Sports fans and viewers often believe they want tougher, more incisive questions from media during in-game or postgame interviews. Get into something deeper than “Talk about your performance” or “What was working?”
But there’s also a time and place for a challenging line of questioning, which was demonstrated by Shaquille O’Neal confronting Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell about his merits as a great player who can lead his team to an NBA championship. The exchange occurred on TNT Thursday night following the Jazz’s 129-118 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
By the way, Mitchell scored 36 points with seven rebounds and five assists in the victory. Naturally, he was the guy to talk to for a postgame interview. But O’Neal put Mitchell on the defensive by saying that he can’t lift Utah to championship contention.
“I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level,” said O’Neal. “I said it on purpose because I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?”
Mitchell had little to say in response, only replying initially with “A’ight.” Perhaps he was surprised by being asked to defend himself. Maybe he was irritated at being put into that position right after a big win and his best performance of the season.
“Shaq, I’ve been hearing that since my rookie year,” Mitchell added. “At the end of the day, I’m just gonna get better and do what I do.”
It was a tense, awkward conversation, not what we typically get after a ballgame. O’Neal may have challenged Mitchell like that if they were talking face-to-face, but he likely felt better about it doing so from the TNT studio in Atlanta where he couldn’t “read the room,” so to speak, for a postgame setting.
Donovan Mitchell on the comments from Shaq and Barklet on @NBAonTNT.
"I hate to take a win like this and make it about what they said about me. Look at how we played, look at how we guarded. I'm happy."
— Ben Anderson (@BensHoops) January 22, 2021
“I wanted you to hear it.”
As many asked immediately afterward, what exactly was O’Neal trying to accomplish with such questions? Do he and his fellow Inside the NBA analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith enjoy challenging current stars with bold takes that the players might either respond to in the media or on the court?
Any response from Mitchell to reporters or following up with another great game certainly gives the TNT crew something to talk about for their next show.
Here is the conversation O’Neal, Smith, Barkley, and Ernie Johnson had about Mitchell at halftime:
This is the sort of dialogue that makes Inside the NBA such an entertaining, informative studio show. The analysts are challenging the idea that a great scorer isn’t necessarily an impact player who should be considered among the league’s best.
It makes compelling television for O’Neal, Barkley, and Smith to dig deeper and explain why someone like Mitchell might not deserve that status yet, though the NBA would surely prefer that these guys sell the game and promote its stars.
O’Neal telling Mitchell that he and the studio crew were having that kind of discussion about him could be the equivalent of a sportswriter writing a tough piece about a player or team, then showing his or her face in the locker room the next day to answer for what they said.
From that view, O’Neal putting it out there directly is commendable. He didn’t want Mitchell to hear about it from second- and third-hand sources. Many would question doing this in a postgame setting and whether or not it makes good television. But there might not be an opportunity to have that conversation with Mitchell again.
So Shaq took his shot. And at least Mitchell engaged a bit, unlike Kevin Durant, who had nothing to say following his first game with the Brooklyn Nets after returning from an Achilles injury.
The 'Inside the NBA' guys are still laughing about the Kevin Durant interview, and particularly this exchange with Chuck. ? pic.twitter.com/gt5c81dH17
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) December 23, 2020
But are Shaq, Barkley, and Smith risking stars not wanting to talk with them in postgame interviews or refusing to respond to being challenged and having their merits questioned?
If so, Inside the NBA could become must-watch TV for basketball and sports media fans for much different reasons in broadcasts through the rest of the 2020-21 season.