It’s OK, Tampa Bay. NBA legend Charles Barkley believes in you

Charles Barkley is a hockey fan – and an even bigger Jon Cooper fan. The NBA legend voiced his support for the Tampa Bay Lightning during a Tuesday telecast.

NHL hockey has seen its best TV ratings of all-time this decade when you factor in the American markets. The game has never been as popular as it is today. And yet, among the four major North American sports, hockey still suffers from younger sibling syndrome, doesn’t it?

When Charles Barkley briefly mentioned Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper during an NBA playoff telecast Tuesday night, people got excited. The story popped up on the Lightning’s website.

Here’s the clip from Tuesday’s edition of Inside the NBA on TNT. Barkley, a hockey fan, starts by mentioning how he watched Game 4 of the Capitals/Islanders series and wants to know what happened in the Blackhawks/Predators overtime. Then, the shoutout to Tampa’s ‘Coach Coop’ at the end:

“Come on Tampa Bay. I ain’t giving up on you yet, Coach Coop.”

The background, as outlined by the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith: Barkley and Cooper met in Los Angeles last year during a Lightning road trip. They spent a couple hours together and really hit it off.

As Cooper explained, Barkley was “one of the greatest guys” he ever met, and Cooper was blown away Barkley was still following and supporting the Lightning when they hadn’t spoken in six months.

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Fun story. Still, it prompts the question as to why a Barkley shoutout gets so much coverage, including in this space. The simplest reason is hockey still has that self-consciousness relative to a sport like basketball, and that basketball’s legends are larger than life compared to hockey’s stars.

Then again, when I attended a Chicago Bulls game last month, I asked the usher which United Center tenant was more popular.

“The Blackhawks by far,” she said. “Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are rock stars.”

So maybe that’s a sign that, one day, NBA coaches will get excited when NHLers name-drop them.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin