“Sports are a vital part of society,” Ernie Johnson tells me, “It can best be said, as far as my job goes, that sports are a wonderful distraction to what’s going on in the world.”
Over the course of an exemplary career, Ernie’s contributions to this “vital part of society,” this “wonderful distraction,” cannot possibly be overstated.
Born in Milwaukee, WI, EJ was immediately immersed into the world of sports. His father played professional baseball for the Braves, and Ernie has fond memories of visiting County Stadium as a kid. “I had this dream childhood, really,” he explains, “I’m in the Braves clubhouse. I’m at the batting cage and Hank Aaron is asking me how my little league team is doing. I mean, it was a pretty good childhood [laughs].”
It was this exposure that sparked Ernie’s first sports related ambition: to play Major League Baseball. Heading into college, recruiting letters weren’t spilling out of the Johnson mailbox, but Ernie had proven to be a capable player. He walked on at the University of Georgia, where he was slotted in as the back-up first baseman. “I couldn’t hit a lick, but I always had a good glove,” he says.
After Ernie’s freshman season, long-time head coach Jim Whatley left the UGA program. His replacement chose to add a number of new guys to the roster, and two weeks later, Ernie was cut. “In it’s own way, it was kind of a blessing. It forced me at that point, as a sophomore in college, to say, ‘What do I really want to do?’”
Ernie Johnson Sr., who had transitioned into broadcasting when his playing days ended, never tried to push his son down that path. He never said, “you should do this because I did” or anything like that. Ernie Jr. chose to pursue that route, to follow in his father’s footsteps, to build on his legacy.
Fast forward forty years and EJ has done just that. A three-time Sports Emmy Award Winner. Host for Turner and CBS’ coverage of March Madness. Lead play-by-play announcer for the MLB and the PGA Championship. And of course, ringmaster of TNT’s Inside the NBA.
Since its inception in 1989, Inside the NBA has become a staple of the basketball fan experience. The renowned panel of Ernie, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and later Shaquille O’Neal, has stayed uniform through the years—something that’s rare in television. As Ernie explains, the inclination is to keep changing things up, to tinker with various combinations in an effort to find the best possible group. But from the outset, EJ, Chuck, and Kenny just made sense.
One of the major reasons the panel has been so successful is a commitment to individual roles. Being the host and only non-player, Ernie’s role in particular has been highly discussed. “I’ve been described in a lot of different ways,” he says, “I’m the point guard. I’ve also been called a traffic cop, which I think is an insult to really good traffic cops. If you’re a really good traffic cop, you want this car to come through the intersection and then that car to come through the intersection. We don’t want any fender benders here. We want things to run smoothly. But I’m like the rogue traffic cop who says, ‘Okay, I’m going to wave Kenny into the intersection, and then I’m going to wave Shaq in to broadside him.’ So I’m like the rogue traffic cop.” He adds that there are times when he deliberately tries to stir it up, waving Chuck and Shaq in at the same time so there’s a head on collision. That usually means a reference to Barkley’s lack of rings is looming.
Most of the show flows organically. There’s no script or order of things. No one asks permission to talk. Ernie described the ambiance as four guys sitting in a living room, watching the game and talking about whatever pops to mind.
It was Barkley who really helped drive this formula, turning Inside into a studio that focused on a wide variety of topics, not just the NBA. “Charles changed the landscape of sports TV. And that’s not an overstatement,” Ernie contends, “He sort of gave us a license to stray from a highlight show.” Now, nothing is off limits. Not race. Not politics. Not diaper changing contests. Nothing.
Though the panel has defined the show, the show has not defined the panel; and what you might not know about is the life Ernie Johnson has led off camera. He and his wife Cheryl are the parents of six kids, four of whom are adopted. Their son, Michael, came from an orphanage in Romania and has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy—an incurable genetic disorder that gradually weakens the muscles. He requires around-the-clock care, and Ernie and Cheryl have been by his side for 28 years.
In 2003, Ernie was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that originates in the lymphatic system. “Suddenly all of those things you think are really really important – what’s this guy averaging and is this team going to make the playoffs—it takes its rightful place in terms of where it should be in your list of priorities,” he says.
Still, EJ didn’t miss a single episode of Inside the NBA amidst his battle. “You’re doing your job,” he says, “but your whole mind is taken to this life or death kind of deal.” He underwent chemotherapy in 2006 and has been in remission ever since.
On camera, EJ has always been the charismatic, award-winning broadcaster. He’s always been the face of Turner sports. He’s always been the rogue traffic cop. But what he’s sacrificed and dedicated to be all of those things, to make the “wonderful distraction” of sports that much more entertaining and insightful for all of us—that is the real story.
You can read more about Ernie’s relationship to his father, battle with cancer, commitment to family and faith, and broadcasting career in his new autobiography, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. The book is available here.
Alex Squadron is an Editorial Assistant for SLAM. Follow him @asquad510.