'Area 21' authentically embraces women athletes

Elena Delle Donne is just one of many WNBA stars to appear on "Area 21." Turner Sports

It's late April in Atlanta and a heated debate breaks out on the set of TNT's "Area 21." The show's host, former Timberwolves and Celtics legend Kevin Garnett, is halfway out of his chair with excitement, while former Sonics great Gary Payton is cackling away on a nearby couch. Both men are focused on Candace Parker, who's going off, analyzing the moves of Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"Antetokounmpo crip walks down the court! He be doing this," the Los Angeles Sparks superstar and two-time WNBA MVP exclaims while pantomiming the dance's footwork from her leather armchair, "and then dunks! He euros eight times! ... I don't understand how you stop him when he can travel!"

Garnett has been waiting for this opportunity to unearth an old debate.

"Right after she gets done, ask the question!" he interrupts, yelling over to Larry Lacksen, a.k.a. Wonder Boy, who's seated at a giant wooden desk underneath an illuminated "Area 21" sign.

"This is a relevant question here from Derek," says Wonder Boy, reading a viewer question from a laptop. "Gary Payton, is Candace Parker's post move a travel?'

"Oh, we're going to the court!" Parker yells. "Oh, we're going!"

The three jump up and head to a gray, industrial-looking basketball court on set behind them. Parker, in ripped jeans, sneakers and a white T-shirt that reads "FEMALE ATHLETE" with the word female crossed out, proceeds to post up Garnett, slowly walking him through the motions while defending her signature up-and-under move. Her efforts are for naught, as both men agree it's a walk. (Author's note: It's not.)

The segment ends with Garnett talking straight to the camera, earnestly telling players at home that they need to add a dribble to that move to avoid a travel call, while Parker steals back the basketball and continues to plead her case. They've been debating this particular point since Parker first guested on "Area 21" back in 2016, and on this night, they'll continue jawing back and forth down the hallway as they leave the studio.

"I find whenever she is around I'm always learning something," Garnett says of Parker, one of the show's recurring guests. "I always figure steel sharpens steel, so I like to have people who are able to bring something to teach me."

Since the show's launch in late 2016, the steady stream of guests welcomed into Garnett's "Area 21" basketball lair has included NBA stars of past and present, big-name athletes from other sports, rappers and hip-hop artists, sports media members and, notably, some of the world's best women basketball players.

You might turn on the show and catch four-time WNBA champion and nine-time All-Star Tina Thompson telling Garnett and Vernon Maxwell about the toughest player she ever had to guard. A few episodes later you'll see four-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Teresa Weatherspoon telling a panel of Garnett, Payton, Theo Ratliff and Ben Wallace that she earned her defensive tenacity growing up as the youngest of six, fighting for room at the dinner table.

On another night, three-time WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie, sitting alongside fellow Naismith Hall of Famers George Gervin, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving and Bernard King on "Legends Night," talks about her biggest basketball influences.

It's inclusion and representation at its finest, never resorting to gimmicks or pandering. Garnett is genuinely as interested in learning about the best three-point shooter in the WNBA as he is in debating the NBA's best rim protectors, which is why he's been adamant about including women on the show since the jump.

"When the WNBA season is over, the girls go ghost," Garnett says. "We never hear about them. I've got homies that have been in the WNBA for a minute ... these are still the players we love watching, these are still the girls we love rooting for, these are still the girls that got the game, so I wanted to [explore] that."

The powers that be at "Area 21," a show-within-a-show woven throughout Thursday night editions of TNT's "Inside the NBA," have been on board with Garnett's vision since the beginning.

"We were always just committed to the conversation," says Tara August, vice president of talent relations and special projects for Turner Sports and the de facto executive producer of "Area 21." "There wasn't a strategy of 'we have to bring women in,' but it also wasn't a strategy of 'it can't be women.' We just were always talking about people who [Garnett] would wanna sit and talk hoops with, and women are on that list."

"Female ballers don't get disrespected by NBA players. ... It's usually dudes that don't play basketball that disrespect the WNBA." Candace Parker

Parker isn't surprised by Garnett's interest in understanding the experiences of others. She remembers their first interaction, back when Garnett was playing with Parker's ex-husband Shelden Williams in Boston. The Celtics star noticed she was always leaving her seat during games to go nurse her young daughter.

"After one of the games he said, 'I noticed you're getting up and down, where are you going?'" says Parker. "I explained about my daughter and he was like, 'I've got a suite. Nobody's in it, it's yours. You can have it the rest of the season.'"

"That's who he is," says Parker. "To notice that? As a guy first, but then as a superstar? It's become that type of relationship for him and me. He's always been super cool, super humble, super intense but legit always rides for who he rides for. And to him it doesn't matter whether you're a female baller, a male baller. If you have skills, you're a basketball player. That's what I respect about him."

Some nights the show is made up of a hodgepodge of topics that Garnett has been thinking about that week, sometimes they revolve around the game of the night, and other shows have a theme, like the aforementioned "Legends Night" or last November's "Ladies Night," with current WNBA vets Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen, Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and former Stanford standout Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.

Whalen, a four-time WNBA champion, talked about the challenge the Warriors were facing at the start of the season, getting up for early regular-season games when you're coming off a championship year. Cooper-Dyke addressed how media and fans forgot that her Houston Comets won four straight titles from 1997 to 2000 when they congratulated the Astros on the city's first title since the 1994-95 Rockets. A question from a fan, delivered by Wonder Boy, resulted in likely the first time on mainstream TV that a panel engaged in a debate over whether the Cooper-Dyke-era Comets would beat the Whelan-era Minnesota Lynx.

To cap off the night, Sue Bird drained nine shots from the top of the key in 24 seconds to break the "Heat Check" record of seven, set by Bonzi Wells, then turned and said to Garnett with a wink, "Tell Bonzi I said 'Wassup.'"

"What I love about it is we bring in every guest without an agenda," says August. "We don't bring in women and say 'Let's make sure we talk about how hard it is to be a female athlete and a mom.' If that comes up, it comes up. Let's come in and talk basketball and if the conversation leads to being a working mother, so be it. Same with the guys. We don't bring Rasheed [Wallace] in and ask him about his personal life, unless he brings it up and goes there. Our female guests shouldn't be treated any differently."

While it's certainly still useful -- necessary, in fact -- to address issues of sexism, equal coverage and underrepresentation in women's sports head-on, there's also a need for exactly what "Area 21" does so well, which is to just put athletes -- men and women -- on an even playing field where shared wisdom and experiences see no gender.

Garnett isn't going to deliver a sermon on the tiny percentage of media coverage devoted to women's sports or implore fans to tune in to WNBA games, he's just going to put talented women front and center and let them shine.

"If [Garnett] can respect every variation and level of basketball, then why is it that some people that aren't even as great as he is don't have the same respect?" says August. "What he's said to me is, 'If you can't watch a women's game and say they are playing at the highest level, they are competitive, they are holding their own ... then you don't know basketball.'"

"You gotta work hard to get the word professional in front of your name, at anything," Garnett says. "Just think about that one."

Inspired by Garnett's respect for everybody from the Hall of Famers down the hall at "Inside the NBA" to the camera people, the vibe at "Area 21" is like a locker room minus the cliques. And while there's an actual locker room on the premises, it's "The Clubhouse" that sees most of the action before taping begins. Pre-game prep involves everything from folks wrestling to Garnett cracking jokes, Shaq doing a set on his DJ equipment or throwing grown men on one of the room's couches. Guests start to roll in and immediately get loose, feeling as much a part of the family as the staff that calls the set a second home.

"You turn to your left: Hall of Famer. Turn to your right: Hall of Famer," says Parker. "We're shooting, playing music. It's a crazy environment. It's a family atmosphere, how everybody supports one another."

It's no wonder the women on "Area 21" have no trouble settling in, talking trash and treating their roundtable chats like a Saturday night hang in Garnett's living room.

"As ballers, this is what we do 24/7," says Parker. "Sit in your theater room and watch basketball and talk s---. That's kind of what [Garnett] has brought to TV, is the real inside information about how we feel, how we prepare, the athlete's point of view. There's a court on set and you're arguing about a move, it's just 'let's go squash it right now.'"

The goal of the show is to get deep into hoops talk, so failing to include the most accomplished players in the women's game would be robbing Garnett and viewers of the opportunity to mine their experiences and well-earned insight.

"It's very similar to fighting," says Garnett. "When you have women fighters and men fighters, when you're in that world you speak the same language, you're talking technique, you get each other. Basketball is the same thing.

"I won't use any names, but I saw Candace play one-on-one with a guy and he didn't score once. It was bad. I had to respect it, It's game recognize game at the end of the day."

"There's a certain unspoken respect that's always there between basketball players, whether it's men or women," says ESPN's Jemele Hill, another "Area 21" guest. "They have a keen sense of what they have to go through as players to become the best at what they do. For the women, they have to fight a little bit harder to get the respect, the attention, all the things their male counterparts are naturally getting. I think the male players recognize that. A lot of people could take cues from them in terms of how to show and illustrate that respect."

From Bill Simmons' old Page 2 column to rants from "Bob in Philly" or "HoopsGuy11" on Twitter, the WNBA has taken shots from average Joes since its inception, while NBA pros have been busy playing pick-up with their female counterparts and sitting courtside at their games.

"Female ballers don't get disrespected by NBA players," says Parker. "They understand the time, effort and skill set to perfect the pull-up jump shot. You don't have to do a windmill [dunk] to perfect a midrange game or to shoot the three or to be able to handle. It's usually dudes that don't play basketball that disrespect the WNBA."

Parker's over trying to convince Joes her age to respect the game; she's too busy raising the next generation with the right attitude.

"We're now starting at the youth level," says Parker. "As a woman athlete I know that there's roughly the same amount of guys coming up asking for autographs on my jersey as there are girls. Times are changing. I don't think my daughter has ever heard 'You play like a girl' because that's not acceptable nowadays. We're starting with the correct generation. The generation that I believe has it wrong? Well, I don't have any words for them."

No words necessary. Just point them to Thursday nights on TNT, where one of the greatest of all time is chopping it up with WNBA players on the regular, helping them put old stereotypes to rest with every travel debate and "Heat Check" hot streak.