams and Spencer Haywood, former players who never were media darlings during their playing days. As Garnett got older as a player, he withdrew from the media as well, and his show has given some a chance to show fans a side of their personalities they may not have seen before.
“I look for quality people, people with great character, people we all look up to. I look to people that’s had second skin, made mistakes, understand what life is about, able to inspire, able to talk about the shortcomings and how they made it back,” Garnett said. “Success comes in different forms. I look for inspirational people, people that have a message, out here still active.”
Beloved by teammates but known publicly for his volatile personality, Wallace has appeared with KG four times this season. The two have an easy chemistry, “like an old [expletive] married couple,” Garnett says.
“Me and Mossy, we get together, an average conversation always turns into ego and stats and, ‘Man I could’ve guarded you,’” Garnett said. “And it’s fun, so although we’re talking about sports, we’re talking about life, where we come from, family, problems, chicks, parties, greatest times, worst times. It’s real friendship. From those perspectives, the guys that I have on are people I sit back and say if I was a fly on the wall who would I love to hear the conversation?”
Turner has built the show as a social media-first vehicle, with clips posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube immediately after they air. That’s part of Barry’s vision of catering to the conversations that take place on social media surrounding sporting events.
Since Area 21 is a show-within-a-show, there are no separate ratings for the segments. But Turner said all Area 21 content published on Turner Sports’ social media accounts have generated more than 80 million impressions and nearly 10 million video views to date.
“I feel like there’s a real community building around Kevin and what he’s doing around Area 21,” Barry said. “They really appreciate his honesty and unfiltered approach. Not only does he have his own community, he’s integrated himself into the ‘Inside the NBA’ community as well.”
Garnett is already thinking about what to do in his second season. He is intrigued by the proliferation of live streaming and wants to explore it.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how I can better this,” Garnett said. “Come new seasons, come new levels and new things with it. I intend to adapt to all those things and make a better show.”