Ernie Johnson is the host of the five time Emmy Awarding show Inside the NBA alongside former NBA players Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. The son of former Braves player Ernie Johnson Sr, Johnson moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee when his father’s team relocated to the city in 1966. Johnson studied journalism after beginning his career in Macon, Georgia and Spartanburg, South Carolina; Johnson has been in Atlanta for 28 years and has been with Turner Sports since 1989. Inside the NBA has been on the air since November 13, 2001.
Sean Mitchell: Is Inside the NBA the single most fun venture you’ve ever taken part of?
Ernie Johnson: On TV, yeah. It’s something different every night, no two shows are exactly the same and Kenny and Charles just make it so much fun. They’re just great guys to play off, very unpredictable and spontaneous.
SM: Is Charles the most brutally honest person you’ve ever been around?
EJ: For better or worse, yes.
SM: What were some of your favorite “Gone Fishing” segments?
EJ: I have trouble remembering any specific “gone fishin’s,” but I just know that what makes those fun is that Alex [Houvouras], the guy upstairs who puts them together, always includes some iconic figure from the city that’s been eliminated. You can always count on seeing Oprah when Chicago gets knocked out or if Dallas gets eliminated Tony Romo shows up on the Kenny Smith fishing trip. And the thing that’s fun, if you ever have the time to look at them—and I’ve been up at Alex’ desk before—and seen some of the detail he goes into. You’ll notice, he’ll write something on a T-shirt on somebody that the fishin’ trip is wearing that you really won’t see when the piece is airing but it will have some subliminal message that 95% of the viewers didn’t catch and that we didn’t catch either when we watched it go by the first time. Then a producer or somebody will say afterwards “did you see what it said on Dirk Nowitzki T-shirt.” [And we say, no], so he puts a lot of stuff into those and that’s what makes those very fun.
SM: Now why’d you have to go and run Kenny Smith over with a car, what did he ever do to you?
EJ: Kenny just had it coming. The thing that was funny about that is he just wanted to re-create what Kobe had done, jumping over the Aston Martin and our crew said that technically they pull the same thing off and make it look really realistic. And I just happened to walk outside when they were shooting it and all Kenny was really doing was jumping up and down in the parking lot and they were gonna add the car in later.
Kenny went back in the studio to get ready for the show. So I asked “who’s gonna be the driver” and stuff like that. They said “I don’t know,.” Then I said “Well, let me be the driver and you can shoot me at the end of it as the guy who ran Kenny over.” So he really didn’t have it coming, we just wanted to surprise him. I think the thing that’s really cool about the whole thing is that when we ran it on the air, we had Kobe on watching it, so for all of us it was the first time we’d seen it. And so that when that image popped up with the last replay and the fact that it was me running Kenny over, everyone just broke up laughing. So believe me it was nothing personal with Jet, it was just trying to make a funny bit a little funnier.
SM: Oh no, I understand. [laughs]
EJ: Yeah I know you’re just messing with me too. Believe me, if either of those guys was supposed to get hit-–I probably would gone into Charles.
SM: How did you build the chemistry on set because there’s not too many people I could see on there that could make that work and be one of the most popular post game shows in all of sports?
EJ: That’s the thing about it Sean, you can never predict chemistry. You can never kinda say, “okay, if you put these three people together, that will work.” because it fails many more times than it works. You can never predict how people hit it off. I think its worked because we all come at the game from a different angle. And we all have different personalities.
But I think the reason it works the best is because we all want the show to be good and no one is concerned about getting about limelight or getting more face time or anything like that. It’s really just–here’s what’s gonna make the show go, and this is what will make the show funnier, this will make the show informative, so let’s do that. And no one is fighting for air time. No one goes “how come you asked him that question first? How come you didn’t come to me?” Nope, there’s none of that going on. That’s what made it fun.
And I think the spontaneous nature of it adds to the chemistry. There has to be a lot of trust that has to exist between three people if you’re going to do an unrehearsed show. And I think that’s a key to making us have good chemistry if that’s what you wanna call it and make the show click.
SM: What were some of your favorite on the set guest, such as Frank Caliendo.
EJ: We have a few guest and we don’t have them that often because we usually have three or four people doing the show. But when Caliendo came on, it was hilarious because I didn’t realize he did the people he did. He did a drop dead Bill Walton. Watching Caliendo and he’s holding a conversation between John Madden, Charles Barkley and Bill Walton all at the same time–you don’t know how he does it. Matthew McConaughey came on one halftime and what was cool was that I put him on the phone with my teenage daughter and made her year and made me father of the year for a time.
And all the guys that come by—it’s fun to have guys who aren’t strictly involved with basketball but like to watch the show and have them come and hang out. Mark Wahlberg come on and we used to have the shooting contest at halftime and he went 0-15. So there are lots of memorable moments like that so its always fun to have someone come on and hang out with us.
SM: What caused you to join TNT?
EJ: It was the next stop on my career path that I was on. I started when I was in college when I was at the University of Georgia, I was on the radio when I was at school getting experience there hoping to get a TV job some place. Fortunately the people in Macon, Georgia at WMAZ-TV hired me to be their news anchor when I was 23 years old. And then you just try to keep improving, putting a tape together and [someone from] the next market size will look at it, a bigger market. So I went from Macon to Spartanburg, SC and then to Atlanta.
Then I got to Atlanta in 1982 and the ABC station there, WSB-TV. I stayed there for seven years starting in news and then becoming the weekend sports anchor. And then the folks at Turner—they saw me a lot since I was working in Atlanta and they’re based there–they saw me doing sports for several years there. In 1989 they asked me if I wanted to come on board there. Now it’s been only 21 years later and I’m still sitting there, so it’s been a really cool ride. And when I hear myself telling that story it makes me feel really old to say I’ve been at one place for 21 years.
SM: How much fun was it to call baseball games with your father 15 or so years ago? Did you ever realistically dream of growing up to play baseball like your father?
Ernie Johnson Sr. pitched for the Boston Braves (’50-’52), Milwaukee Braves (’53-58) and Baltimore Orioles (’59)
EJ: Oh sure, that was the dream to start off with. Having a dad who played Major League Baseball—that’s what I wanted to do too. I took that as far as the University of Georgia. I walked on as a freshman and then was told to walk off as a sophomore. That was as far as my skills would take me and then I got into the broadcasting end of it after that.
[Broadcasting with my father] was pretty deep into my career, I actually probably five years after I got to Turner that the opportunity came up on Sports South, the regional cable network, to do a game a week with my dad. He did Braves games for 35 years on radio and TV after his playing career was done. It was a thrill. That remains the biggest thrill of my career, being able work with my dad for parts of those four seasons. That was very cool because he’s a very respected broadcaster. Braves fans love him and still do and to be able to share the both with him was just awesome. And that’s why it’s cool too because I’m back into the baseball end of it now going play-by-play for Peachtree TV. Once the basketball playoff are done I’ll do 25-30 Braves games this year a and a few of the TBS Sunday games too. It’s kinda of cool to see that kinda come around full circle and I’m really looking forward to that, getting back into the booth.
SM: Did you have nearly as much fun covering golf and the various Olympic games as Inside the NBA?
EJ: That’s a totally different kind of a vibe. Inside the NBA is a kind of sports and entertainment type of show and the relationship I have with Kenny and Charles makes it totally different from anything else I really do.
Golf is a lot of fun because I love the game and if you’re sitting in the booth for hours calling golf shots for six or seven years—and of course it’s what guys at CBS have been doing for years—it’s a lot of fun.
And I think the thing that’s great about Turner is the opportunity to do a lot of things, from the Goodwill Games, to the Olympics, to golf, to baseball, to the NFL (when we had it) to Wimbledon. So all of that keeps you fresh, all of that kinda recharges your battery, every time you get a new assignment—a lot of times when I do the NBA, it’s as if I can just fall out of bed and [me, Charles and Kenny] feel like we know what we’re doing. Everything else keeps you fresh, keeps you sharp and keeps you re-charged.
SM: You talked about your experience with cancer at a function. What type of emotional toll did that take on you and just reiterate how strong your faith was in God.
EJ: That speech took place at a function put on by Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and they had asked me to present the Gospel at the end of the program. That was really the vehicle I used to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I had to have a realization there that was a plan at work here much bigger than mine. Obviously having cancer as a husband and father of four would not would be something I would plan or need to have happen but it just goes back that I put myself in the hands of the one who created me.
And so I realize that everything that goes on in my life happens for a purpose. And its not a purpose that you always understand right then but its living a life where you trust in God. At the bottom of every one of my e-mails it says “Trust God, period.” That’s kinda the mantra on which I based my entire life, that I’ll trust not if something happens or only if something good happens to me but I’ll trust God period. That’s how you get through…that’s how you get through bouts with cancer, that’s how you deal with real high moments of your life, such as when you’re honored professionally. You never think its about your plan or about something you did. You just know that God has gifted you certain ways and he gets the glory for the good things that happens and he’s where I rest in those bad times too.
SM: How involved are you with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and why do people need to be aware of the problem of MD?
EJ: The reason I’m involved is because one of my kids has it. [Me and my wife] have four kids: two biologically and we adopted two and one of our adopted two from Romania has muscular dystrophy and he’s 21 years old now. A lot of kids don’t live to see 21 when they have the type of MD that he has, so he’s a remarkable young man. It’s just a very difficult thing and a lot of parents out there have kids who have forms of MD. And your muscles don’t develop when you have MD, they just waste away, that’s the easiest way to put it. You’re able to do less and less as the years go on and [my son] Michael has been in a wheelchair for nine years now. He has limited ability to move anything other his hands and maybe move his trunk a little bit. He can’t raise his hands anything like that and he’s able to drive his wheelchair just by using his fingers but that’s the progression of the disease.
And so, I’ve been active with MDA and getting the word out, trying to raise money for research. Every year I think more people are more aware of Muscular Dystrophy Association because it’s with Jerry Lewis telethon each year every Labor Day when he’s on for 24 hours. That’s why I’m so involved.
SM: I’m not asking you want for obvious reasons but who do you see winning it all this year?
EJ: I said from day one I thought the Lakers would be in the Finals. I thought Cleveland had enough to get to the Finals this year but that’s certainly gone by the boards. But the Lakers appear to be playing well enough that they could win the title. So I guess if I had to make a pick, it would think they’d be the one but the way Boston’s playing, you never know if they’re a team of destiny at this point or not because it’s certainly a great time to play their best basketball.