As host of the award-winning “Inside the NBA,” Ernie Johnson has helped TNT build a studio show that has become as entertaining and can’t-miss as the NBA double-headers aired on the network on Thursday nights.
A staple at Turner Sports since joining the network in 1989, Johnson has endeared himself to audiences with his laid-back style. He’s gregarious and self-effacing but above all downright good while working alongside Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith.
While he has become a fixture on NBA telecasts, Johnson also serves as play-by-play announcer for TNT’s PGA Tour coverage and TBS’ MLB coverage. Throughout his career, he’s anchored coverage of college football, the NFL, Wimbledon, the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.
He’ll again be the lead on this weekend’s All-Star coverage from New Orleans, and in a Q&A with The Oklahoman leading up to this year’s gala, Johnson discussed a variety of topics, including his favorite All-Star memory, his childhood sports hero and the impact his father, Ernie Johnson, Sr., had on his career.
Q: How does All-Star Weekend compare to other big events you cover? Does the laid back nature of the weekend remove the traditional stresses and allow you to have more fun with it?
We always have a good time with it. We realize it’s a weekend for the fans. It’s kind of a celebration of the NBA, and we always have a lot of fun; regular season, postseason, All-Star Weekend, whatever, we tend to have a good time doing what we’re doing. It’s a bunch of fun. It’s a great atmosphere on Saturday night for the contests, and then we kind of give the folks a taste of the flavor of New Orleans on Thursday night as we do the first show. It’s the last night of the regular season before the All-Star break. So we do have two games on that night. But at the same time, we’re live in New Orleans and kind of showing how the city is getting ready for it. So it’s a bunch of fun. Still a lot of prep like any other night. But it always is a fun weekend.
Have any of Kenny Smith’s parties at All-Star Weekend lived up to the hype?
Oh yeah. Yeah, they do. We give him a hard time about it because he kind of blows it out of the water. It’s always jam-packed and sometimes you can’t even move in there. So it always lives up to the hype. But we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t kill Kenny on it on the air.
How many All-Star games is this for you now, and what’s your favorite All-Star memory?
Oh man, I don’t know how many this is. This is a lot. I mean, this is my 23rd or 24th year in the studio. And for Turner, you know we’ve had the All-Star Game itself since 2003. Up until then we didn’t do the game, we just had everything leading up to it. But we’ve been to a lot of All-Star Weekends, that’s for sure. And I think, really, one of my favorite moments of all-time was 1997, the year they announced the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. And this was not something that was on the air, but it was happening on Saturday afternoon when they were having the rehearsal for what they would do Sunday with all the 50 legends. And so I was there, just kind of hanging out in the arena and watching the 50 greatest as they put on their jackets for the first time, those great letter jackets that they had. And just watching all of these guys getting autographs from each other, it was just tremendous as they milled around and got their matching orders for how the ceremony would happen on Sunday. And I’ll never forget that. It was watching every great who’s ever played the game right there. It was tremendous.
What would you like to see added or even eliminated from the weekend to make the event better?
Oh, I don’t know. You know, they tinker with the events now. I still like the events. I love the events themselves. Certainly there have been years in the past where you shake your head kind of at the slam dunk because you see a guy trying time after time to complete a dunk and then the arena gets a little stale. In 2000, that slam dunk contest in Oakland was incredible. And it wasn’t with a lot of props or any of that stuff. It was just Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis I believe was in there. Guys just doing their thing and making dunks in their first attempt, and it was just electric in there. It was like it was a playoff game. People were just going nuts. You wish that you could have slam dunk contests that resembled that one with the big names and the guys who can really dunk doing their thing. And we’ll see what happens this time. I think it’s en vogue for people to criticize it, and they look at the format this year, East against West, and they (grumble). Give it a chance. We’ll see what happens on Saturday night when they have this freestyle round for both sides and then you have these head-to-head battles. We’ll see how that works out. I know that when it comes to the battle round this Saturday, it’s going to be one guy against one guy. You get three chances to make your dunk, and then the judges decide who won that. And so I think it has the potential to be really entertaining.
What was your favorite sport as a kid, and does it remain your favorite now?
Baseball was. And it will always have a real special place in my heart because I wanted to do what my dad did. I wanted to be a major league baseball player. And I was able to walk on at the University of Georgia as a freshman. And then was told to walk off as a sophomore. So that ended my baseball playing dreams. But baseball is still No. 1 in my heart. It meant so much to our family. So that will always be No. 1. But I love the NBA, and I’ve loved our association with the league for all of these years. I never thought that I would be studio host for going on 25 years for the NBA on TNT. I love the game, and just to be working in this job, with this company, it’s a blessing.
Which sports figure or figures did you idolize as a child?
My favorite basketball player was Pistol (Pete Maravich). As I’m growing up and I’m playing as a kid for my school teams and playing JV basketball — again, I was more of a baseball player — he was the guy you always emulated. You put on the floppy socks. You wished that you could let your hair grow a little longer before your mom and dad made you get a haircut. So he was the guy growing up that I really thought was great. And I’ve been able to meet his widow, Jackie, and I’ve met his sons. And every now and then we’ll keep in contact with a tweet or that type of thing. He was my guy.
Are you an autograph guy? As many guys as you’re around now, do you ever collect?
I’m not a big collector and saying ‘Oh, I need to get a jersey from him or shoes from this guy.’ What I have in the studio, though, is two shirts, two long-sleeved shirts that say TNT Sports on them. And I started back when I began, if I had a guest come in I just had them sign the shirt. And so I’ve got these two shirts just filled with autographs from people who have been in the studio, from Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) to Kobe (Bryant) to Bill Lambeer. You name it, anybody who has been in the studio. Ozzie Smith came in one night and we did something with him right after he’d been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. And so I’ve got these two shirts with these great signatures all over them. I don’t know what I’m ever going to do with those. If I’m going to hand them down to my kids, if I’m going to auction them off to charity, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’ve kind of got those, but I’m not a huge collector so to speak.
What’s your most prized piece of memorabilia?
My most prized piece of memorabilia? I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of things that my father, who, you know, played baseball with the Braves back in the 50s and was a broadcaster with the Braves for 30 years. I was actually just going through a box of stuff the other day and I still have the programs from events that he would emcee and that kind of thing that had autographs. As I was a kid, he’d go to these things and come back with Gordie Howe’s autograph, or Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese home run champion. And I was just looking through all these things and said ‘That’s really cool.’ He was always thinking of me when he was at these events and he would get these autographs. There was one from Sandy Koufax I saw the other day. In its totality, those are the things I find really cool.
Athletes many times talk about their ‘Welcome to the big leagues moment.’ What was that moment in your career?
In my career? Wow. I’ll whittle that down to my time at Turner and the years here doing the studio for the NBA. I think probably the first time that we did the playoffs and we would bring different analysts in for two or three night stays. And when I found myself sitting next to Chuck Daly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in at that point for a while. It was moments like that that was, like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ All I’ve seen of Chuck Daly was this gruff guy on the sideline. Didn’t really know who he is. Didn’t know what kind of guy he was. And found there’s no finer gentleman that you’ll meet then Chuck Daly. And to be able to sit there with Kareem and Charles (Barkley), when he was still a player he came in. Those are the moments, I guess.
How do you stay on top of the different sports you cover? What’s your process given that each requires so much time and research?
That is it. It’s liking the preparation process. If that ever gets old, or if it ever gets to a point where you don’t feel like putting in the work that gets you ready for a show, then maybe you’re getting tired of what you’re doing. But that’s never waned for me. I thrive on the preparation. I have basically a routine down now for what I do on non-gamedays and what I do on gamedays. But every day I’m working on the league. You do that and then you get ready for March Madness, so you’re watching college basketball. And then at a certain point, you dive head long into just getting ready for March Madness. And for baseball it’s the same way. There’s just so much work that you can do and so many numbers at your disposal on what you think can be used or you’ll want to use in the telecast. And so that’s the whole backbone of what I do is the prep. And I can say that, if anything, my preparation has intensified during the years rather than lessened. And that’s just what makes you sharp. It what makes you feel prepared. Doing the shows is the easy part. It’s getting ready to do them where the real work comes in.
How has Inside the NBA met or exceeded goals and expectations that were set when the show started?
Oh man. You’ve got to go way back to the days where I was doing the show by myself. I’ll be perfectly frank, it wasn’t as good. I’ve worked with Reggie Theus on that show. I’ve worked with Cheryl Miller on that show. I’ve worked with Dick Versace on that show. And then Kenny comes in and he and I hit it off right away. And then when you added Charles to that mix, Charles changed the landscape of studio shows in sports. He was the guy who wasn’t afraid to go off the beaten path and just be honest and speak his mind. He’s the same guy on the air he was as a player. He was very quotable as a player, and it wasn’t an act it was just who he was. I think other folks have looked at that and said, ‘We need a Charles Barkley on our show.’ But it’s not as easy as just saying that. Charles had that equity built in as being that guy; always opinionated, speaking his mind and that hasn’t changed one bit. And it’s made our show what it is, very spontaneous, off the cuff, unpredictable. And it’s allowed all of us to be the personalities that we are, to allow our personalities to show. And I think that’s what’s made it work.
Can you walk me through your Thursday routine? Those are some really late nights. Do you squeeze in a nap during the day?
Nah. I usually get in there six or seven hours before we go on the air. That’s just part of the preparation, part of the routine that I’ve gotten in on a gameday. So between (that) time and (air) time I’ll be reading articles about the league, things that I can use that night, stuff that I can throw at the guys. There’s a specific time that I use devoted only to the games that we’ve got on the air that night, whether that’s numbers, storylines, and then it’s big-picture NBA things that I’m working on all day. That’s the gameday. But it’s the work that I’ve done Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in getting ready for that and staying on top of the league every day. Because I’m on NBA TV on Tuesday, on TNT on Thursday and on every day of the week I’m doing basketball work. So it’s not like you show up Thursday and say ‘What’s gone on in the last week?’ You’re working on it day in and day out.
How many times have you thought you were seconds away from being caught in the middle of something serious on set while seated between Charles and Shaq?
Something serious? There have only been a few times where I thought Charles was on the verge of going too far. There have been times on air where I’ve gone ‘Hey, hey, hey, hey.’ And he’ll say, ‘OK, I won’t go there.’ Again, that’s the beauty of the show. It’s not a scripted show. It’s not ‘I know what’s going to happen next. I know that his response will be this.’ We don’t know. So if you’re ever sitting at home and saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next on that show,’ join the club. Half the time I don’t, either.
I’m sure advertisers have long lined up with sizable offers to sponsor “EJ’s Neat-O-Stat of the Night.” What’s behind the decision to keep that segment largely “sponsored by nobody?”
Well, sometimes it’s sponsored. That’s all our sales folks. Our sales people are unbelievable and they sell everything. And so some nights we’ll get sponsors in there. Sometimes we won’t. I don’t know how much it costs. It must be very cost-prohibited for all the nights that it’s sponsored by nobody. But we’ve just kind of made that a running gag on the show.
OK. Be honest. The best stories never see the light of day on Open Court, right?
Yeah, that’s a great show. We all enjoy that. We’ll sit down for a couple of days and tape six or seven shows. And again, that’s one of those when you’re sitting and throwing ideas out, sometimes somebody will say something that leads to a different conversation and we’ll just run with it. And the stories you hear are just tremendous. In fact, we were out to dinner the other night. Lenny Daniels, one of our VPs had us out to dinner, and we were just kind of sitting around talking. It was me and (Chris Webber) and Kenny. I think Chuck was traveling so he couldn’t be there. But I think Shaq was in there and a couple of the other executives. And we’re just sitting around having dinner and somebody throw a question out and guys will talk about it. Grant Hill was in there, too. And I looked at Scooter Vertino and I said ‘Listen to this conversation. That’s an Open Court topic next time we do it.’ A lot of the topics are birthed that way.
The Open Court panel has been phenomenal. But who are a few players, past or present, that you would like to see on the show a time or two?
I think it’d be fun to have A.I (Allen Iverson) on there sometime. That would be fun because I’m sure he would have a lot of stories to tell. And to the credit of the guys. They’re very forthright, very honest, very candid when we do those shows. I mean, there are a lot of times that you hear things that you didn’t expect. Guys not playing it safe. Guys just saying what they mean. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of that show. Again, the unrehearsed, unscripted nature of that lends itself to that.
If I’m not mistaken, you were 6 when your father began his broadcasting career. Is his career what made you interested in being a broadcaster?
Well, a little bit. But it’s not like he ever preached to me ‘This is what I do so you need to do it.’ That was never the case. As I told you, I wanted to be a ballplayer. And I kind of told myself ‘If this doesn’t work out at the University of Georgia, I’ll be an English teacher and a baseball coach.’ I had spent countless hours watching him do his job. Just tagging along in the booth. “Skip” Carry was actually more of the guy who was saying ‘Hey, you got a good voice. You ought to try this.’ And my dad would encourage me that way but never say I had to go that direction. But once I tried it, it was like, ‘Man you get to go to games for free and you get to talk about sports? Yeah, I’m in.’ So that’s kind of the way it started.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned from your pop?
Be yourself. That was his advice. You just have to be who you are. And obviously work hard and those kinds of things. But he watched me as I went through radio in Athens and then to TV in Macon, Ga. and Spartanburg, S.C. and was a great encourager all along the way. And it could be things as weird as, ‘Hey, I saw your broadcast in Macon. You need to shave closer to when you go on the air. It looked like you needed to shave.’ Or, ‘Hey, you’re talking too fast. Maybe you need to slow down.’ So it was always good to have him encourage me and kind of see things and point them out and offer advice. It was invaluable.
You’ve called working alongside your dad the highlight of your career. But can you put into words what that experience was like?
Oh sure, I mean at first it was a little nerve-racking because he was so good at it and had just legions of followers of Braves fans who considered him a friend. And when you have a relationship like I have with my dad, he was the best man at my wedding. My gift to the best man at my wedding was a pewter beer mug that said ‘My best man. My best friend.” And so to be able to sit shoulder to shoulder with him and do those games, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Never will.
How would Sr. have fit in on the Inside the NBA set?
(Laughs). He would fit in because he’s a great storyteller and can trade barbs with the best of them. But Charles would have scared him with where he was going with a lot of discussions. He probably would have tried to cut it off earlier than I do.
How do you feel about the Braves’ upcoming move from Turner Field and the plans to demolish the stadium?
A little sad. The place that was built for the Olympics in 1996 they’ve deemed that it has outlived its usefulness. But I know how business is and I know how professional teams are and I know how wanting to add the absolutely latest and greatest, I know that’s a great desire. And I think it will work out., And I think that if it goes according to the plans with all that they want developed around it then it will be a great destination where you can eat and do everything and be family-friendly and everything. And I guess they’re moving to a place where they think is closer to their fan base. It’s bitter-sweet for me.
What are your reflections on David Stern, and how do you see his retirement and Adam Silver’s appointment impacting the league and its players?
Oh, I don’t think you can say enough about what David Stern did for the game of basketball and for the NBA and growing that game and taking it from where it was back when he took over in the early 80s to where it is now. He saw a need to make it a global game and did that. And it was very cool for me to sit down and do the interview that ran on NBA TV where we just walked through a lot of what the league has gone through. And so I think the league owes him a great debt for what he did. And I think what he always tried to do, he said anytime there was any kind of situation was to act quickly and not let it linger. And he always put the league first. Although it may have been difficult to make a decision, it was always the best for the league. And so I think Adam Silver, after working side-by-side with David for 22 years will learn a lot just from watching and will know how that part of the business works and doing what you have to do. And I have great confidence that Adam will take it from there and move forward.
Special thanks to Ernie Johnson for his time. You can catch Ernie and the TNT crew on Inside the NBA on Thursday nights.