Bradley’s Buzz: Could TNT lose the NBA? Alas, that could happen.

"Inside the NBA" studio crew, from left, Shaquille O'Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny "The Jet" Smith and Charles Barkley. (Edward M. Pio Roda/Turner Sports/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

"Inside the NBA" studio crew, from left, Shaquille O'Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny "The Jet" Smith and Charles Barkley. (Edward M. Pio Roda/Turner Sports/TNS)

On June 7, 1984, Atlanta-based TBS announced it had bought the rights to televise 150 NBA games over two seasons. The price: $20 million.

I recall the reaction on the sixth floor at 72 Marietta Street. We AJC sports geniuses looked at one another and said, “Huh?”

In 1984, TBS sports essentially meant the Braves. Ted Turner – the “T” in TBS – owned the SuperStation, as he’d recharacterized the entity known to Atlantans as Channel 17. The early ‘80s saw the first flowering of cable, which was how Ted’s modest baseball club became America’s Team.

The 1982 Braves won their first 13 games under new manager Joe Torre. Owing to the burgeoning breadth of TBS, they became both a national story and a case study. Lesson No. 1: People like sports. Lesson No. 2: Holding the rights to a sporting event means you have something no other carrier has. Long before the internet was a thing, TBS taught us content was king.

By 1984, the NBA had found its feet after a decade of non-attention that saw rights-holder CBS air NBA finals games on tape delay. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird led the way. Twelve days after TBS’ announcement, Michael Jordan would be the third player drafted.

Still, the NBA wasn’t the colossus it would become, and its attraction to TBS was unclear. Ted also owned the Hawks, who’d occasionally pop up on the SuperStation, but few in Atlanta noticed. On Dec. 18, 1984, this AJC staffer suggested walking across the street to write something off that night’s Hawks-Lakers game. An editor said, “Why would you do that?”

(I went anyway. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hooked home the winner over Tree Rollins. Magic had a triple-double. Five Hall of Famers graced The Omni’s court. Don’t know if anybody read what I wrote, but I was glad I was there.)

TBS began carrying NBA games in autumn 1984. TBS has changed owners many times — TBS has morphed into TNT; both are part of Warner Bros. Discovery — but, 40 years later, it hasn’t let go of the NBA. That could be subject to change.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Comcast-owned NBC Universal “is prepared to pay an average of $2.5 billion” — a tad more than $20 million over two seasons, we note — for NBA rights held by TNT, which saw its “exclusive negotiating window” expire April 22. The WSJ reports Warner is making “last-ditch efforts to keep those rights.”

Yes, Ted Turner sold the Braves — and the Hawks, and CNN/TBS/TNT — long ago. Yes, CNN’s Atlanta presence is mostly a memory. Still, it’s hard to imagine TNT without the NBA, and vice versa. Those first TBS games were called by Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren, on loan from Braves duty, and Bob Neal, long a Turner fixture. Interviews were conducted by Craig Sager, garish Atlantan.

The justly famous studio show airs from a building across 10th Street from Georgia Tech. Ernie Johnson Jr. went from being WSB’s weekend sports guy to worldwide renown as the glib foil of Chuck/Kenny/Shaq. Some of my neighbors work in that building.

Forty years ago, we didn’t know how the NBA would fit into Turner’s plans. TBS took those rights and ran with them. Its care and feeding of a major sport became the blueprint for other cable entities, the worldwide-leading ESPN included. In my lifetime, over-the-air rights for NBA rights have gone from ABC to CBS to NBC and now to Disney’s ABC/ESPN. On the cable side, TBS/TNT held steady.

What would NBC Universal have that Warner Bros. Discovery doesn’t? The scramble now is to feed as many platforms as possible. Every major media company has a streaming outlet, but the WSJ reports that “NBC has discussed carrying two prime-time games a week, something Warner can’t offer because it doesn’t own a broadcast network.”

And now you’re asking: Doesn’t the NBA have a broadcast-network outlet with Disney/ABC/ESPN? Yes. Isn’t that deal expected to be renewed? Yes. So why would NBC be needed? Because bigger is better. Because, even if we’re talking billions, more trumps less.

In mega media as in ballgames, nothing’s over until it’s over. Warner could, as Ernie Johnson Sr. used to say, give us a finish, though it’s hard to root for a corporation, especially if the corporation is no longer local. And yet: TNT’s handling of the NBA became and remains a source of civic pride. As an Atlantan, I’d hate to see it leave.

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