Barkley is now big fan of Mavericks and their star after years of bashing

May 8 2011 - 2:53am

Personally, I'm getting uncomfortable with TNT studio analyst Charles Barkley's crush on Dirk Nowitzki and all things Mavericks. It just doesn't seem natural. What next? Fox News endorsing President Obama for a second term? Pigs flying?

For years, we could rely on Barkley to treat Nowitzki as his personal pinata. Barkley was skewering Dirk and the Mavericks long before their laydown against the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals. It made Barkley fun to watch.

Barkley made an American idol out of San Antonio Spurs forward Bruce Bowen for his physical work against Nowitzki, whom Barkley claimed was nothing but a Mr. Softy.

(Personal aside: I tried to get in touch with Bowen, now in the employ of ESPN, on Friday but was told he is feeling under the weather. I'm guessing that comes from watching the Lakers try to defend Nowitzki).

More recently, Barkley cackled as Nowitzki and the Mavericks were being eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets and Spurs. Barkley placed the blame for Mavericks playoff ineptitude squarely on what he saw as Dirk's weak shoulders.

Right or wrong, Barkley shaped the Mavericks' national image. Let's face it: His is the only NBA voice that resonates beyond the studio.

This time around, however, Barkley sounds as if he is auditioning for the role of Mavericks press secretary. What fun is that to tune into? He's turned the TNT studio into the Atlanta version of Fox Sports Southwest.

It began during the regular season when he proclaimed the Mavericks the best team in Texas, which translated into being better than the San Antonio Spurs, who were on their way to posting the Western Conference's best record. He claims he sees a new and improved Nowitzki, complemented by Tyson Chandler. He has proclaimed Dirk unstoppable. He has declared the Lakers a mere speed bump in the Mavericks' postseason.

He proclaimed the series over even before Friday night's game in the friendly confines of American Airlines Center. He didn't care if he woke up Saturday morning with the series 3-0 or 2-1.

A postgame sampling after the Mavericks had their way with the Lakers to go up, 2-0, in their Western Conference semifinal:

"When you're guarding Dirk Nowitzki, all you need is a cigarette and a blindfold."

"The Lakers are done. The Mavericks are a better team. They have no chance of guarding Dirk Nowitzki. The additions of Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler this year make them a lot more physical."

Maybe Barkley's is a true-blue conversion. Or maybe, he's just building the Mavericks up so he can tear them down with renewed fury if they allow the Lakers to come back or they stumble in the Western Conference final against up-and-coming Oklahoma City or Memphis.

Yes, that has to be it. He's setting the Mavericks up. Don't forget, he's pure shtick. A 180-degree reversal is only a Mavericks flop away.

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Ratings boost

Monday's Mavericks-Lakers series opener rated an 11.1 (288,000 homes) locally for TNT. Game 2 ballooned to a 15.0 (389,190 homes). The bandwagon is gaining momentum. There hasn't been as much interest in the Mavericks since the humiliating 2007 first-round playoff series loss to the Golden State Warriors. Losing that series which averaged a 17.4 rating, started a steady slide not yet overcome. ... After getting the ABC/ESPN first team -- Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson -- on Friday night, Mavericks-Lakers get Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. CDT on ABC. ... If you're looking ahead, ESPN has the Western Conference final, TNT the Eastern Conference.

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McHale on Nowitzki

Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin McHale sat courtside for TNT during the Mavericks-Portland series. The former Celtics forward, who is 6-10, gives Tyson Chandler a large dose of credit for 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki's improved defensive presence. But credit for his more forceful offensive presence, McHale said, goes to Nowitzki alone.

"Now he takes the shots he wants to take 95 percent of the time," McHale, who doubles as a TNT and NBA TV analyst, said via phone Friday. "Prior, the opposing defense won that battle more often."

McHale said Nowitzki altered his shot selection against Portland depending on who was guarding him and has done the same against the Lakers' Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest.

"Dirk always had the ability to make shots," McHale said. "Now he takes shots. There is a difference."

As for the tired Nowitzki comparisons to his former Celtics teammate Larry Bird, McHale was diplomatic.

"Larry was a Top 5, Top 10 player in NBA history," he said. "The good news about Dirk is that someday they will compare others to him."

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NFL business as usual

Network shuffling of bodies in preparation for a 2011 NFL season that might or might not open as scheduled on Sept. 8 has begun.

NFL Network is moving ESPN college football play-by-play voice Brad Nessler into its Thursday night booth, where he will be paired with Mike Mayock, fast becoming the signature face of NFLN. Nessler will keep his college gig at ESPN while Mayock spends his Saturdays working Notre Dame football for NBC.

Nessler-Mayock, who will work Cowboys-Tampa Bay Bucs in December, replaces the short-lived, ill-conceived Bob Papa-Joe Theismann-Matt Millen booth that lasted one season. It just didn't make sense to have Millen, coming off a disastrous running of the Detroit Lions, as an authoritative voice. Theismann, who likes to yak, would be more at home in a one-man booth. Nessler-Mayock is the fifth broadcast crew in six years, which is not the way to build a brand.

Meanwhile, Andrea Kremer is out as NBC Sunday Night Football's sideline reporter, replaced by Michele Tafoya, who walked the sidelines for ESPN Monday Night Football before ESPN did away with the concept.

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And the winners were

They handed out the 2010 Sports Emmys in New York this week, and the biggest surprise had to be Mike Emrick taking the play-by-play award for his NHL work at NBC and Versus. Not that Emrick doesn't deserve the award. He may be the best in the play-by-play business. But he had to beat out a murderers' row of Al Michaels, Bob Costas, Jim Nantz, Joe Buck and Verne Lundquist, who work more high-profile sports.

Other winners included NBC's Cris Collinsworth (game analyst), NBC's Costas (studio host) and ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit (studio analyst). NBC Sunday Night Football won for live series, ESPN's World Cup final won for live special.

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Around the Horn

The latest juicy TV rights fee deal comes courtesy of the ESPN, Fox Sports and the Pac-10, which soon will be christened the Pac-12. It's $3 billion for 12 years of over-the-air and cable. That breaks down to $250 million a year, or almost $21 million per school every year. The Pac-12 can thank NBC/Comcast, which lost out in the bidding, for pushing up its take. The Big 12's recent cable deal pays each school about $9 million a year, but still to come is news of a conference deal for over-the-air rights. ... When ESPN and the University of Texas announced the birth of the Longhorn Network, both sides agreed that the school would have final say over content and personnel. So why the hubbub this week over the release of a licensing agreement that says the same thing? ... Kentucky Derby viewership is way up the last 10 years. The race had 9 million viewers in 2000, the last Derby on ABC. Last year, 16.5 million watched on NBC.

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