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Dynamic Duo

Former NBA player Kenny Smith, analyst for TBS and TNT's Inside
the NBA studio show, is in a control room watching Game 4 of the
Bucks-Pacers Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. "I don't
question a player's heart, his effort or his character," says
Smith, as he watches Indiana's Dale Davis brick a foul shot, "but
Dale Davis can't shoot free throws! That's a fact."

Smith and studio host Ernie (EJ) Johnson, much like the Jazz's
Karl Malone and John Stockton, have become stalwart postseason
perennials. Now in his 10th season of hosting TBS's and TNT's NBA
broadcasts, Johnson is the ideal studio assist man, seamless and
steady, never grating. Smith, a former point guard, has evolved
into the primary shooter on Inside the NBA's spacious Starship
Enterprise-like set, which was unveiled at the start of the
playoffs. Like Stockton and Malone, Johnson and Smith are much
admired and yet a tad despised. Sometimes, you see, Inside the
NBA is too inside the NBA for some players' tastes.

"We gotta win tonight," Kevin Garnett told his fellow
Timberwolves before Game 4 of Minnesota's opening-round series
with Portland. "We don't want to be home watching EJ and Kenny
cracking jokes on us."

Inside the NBA may be the Tim Hardaway of studio shows: taking
dead aim at its target, talking a little smack and yet never
taking itself too seriously. When Garnett's comment aired within
minutes of his uttering it, for example, producer Tim Kiely,
eager to have Garnett appear as a studio guest, said, "Minnesota
can't lose fast enough for us." The Timberwolves, who trailed in
the series two games to one, obliged Kiely that night by ending
their stay in the playoffs.

In terms of postseason TV coverage, the NBA's is similar to a
parental custody agreement. NBC, with more financial wherewithal
but less available time, gets the kids on weekends. Turner
Sports, which can offer the children more quality time, has them
during the week. Consequently, Inside the NBA is less likely to
spare the rod. Fans--and players too, much as they hate to admit
it--tune in for the candor.

"The toughest part of doing this show every night is being away
from my own kids," says Johnson, a father of four who almost
never arrives home before 2 a.m. during the six-week playoff
stretch. In fact, stealing a page from Utah guard Jeff Hornacek's
playbook, Johnson signals Hello to his brood each night by
pulling on the left cuff of his blazer at the beginning of the
broadcast. "They say, 'O.K., Dad got to work safely, now can we
watch Fresh Prince?'"

--John Walters

COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Johnson (far left) and Smith are postseason perennials, much admired and yet a tad despised

PUNCH BACK
Tired of absurd rankings by boxing's dubious governing bodies?
Click on these unbiased ratings

Last week in New York City, Lennox Lewis lost his WBA heavyweight
title belt even while knocking out Michael Grant. Lewis was
stripped of the title for failing to first fight the WBA's
leading challenger, John Ruiz, whom most experts agree shouldn't
rank among the top five heavyweights. Meanwhile, across the
Hudson, IBF president Bob Lee and three colleagues were standing
trial in U.S. district court on racketeering charges for
allegedly accepting $338,000 to rig their sanctioning body's
rankings.

If you have soured on the sweet science and its depraved rankings
systems, you may want to visit www.Boxingranks.com. Last week the
site unveiled what it says will be a monthly boxing writers'
poll, ranking the top 10 fighters in all 17 pro weight classes.
"We hope to establish the boxing rankings like the college
football rankings," says the site's founder, Howie Sirota, a Wall
Street lawyer and a boxing fan, "and Don King can't buy the
writers, certainly not as easily as he can the alphabet-soup
governing bodies."

Thus far the site's Boxing Writers' Rankings Poll has 25 members,
including such venerable ringside pundits as Bill Gallo of the
New York Daily News, author Pete Hamill, George Kimball of the
Boston Herald, HBO commentators Larry Merchant and Jack Newfield,
and Wallace Matthews of the New York Post, none of whom are
compensated for voting. Old habits die hard, though. At a press
conference last week Matthews remarked, "O.K., I'm voting. Send
the graft." --J.W.

Upcoming
The launch of "Mom's Guide to Sports" on MOMSGUIDE.COM

On Mother's Day (when else?), this Web portal will introduce a
channel explaining team sports to the uninitiated soccer, Little
League and youth-league-basketball mom. Sections will include
"Know the Basics," "Who Plays Where?" and "Learn the Lingo."