When it comes to sports broadcasting, Ernie Johnson is one of the best in the business. A three-time Sports Emmy Award winner, Johnson has covered everything from Wimbledon to March Madness. During the NBA season, Ernie hosts TNT’s Inside the NBA alongside analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. The show was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in October, 2016. Known for its insightful analysis and on-set antics, Inside the NBA is among the most entertaining shows on TV and, at the center of it all, is Ernie Johnson. We had the chance to catch up with Ernie ahead of the 66th annual NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans on Sunday, Feb. 19 at 8:00 pm ET on TNT.
Watching the show you get a sense that you all genuinely enjoy being around each other. You guys have great chemistry. How do you pull that off surrounded by such big personalities?
It just happened that way. Kenny and I were here first, he sat in a couple times while he was still playing and right away we knew he would be a great add to the show. Kenny officially joined the show in 1998 and we built the foundation for when Chuck came on in 2000 and when Shaq would join years later. We really do legitimately like each other. I grew up with two older sisters so this is as close as I’ve had to brothers. It’s a genuine thing that you’re seeing, we all get along great and I think we all realize we’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing.
Did you click from the beginning or did the chemistry take time to develop?
You never know how chemistry is going to work. It’s impossible to predict what happens when you put guys together. What’s made it work for us is nobody tries to dominate the show, nobody is concerned about face time, we just do what we do and it gives the show the feeling of guys sitting around in a living room talking basketball. It’s spontaneous and unrehearsed. Those three guys come at the game from different angles and that’s what makes it good. It also creates some natural points of controversy. They’re all going to defend their opinions. The foundation of it though is that we all like each other and we all respect each other. That’s what makes it click.
You’ve been with Turner for 27 years and have covered just about every sport out there. What are some of your favorite moments as a broadcaster?
There are so many it’s hard to whittle them all down to a favorite. It’s been a dream job for me since 1989. The things that I’ve been able to cover, from the PGA Championship and British Open to Wimbledon, from the NFL and College Football to the NBA, March Madness and baseball, there’s not much not to like. But I think back to being in the tower on the 18th at St. Andrews when Jack Nicklaus played his last hole. That scene was just surreal with all the people that turned out to watch Jack finish it up. It was one of the easiest things to call because all you had to do was sit back and shut up and let the pictures and sound tell the story. It was a great moment. The baseball playoffs have had more than their share of moments I’ll never forget as well, from Raul Ibanez’s two home runs for the Yankees in the 2012 ALDS to being there for every game of the Kansas City Royals' run to the World Series, it’s just been chock-full of memorable moments. The great thing is you never know when the next one is going to be. That’s what makes the job so entertaining.
You don’t shy away from addressing social issues in a way that few, if any other sports shows do. What is it about Inside the NBA that has the ability to go places that other shows don’t?
Charles broke the mold on studio shows in that sense. He totally changed the landscape. The guy had always been such a quote machine as a player. He was always speaking his mind. When we hired him we hoped that wouldn’t change when he got on TV and, thankfully, it hasn’t. If anything, he has gotten even more outspoken. We don’t have to talk about a 30-point blowout if Charles has something on his mind. He is so on top of the news and other sports. He’ll come in some nights and just say, “man, we got to have a chance to talk about this.” Sometimes you don’t even get that, sometimes he’ll come in and you can just see a look in his eyes and know he’s about to go somewhere. Once we’re live he’ll say, “Ernie, I have something to say…” I think it’s gotten to the point with the way things have been going in the country recently. There are so many stories out there that athletes are weighing in on. We’re sports casters by trade but we’re also citizens of this country, just like everybody else. When everybody in the country is talking about something when they get to work, we do the same thing. So events like Ferguson are not off limits for us to talk about, the election is not off limits for us to talk about. I love it that way. I love the fact that we’re allowed to weigh in and talk about things that everybody else in the world is talking about.
It’s a really unique perspective, the show is a lot of fun but also has some very poignant moments.
Every year we do a show on MLK day and those are some of the best shows we do. Last year we had Bernice King and John Lewis on at the King Center and that discussion was fascinating to me. So to do things like that, or to have Jim Brown on to talk about race, or to have all of us give our take on the election, those are wonderful moments on our show. I think sometimes you look like you’ve got your head in the sand if you’re not going to go there.
Are there any under the radar narratives you are following this season that fans should be paying more attention to?
It’s hard to hang your hat on an under the radar story when everybody wants to look at the Kevin Durant situation. We’re talking about the Washington Wizards more now and starting to wonder if they’re a legitimate threat to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. Same thing with Boston and the way Isaiah Thomas is playing, can the Celtics throw a scare into Cleveland? And then you wonder if James Harden can keep the Rockets in the top 3 or if Russell Westbrook can average a triple double for the season. Then there’s Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, if what we’ve seen in limited play is a sign that he’s going to be a force in the league and what happens there when Ben Simmons is healthy. Those are some of the stories we’re keeping an eye on in addition to the things that are front in center that we have to address.
When did you start wearing the bow ties?
I guess it was four years ago or so. I wore one to a Christmas Party and I kind of liked it, it’s different. I went out and bought a couple and then people sent me a couple and then it just became a thing. It’s just a hoops thing though, I don’t do it in baseball or golf, just the NBA and March Madness. It’s become something I’m comfortable with and really enjoy. I have more bow ties now in my closet than regular ties.
Do you have a favorite TV show or are you watching anything right now in particular that you are enjoying?
My wife and I like to get into shows. We were big fans of Goliath with Billy Bob Thornton, he was unbelievable in that. We liked watching Homeland, The Affair, The Night Of, we’ve been watching This Is Us lately too. There’s a lot of good shows out there right now. I’m always asking my son, who is 32 and on top of everything, for recommendations. We’ve gravitated a lot towards shows we can binge watch on demand.
Who do we need talk to about Sling becoming the presenting sponsor for E.J.’s Neato Stat of the Night?!
I don’t know exactly how that works. I don’t know why we rarely have a sponsor, but I’m fine with it. These days when you watch the NBA, every moment of every telecast is sponsored by somebody. It’s nice we can go to this bastion of unsponsored, unsullied moments of NBA life called E.J.’s Neato Stat of the Night. But please do contact our sales department and I’m sure one of our representatives will happy to assist you!
The legendary Inside the NBA studio show - with host Ernie Johnson and analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal - airs live every week on TNT.