Ernie Johnson is the original cast member of TNT’s wildly successful “Inside the NBA.” The host has been there since the show’s infancy in 1990, and last week, he finished his 25th season in the driver’s seat of one of sports’ most popular studio shows.
But there’s more to Johnson than keeping Chuck, Kenny and Shaq in line.
When the TNT crew was in Oklahoma City for the Western Conference Finals, Johnson sat for a lengthy interview on the patio outside the Skirvin Hotel. He talked about his kids, his faith, his cancer and his role on “Inside the NBA.”
Rogue traffic cop. It’s good we’re sitting outside because I can use this as an illustration. If I’m a good traffic cop and these lights are broken, I’m directing this red truck through, making sure nobody else comes through, but as rogue traffic cop of the show, if that’s Charles (pointing at the red truck), I’m waving him in, then I see Shaq coming this way so they have a fender bender.
I’m trying to create mayhem. Most of the time, I don’t even need to try.
When it started ... I was just a traffic cop. I was trying to keep everything smooth and make sure we don’t have any hiccups here or any bobbles here. Then, you learn when you’re working with that kind of a crew, that’s half the fun.
We don’t view ourselves as really too important. We’re riding on the popularity of the league. It’s not like people watch us and say, “What is this NBA you speak of?” It’s the league’s popularity that allows us to have a show that people like to watch.
I grew up in a household where baseball was the thing. That’s what I wanted to do. Since my dad played, in all our home movies up in Milwaukee when I’m a little kid, 5, 6, 7, I’ve always got a bat and a ball.
In a perfect world, I would’ve been playing Major League Baseball, but it was not going to happen. I walked on to the University of Georgia as a freshman. Was told to walk off as a sophomore.
I decided I want to be an English teacher or a baseball coach. Then, you hang out with your dad who’s been doing Braves games forever, and it’s like, this is pretty fun. That’s kind of how it went.
Around 1990, ’91, we had two (kids). We got a boy, and we got a girl, and we’ve both got jobs, and life is good. And then, I come home from work one day and Cheryl’s sitting in the den and she says, “You know what we need to do?” I’m like, “Chicken or fish. I’ll do whatever you want.” She’s like, “I feel this need to go to Romania and adopt one of these kids.” She had watched 20/20 which had done this big feature. These children, handicapped kids, were warehoused and basically forgotten after the revolution in Romania.
It’s just this feeling — “Why do these kids have go through this kind of a life? Look what we’ve got here.”
We filled out all this paperwork. You tell them what you can handle. God has a way of really being the final word on what you can handle. You have finite idea of what you can handle.
(Cheryl) sees this nearly 3-year-old little boy who can’t walk and can’t talk, just makes noises, has a lot of developmental delays. One of the nurses says, “This baby is no good.”
(Cheryl) took him outside. The kid freaked. Since they had found him in the park after he was born, he’d never been outside.
She calls me and says, “I found this kid. It’s a boy. He’s almost 3. But I don’t know if I can live the rest of my life wondering whatever happened to this kid.” I’m on the phone, she’s on the phone, it’s one of those things where you feel that’s what we’re supposed to do. I said, “Bring him home.”
They had to fix his foot. They took him to the doctor to have surgery on that. His gait was very waddling, and there were suspicions about his strength, and they tested him, and he had muscular dystrophy. There’s no predicting that if it’s a biological kid. You don’t know.
I’ve had people say, “If you knew he had muscular dystrophy, you never would’ve done it, would you?” You don’t get it. That’s not the deal. You just deal with it.
He’ll be 26 in August.
He’s the toughest kid in the world. He’s been through a lot of stuff. We’re blessed to have him every day like we are all of our kids. They all help. The two oldest kids are married, will help any way they can. If Maggie has a day off from teaching, “Hey, I want to be there to wake Michael up today. I want to put him in the van and bring him over to my house.” All the kids are great.
We went to Paraguay two years after we adopted Michael and got a little girl. She’s at Georgia State. She’s on the drum line. Plays three or four different instruments, so we know she’s adopted because she didn’t get any of that from us.
Then ... my wife ... led a women’s group for addicts. She was the director of the women’s center at this metro Atlanta recovery residences. Then they approached her about being the head of this anti-sex trafficking unit in Atlanta called “Street Grace,” so now she’s the CEO of that. She said, “A lot of these girls who get wrapped up in this thing come out of foster care, never get adopted, they age out and then they are just scooped up by anybody who will pay them attention.”
So, we had this talk — we’re both over 50 — “Let’s get a couple of these girls out of foster care.” I said, “C’mon, look at us.” Again, that’s me putting limitations on what we can do. Three or four months later, we had that talk again, I was like, “I could do this again.”
They put us in the system as prospective adoptive parents of kids who were in foster care. We got these two half-sisters in Cleveland, Ohio, who are 9 and 10 at the time, so we went up there and met them. We’re like, “Bring ’em home!”
If there’s one thing that Cheryl and I do or try to do is just reach out than look in.
Cheryl’s always had that. When I met her, she was still in college. We met when she was the bank teller at a drive-in window. I used to take my checks there, so she knew I wasn’t making any money as the news anchor at WMAZ in Macon. She was going to school, she was working, and on the weekends, she volunteered for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
My mom and dad instilled that also. They were great examples of that.
Spiritually, I think it’s where we’re called. One of the biggest things for me, for our whole family, was getting involved in church and basically rededicating our lives as Christians. That was huge. That was back in ’97.
The Bible tells you to look after the widows and the orphans.
The other way is just no fun. The other way ... I had to work my way through that for a while. My job defined who I am. It wasn’t what I do, it was who I was. That was such a wrong way to view it.
Now, I just feel fortunate to be doing this. It’s certainly a lot of fun, but it ain’t all that. I thought it was at one point in my life. Used to be, if I didn’t feel like I had a good show ... I would carry that around. Now, it’s like, “OK, really, where does that fit in?”
We’re seeing about this much of the picture (holding fingers an inch or two apart) when it comes to our lives. I tell people during that time (battling cancer), I read a lot about Job and how basically God had said, “Do anything you want to, I’m not going to turn on you.” I said, “I’m going to remain faithful there. If I’m not going to shake my fist at God when this good thing happened to me, why am I going to do that when something bad does?”
Everybody goes through stuff. I kind of landed the plane on this passage in John 9 where Jesus is walking around with the Disciples and they see this blind man on the side of the road. The Disciples say, “Hey, why is this man blind? Did he sin or his parents sin?” And Jesus basically said, “You’re asking the wrong question. It’s not why this happened but how my Father is going to use it.”
I said, “Where is God taking me on this? If I’m going to go through this, where’s he going to use it?” He’s going to use it so when Craig Sager goes through cancer, I can be there for him and encourage him. I can’t count the number of people I’ve had conversations with about cancer and about dealing with it.
That’s part of being a vessel. You never know how you’re going to be used or who’s going to learn something from what you have to say. It’s not for me to decide. It’s for me to be open about it.