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.