Ernie Johnson needs no introduction. He leads one of the best pre, half, and post-game shows on television. He’s a Sports Emmy winner and has covered MLB games, PGA Tour events, college football, and the NBA. I spoke with Ernie near the end the 2012 NBA playoffs to get his thoughts on working with the cast members of Inside the NBA, the playoffs, his dad, and his health.
Q: First off, I really enjoy Inside the NBA. Is it as much fun working with Charles, Kenny, and Shaq as it looks?
A: That’s probably the most frequently asked question I get, and the answer is always the same. Yes it is. We’re just four guys sittin’ around watchin’ hoop, and then reacting to what we see. No rehearsals, nobody asking for permission to speak. Every show falls somewhere between a walk on the beach and a train wreck.
Q: You guys have great chemistry on camera and play off of each other very well. Out of the three other hosts on the show with you, who would you say has been the toughest to build chemistry with?
A: Much like my days at Marist High School in Atlanta, I don’t really “get” chemistry. I don’t know that it’s something you can work on…sometimes it seems it’s more like something you either have or don’t have. When Kenny, Charles and I started working together it just sort of worked well for us. I think the key to that is that none of us were demanding “face time” or needing to dominate the show. We just let it happen, and if nobody feels like they’re bigger than the show it’s all good. When Shaq joined the mix it was obvious that he’s watched the show a lot and knew the way we like to do things, so there was no concerted effort to “work on chemistry”. The bottom line to good chemistry seems to be having respect for one another, having a good time, and knowing that the show itself comes before any individual agendas. That’s not always the case in TV, or business for that matter.
Q: If you could bring on anyone else for one show to guest host, who would it be? I’d like to see Gregg Popovich between the four of you.
A: That’s an interesting thought … Gregg Popovich. I had a really nice conversation with him in his office before the WCF began and have always had a lot of respect for him as a coach and a man. I just don’t know if he would put up with our foolishness for an extended period of time. I think it would be fun to have MJ on the show too, given his history with Chuck.
A: Nobody in this business is immune from criticism …we all get it from time to time. It’s the nature of what has always been a very subjective industry … some folks love you and some would rather never see you on the air again. So as long as you don’t get too excited with great reviews you don’t get too down when somebody rips you, you’ll be fine. I would never attempt to answer a question like that for Shaq or anybody else.
Q: Let’s talk basketball. Some people, me included, thought the officiating wasn’t very good or consistent in the playoffs. When the games start getting physical, do you think the refs should let the players go at it or should they step in and make more calls?
A: Officials have the toughest job in the world. With the size and speed of today’s players it’s impossible to make the right call every time. Fans sit at home and watch endless replays from every angle and in super slo-mo and then pass judgment which I don’t think is entirely fair. Are there missed calls? Certainly. But it’s the human element of the game. Should officials just “let ‘em play” when it gets physical? Well if you do that, then where do you draw the line?? The key is consistency. If it’s a foul, it’s a foul..call it or let it go, but don’t call it one way at one time and another way later in the game. That’s where the criticism comes in.
Q: If you could change or add one rule in the NBA, what would it be? I’m partial to doing something to get rid of the flopping.
A: I’m with you on the whole flopping thing. I don’t want to go to a basketball game and see a soccer game break out. I think if flopping drew a technical foul it would certainly cut down on the amount of acting we’re seeing. The problem there is that to be sure somebody flopped you have to look at the replay. Often a player will try to draw an offensive foul and there is legitimate contact. I think the technical would come into play when you can determine that it was a blatant flop. Not easy to do without having to check replay and disrupting the flow of the game. We all want to see flopping done away with..just gotta figure out a way to do it.
Q: As a Braves fan, I’d like to know what you think about Chipper Jones and his place in Braves history.
A: Chipper’s a Hall of Famer. One of the greatest switch hitters in baseball history. Henry Aaron is the greatest Brave of all time, but Chipper is certainly in the Top 5.
Q: I think it’s awesome you got to call games with your dad. Can you tell us what your favorite memory calling Braves games with your dad is?
A: I’ve often said that in 23 years with Turner Sports, and getting to work Olympics, the NBA with Charles, Kenny and Shaq, the British Open and PGA, and calling MLB on TBS, the highlight will always be having the chance to work with my dad for a few seasons calling Braves games on SportSouth. He was the best man at my wedding, and my best friend. One of the fondest memories I have of those days was actually a Grapefruit league game between the Braves and Astros during the strike season when replacement players were being used. We drove from West Palm Beach to Kissimmee doing our best to familiarize ourselves with the players we’d see that day. It was a cold morning and we sat in the car for a while drinking coffee and going over the rosters and then did the game. Those were just great father/son times, and I’ll never forget ‘em.
Q: Before we wrap up, I’d like to ask you about your health? I know you had a bout with cancer. Can you give us an update on that if you don’t mind?
A: I appreciate you asking, and I’ve never felt better. Man, the time has flown by since that episode in my life. Had chemo for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma back in 2006 and have been in remission ever since. What stands out about that time is the outpouring of support I received from so many people, and what I still tell folks these days is that there’s a real value in sending encouraging e-mails. There were so many days when I wasn’t feeling great, but would check my e-mail and somebody had reached out to encourage me. If you know somebody who’s going through a tough time (cancer or otherwise) hit the “send” button.
Q: You’ve done a lot in your lifetime and called a lot of sporting events, do you have any that you still dream about calling one day?
A: I think of there was an event I’d still like to be part of it would be the Masters. Calling golf has always been a blast, and I’ve been part of our PGA Championship coverage for the last 16 years, along with the 7 years we had the British. Augusta is such a special place, in fact my dad and I played it once, and it was the most special day on the golf course I’ve ever had.