As host of TNT's Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson Johnson expertly manages the unpredictable personalities of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith. He does it while maintaining his journalistic integrity, which became all the more evident during his post-Election Day analysis of Donald Trump and the American people. While appearing on ThePostGame Podcast, Johnson discussed parts of his life that aren't visible on TV. He goes into further detail in his new autobiography, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary, which hits stores April 4. On ThePostGame Podcast, Johnson also talked about his March Madness work with Turner Sports, how Barkley changed sports studio TV and his memories of calling the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
Turner Sports' Ernie Johnson talks covering the NCAA tournament (2:56), the organic nature of "Inside the NBA" (12:37), how Charles Barkley changed sports studio TV (14:56), if LaVar Ball should be a guest on "Inside the NBA" (16:23), his upcoming book (17:52), why he addressed politics on TV one day after the election of Donald Trump (21:47) and his pope joke during the 1990 FIFA World Cup (28:59).
ThePostGame: How easy is the transition to just drop out of the NBA and drop into the college world?
ERNIE JOHNSON: It's a lot of homework. That's for sure. I'll tell you now, just in my career, I've been at Turner 28 years and I do more homework now than I did when I was a college kid. And it's all good. The games themselves and the shows themselves are really fun to do, but the real work comes in the preparation. You're neck deep in the NBA, but at the same time you're wading in the college waters December, January and February. Then you ramp up and have an idea, really big picture-wise on what teams have done, and you've got some research guys who are helping you, who are feeding you something. They say take a look at this team, this team's trying to overcome injuries, this player has done this. By the time really the tournament starts, by the time they go to the conference tournaments, you've got a pretty good idea of who's done what and then when the tournament begins, you're really able to center in on the teams who advance.
TPG: When you guys were up in New York for Turner/CBS Media Day, I asked Charles Barkley a similar question and he agreed with you that it was a lot of homework. He said even more than the homework he did in school because someone else was doing it for him.
JOHNSON: (Laughs) That sounds like Chuck.
TPG: He also said you guys are getting these booklets throughout the year to keep up. How much college basketball are you watching during the season?
JOHNSON: Here and there. It just depends when you've got a little time away from the NBA. I do a lot of work late at night when everybody's gone to bed. I've got an office here at my house. I'll be watching NBA games, I'll be watching college games. There's maybe a night I say, "Hey Oregon's playing, I'd like to watch them." Or when we're at work sometimes, Kenny's kid goes to Pacific and they played St. Mary's a couple times, so you're getting the chance to watch the Gaels. So you just kind of pick and choose. There are times you want to watch a game, but you're so deep in the NBA that's where you've have to stay for a few days. But it's never a situation where suddenly it's March and you're like, "I've got to start paying attention to college basketball." You're into it the whole time.
TPG: This is the seventh year Turner has had the rights to the March Madness. How much have you guys -- you, Kenny and Chuck -- improved in these seven years?
JOHNSON: I never think that's my area to comment on. Here's what's happened. We've just gotten accustomed to what it takes to get ready. The first year, you're saying, "What should I be doing at this point and how much do I need to know about this guy on their bench?" Now, we just have a much handle on how the whole thing works. That first year, I don't think everyone was prepared for just how intense Thursday and Friday were, just in terms of doing shows. It was like, we got four networks, we've got a game on every one, here's a pregame show for CBS, here's a pregame show for TNT, here's one for TBS, now it's halftime on CBS and then you're going to have to turn around and do a halftime show for TruTV before a between games show on TBS. The shows were just coming at you, fast and furious. Once we got accustomed to that, while the day is long, it's really fun. If your boss had told you, "All I want you to do on Thursday and Friday is watch the tournament," you'd think that's a pretty good job. That's the way we see it.
TPG: Do you fill out a bracket?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I haven't missed one yet. It's unbelievable. I'm afraid to touch it. No, my champion's still in there, but I've lost a Final Four team in Duke. I had North Carolina beating Duke for the championship. Kansas, Arizona, the other Final Four teams.
(This podcast was taped the Wednesday before the NCAA regional semifinals got underway).
TPG: Georgia, I hate to break it to you, but they're not in the NCAA tournament ...
JOHNSON: Was this called for, Jeff? Was that necessary for the question to be phrased in such a way that you're trying to alert to some breaking news that my Dawgs did not make the tournament? Yes, I am aware of this.
TPG: It was a sarcastic preface into ...
JOHNSON: Yes, it certainly was.
TPG: ... I'm thinking Kenny has his North Carolina fandom. How do the guys who you work with, who played, remain unbiased during this NCAA tournament?
JOHNSON: Well, I think they do. (Laughs) But I think also it's kind of a running joke. "Kenny, of course you're rooting for the Heels." And he'll joke about it: "I don't call that other team Duke. I call it the school from Durham." We have that kind of really light-hearted stuff. At its very core, we're all professionals. You're not going to skewer your comments one way or another based on school. You're going to call it like you see it. Now If Kenny happens to think North Carolina is going to cut down the nets. Sure, he can do that. But that's doesn't mean he's going to be unfair to anybody else. I think that's just part of sports. Everybody's proud of their alma mater and you can have fun with it. They poke fun at me for my Dawgs not making it, just as we poked fun at Auburn for not getting in there too or at Shaq for LSU not getting in.
On the spontaneity of Inside the NBA:
TPG: There's a lot organic things that go on, a lot of unscripted moments. Do you ever get nervous that you guys are going to say something that's going to get you in trouble or are you immune to that at this point?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I'm not really that concerned with it. There have been a couple of times where ... something ... like a bomb ... somehow got out and got on the air. Then I'm just hoping that it's not guilt by association and they say, "Hey, Shaq said a no-no on the air, so you're all in trouble." No, I think we all kind of know where the line is and how close you can come to crossing it or how far you can cross it before you pull it back in. I think that's been the place ever since Chuck joined us in 2000-2001. He changed the landscape of sports TV on the studio show-side. We no longer had to talk about the games that were coming up or the games we had just seen. I'm never really afraid that somebody's going to say something. I'm just happy we have one of those shows where it is so off-the-cuff and so spontaneous and free-wheeling that sometimes that there are things we talk about during the production meeting that never really happen on the show. And things we talk about during the show that were never discussed in the production meeting. Nobody tells Shaq, hey, when we do the Golden State highlights, tell us you didn't know Golden State plays in Oakland, which he did one night. That becomes what we ride from that point on. It's like, [Shaq impression], "Ernie, how come you keeping saying let's go to Oakland for the highlights?" "Because that's where they play." "I didn't know that. Seriously, I thought they played in San Francisco." It's like, are you kidding me? You can't script that stuff. That's for sure. That's what makes the show so much fun. It's just so unpredictable.
TPG: If you can think back to 2000-2001 with Chuck, did you know what he was going to bring to the show or was it just the first couple episodes you're sitting there thinking, "Wow, this is where we're going to go with this?"
JOHNSON: I know what I hoped he would bring to the show. As a player, Chuck has always been this kind of a guy. He's always been very open with his feelings. He's been opinionated. If you needed a quote, you went to him. My feeling was I hope that doesn't change now that he's on TV, and to his credit, and to our benefit, it hasn't changed a bit. He's still the most quotable guy out there. And he has built up that equity over so many years as being a guy who would speak on any number of subjects. He kind of built up what I'd call diplomatic immunity. Because he would say something and it was just as if Ted Turner had said it. That's just Ted being Ted. Well, that's just Charles being Charles. My fears were he wouldn't be the same guy. He turned out to be the same guy. And when the novelty wears off, he's going say that was fun for a couple of years, now I'm out. But now, we're sitting here on 16 years and counting.
TPG: Would you like to have LaVar Ball as a guest on Inside the NBA?
JOHNSON: Sure. I wouldn't mind that. I saw a feature on him the other day. I saw a feature on him on CBS This Morning. Sure, I mean, I'd really like to just do it ... there's one way you do it if he's there with me and Chuck and Shaq and Kenny, then it can be really ... that's going to be a lot of guys trying to get their words in. If I was talking to him, I'd kind of want to talk to him, dad-to-dad, not sportscaster to father of an NBA lottery pick. I'd just want to talk to him dad-to-dad, see what fuels him, what makes him think that what he's saying is going to help his son. Is he aware of how it might hamper his son? That sort of thing. Look, anybody who wants to be on the show, I have no problem having them come on our show because it's a blast. One thing we've been able to do is when we have someone on the show, it opens people's eyes to who they are. I'd never have a problem with that.
On his new autobiography, which comes out April 4:
TPG: Your new book is coming out, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary. I know we can talk about this forever. I imagine that's why you wrote a book that has everything about your life from battling cancer, adopting a child, being the son of an MLB player. Why did you want to write a book like that?
JOHNSON: It's one of these things I've had a lot of friends who know my story, who've said, "Man, you need to write a book. When are you gonna write a book?" And I've thought at some point in my life, I'm going to do that. What sparked it at this point was just gauging the reaction that our family got from the E:60 piece they did on us in 2015, which still is being played. Every time it hits the air, my Twitter blows up from people who have seen it before or haven't seen it before. I just think the story speaks to people on a lot of different levels, whether that's on a father-son relationship, adoption, raising special needs children, dealing with cancer, talking about your faith. There's just a lot that goes in on a lot of different levels and it was such a wonderful adventure to write it. I've always loved to write, and I wasn't going to have a ghostwriter do the book. This is going to be me. It was draining, and it was exhilarating. It was eye-opening for me, the whole process. And I had a wonderful time doing it. We're thrilled. The day after the championship game it goes out and we're hitting the road for a media tour before I get back to NBA work the next week.
TPG: What do you want people to learn about you in this book?
JOHNSON: I don't want them to learn about me. I want them to learn about themselves. All I try to do in that book is say look, you can have this script, and I kind of had a script for how I saw my life going: Great job, wife, two kids, boy and a girl, boom. But the unscripted is what makes everything go and it's how you handle those unscripted moments. I never would have scripted having cancer, but that's an unscripted moment that I had to deal with. What I want people to take out of that is embracing the unscripted. What we talk about in the book a lot is blackberry moments that goes all the way back to a Little League story from my childhood when a game was delayed when a couple outfielders climbed a fence to get a ball, but then started eating blackberries instead of playing the game.
TPG: Were you one of those outfielders?
JOHNSON: No, I was playing shortstop that day. I was one of those guys who went out to the fence and said, "There's the ball and there are the other guys eating blackberries." Again, I don't want to say, "Here, learn this about me." It's here's how our family navigated this and maybe this will speak to you on some level right where you're living today.
Ernie Johnson's thoughts on the presidential election. https://t.co/mONk8ZCcBY
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 11, 2016
TPG: One of my favorite recent unscripted moments on your part -- you know the reaction people had to it -- was when, right after the election, you went into a monologue that I believe was unscripted, and you explained why you didn't vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but you voted for John Kasich. And people say, "Stick to sports," and what not. Why did you think it was important and what was the reaction on social media to that?
JOHNSON: The social media, and you can ask our social media folks at Turner, there's never been anything of that size that our department has dealt with, the reaction like that. And it was overwhelmingly positive. I got back to my office that night, the three-minute walk, by the time I unhook and get in the studio, and it's like you have 500 new tweets. Oh really? I start reading some of these and then I look back at the top of the screen. You have 750 new tweets. It was non-stop all night. The way I approached that was this, look, on our show, and going back how Charles kind of broke the mold for studio shows, we don't have to just talk about the Bucks playing the Cavaliers coming up next. We've talked about race relations on that show, we've had Jim Brown on the show, we've talked about Ferguson, we've talked about politics. We've talked about whatever the people in the country are talking about, so when an election like this happens, obviously, it's going to be something we address.
We were told we'd have about two minutes each. So, no, I didn't script it. I had like three bullet points on a notecard in front of me. I said I had three things I want to say. I said, boom, I didn't like the choices that we had and I wrote in for the first time in my life. I've been voting for 42 years. It was the first time I've ever wrote in. The second thing was I'm hopeful. Look, I watched the president and the president-elect today. I hope that there's a difference between Donald Trump the president and Donald Trump the candidate, and if we do want things to be better, we have to be part of that too. That's where I said, "Look, I want to be a fountain, I don't want to be a drain." And the third was, and again, look, if I'm going to be totally honest with this and how I process this monumental election and this moment in our country's history, I'm going to be perfectly honest. The way that I view world events, and not just elections like that, is through the lens of my fate. I'm going to go there. And that's how it went. I said, yeah, I'm a Christian, I follow this guy named Jesus, you might have heard of him. I'm supposed to love people and I'm supposed to pray for my leaders, and that's what I'm going to do. And I hope that maybe I pray that one day we look back on this and say, "Hey, that wasn't that bad." That's what it was.
To see the people who reached out to me on social media, etc., and said, "I'm thinking the same thing, I just never had a way to say it. Thanks for saying it." And others, obviously you're going to have people who say stick to sports, I don't want to hear about it. I had some people who said that's really naïve, prayer doesn't work. That's fine. Look, everybody's entitled to their own opinion. I have no problem with that. And I certainly know that if you mention Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Jesus Christ all in the same few minutes, people are going to talk. It was just one of those moments. Look, I'm going to be totally honest. I'm not going to take the easy way out and say what a surprise, I hope it works. I'm going to be totally 100 percent on this and that's what I was that night.
TPG: When you guys went to commercial, not on social media, but on set and behind the cameras, what did people say at Turner?
JOHNSON: Chuck was down in Miami, I think, doing a game that night. But Kenny high-fived me in that segment after I said what I said. A lot of folks were coming up and saying, "Whoa, thanks." That was what it was. Guys on the crew, camerapeople were saying, "Well said." That's the deal. And I didn't say this to try to get a reaction. I said this because I wanted to be honest. And then to see people, fellow broadcasters from competing networks, tweeting out, "Hey, did you see this?" And supporting me. And Pete Carroll says, "Great take on the election by Ernie Johnson." It was wild. On the Saturday morning after, I'm sitting at the kitchen table with my wife, Cheryl, and she's got her computer open to Facebook and is looking at pictures of the grandchildren and she says, you know that stuff you said the day after the election, it got 15 million views on Facebook. It was one of those things. It stems from my desire in that point in time, saying the only way I'm going to do this is honestly and that's how I did it.
— Pete Carroll (@PeteCarroll) November 11, 2016
TPG: So you didn't respond to Pete Carroll's tweet, "Oh, then you should let me call the plays in the Super Bowl.
JOHNSON: (Laughs) No, it was funny though. I have a buddy of mine who's good friends with Pete. After I saw that, I called this guy, and said, "Do you have a contact number for Pete?" He said, "I can give you his assistant." So his assistant called me and I said, "I just wanted to reach out to Pete and tell him thanks for his support." He said, "He'd loved to talk to you." So the next day, on that Saturday, we spent 15-20 minutes on the phone just talking. And he said, "I really enjoyed that and I showed your two minutes to my team in the locker room." It was one of those times where the whole country at the time is just trying to process what just went down. For some reason, with the platform that I had right there, it seemed to resonate with some people.
TPG: We could talk about this forever. You have a busy schedule. I have one question that I need to ask you before I let you go.
JOHNSON: Uh oh.
TPG: I read that you called the 1990 World Cup or did studio work for that. Is that true?
JOHNSON: Yes! I did the studio for it!
TPG: What was that soccer experience like for you?
JOHNSON: It was quite interesting, as a matter of fact. I knew the basics of the game, but we had like Kyle Rote Jr. was going to be our studio analyst, so that was good. I'm in good hands with Kyle Rote Jr. But the thing that's really crazy is in the first day or two, we're watching the games, and I said I'm picking [West] Germany to win this thing. I said it on air. And they won the thing. Because it was Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and those guys. It was fun.
The games were in Italy, we're in Atlanta, but we were in what was a new experience for people on a lot of levels. And I can remember, my funniest story from there is I'm doing a postgame show one day and the highlights are coming in and one of our loggers who had been watching the game, they cut like a two-play highlight and it's Yugoslavia playing somebody, and the description of the play, it only said, "Yugo hits post." There was no number so-and-so with a name. Nothing. We're ripping through these highlights. Yugoslavia taking on Colombia and uh…I can't exactly read this on air, "Yugo hits post." It was a fun time. We had a great time. Those of us who were involved in that thing, we still talk about it like it happened yesterday even though wow, how many years ago? 27. Wow.
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) March 24, 2017
On Pope John Paul II's soccer past:
JOHNSON: The word came out that he used to be a soccer goalie. And I remember saying when we came on the air one of those days, "Pope John Paul, one of the few guys who's made that difficult transition from goalkeeper to pope," and people were just howling. We didn't even have any social media back then. It was like, "Hey, people are calling the switchboard and thinking that was either funny or sacrilegious." Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. That was fun. Those were fun times.