TNT's Ernie Johnson on growing up in Milwaukee, 'Inside the NBA' and the greatness of Giannis

TNT's Ernie Johnson on growing up in Milwaukee, 'Inside the NBA' and the greatness of Giannis

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The Turner Sports commentator sits down for an extensive chat about his hometown

The Milwaukee Bucks put together an extraordinary inaugural season at Fiserv Forum. The team posted its best record in almost 40 years and made the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. The thrilling playoff run united communities from all over the city and inspired a new generation of fans.  

One of the coolest things to happen as a result of the Bucks success is that Milwaukee native Ernie Johnson returned to town to cover the Eastern Conference Finals for TNT. The son of legendary broadcaster and major league pitcher Ernie Johnson Sr., Johnson was born and raised in the Enderis Park neighborhood until the age of 8.

Ernie Johnson Sr. was a member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves team that beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series. After retiring from baseball, Johnson Sr. was hired to work as the Braves director of public relations. When the franchise moved to Atlanta, the Johnson family followed. Father and son would eventually get to work together covering the Braves, which Johnson calls “the greatest highlight of my career.”

Over the past 30 years, Johnson has become the face of Turner Sports. Throughout his illustrious career, Johnson has covered various sporting events and professional leagues. He is best known for hosting “Inside the NBA” with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal.

Last week, I sat down with Johnson at his hotel in downtown Milwaukee, two nights after being awarded his fourth Sports Emmy. Our conversation touched on his upbringing, County Stadium, Giannis Antetokounmpo, “Inside the NBA,” his family, his poetry and his book, “Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary.” He even talked about his first concert. 

You can listen to our full conversation and read transcribed excerpts below.

(Also, tune into TNT on June 24 to see if Giannis will be named the league’s Most Valuable Player at the NBA Awards.)

Ernie Johnson

On his homecoming

We knew once the Bucks got into the Eastern Conference Finals that we would be here, so before we left Charles and I were talking and he said, “You know, it’d be neat if you went back to the block where you grew up and we did like a block party or something.”

I said, “Yeah, that’d be fun to do. I don’t know if we can get it all set up.”

But we’ve got such great people we work with and they set it up. Brian Anderson, who is the voice of the Brewers, is real tight with the sausage folks. So I called him and I said, “Hey, can you set us up?” Then the marketing manager calls us and they set everything up.

It turns out to be the most beautiful Wisconsin spring evening and it was just great to have people wander out of their houses, with their kids, Shaq and Charles were great, they showed up, Kenny was in Chicago because of the Draft Combine. It was tremendous. Then to have my old neighbors there who I hadn’t seen in eons just made it really, really special.

Then after Game 2, the mayor proclaims it to be Ernie Johnson Day on your show.

And I had no idea that was coming. Shaq was answering questions and says, “We gotta take a timeout. I got somebody that wants to see you.” And I say, “What’s going on here?” Then [the mayor] comes up and he’s got the proclamation.

It was just a very rich few days to be back home and have something like that happen. And it was great for my mom. She’s 90 and lives outside Atlanta and watches the show like crazy. When I saw my old neighbors at the block party I called my mom and I said, “You gotta talk to the Riccis, they’re here. We’re having a block party.” And it made her night. And so the ripple effect was really cool.

On County Stadium and the 1957 World Series

My recollection of that series is a little foggy because I was 1.

Were you physically at County Stadium for some of those games?

I don’t know if I was there or not. My older sisters were there, but you know, we spent a lot of time at County Stadium when my dad became the PR director after his playing days. So I spent many a night at County Stadium as a kid and I remember the girders and the catwalks. What a great old ballpark. That was a great way to be a kid.

I love that ballpark. I was at the last game there.

Were you really?

I was in high school at the time.

You don’t forget stuff like that.

And I was just sitting in class that day and a friend said, “My mom got tickets for the game, wanna go?”

Aren’t those the greatest moments, right out of the blue?

On moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta

I was in the middle of third grade when we moved. When you’re 8 years old and all you’ve really known is Milwaukee and then they say, “You’re moving to Atlanta,” I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know if it was this side of the south pole or if it was near Russia or if it was in the United States.

“Wait, you mean I’m not going to live here in Milwaukee on North 68th Street all my life? I gotta move somewhere else?”

It was one of those times when you pack everything up and see all these friends you’ve made and say, “See you later.”

Was that transition tough?

A little bit, yeah. I think it is when you’re 8 years old, it can be a little difficult. But then you find out that kids make friends like that. I moved to a new place and suddenly I’ve got new friends. It’s funny, every now and then I’ll exchange a little something with a guy on Facebook that was one of my childhood friends that still lives in the Milwaukee area. That’s one of the great things about technology and how far we’ve come, you can find somebody if you look hard enough.

On his father, Ernie Sr.

Tagging along with him to work was always a real thrill for me. He didn’t even have to teach me my love for baseball. We were a baseball family. I loved to play the game and he was the greatest in the world at throwing high pop-ups in the front yard.

You could be in a room that’s 10 feet wide and he could throw a pop-up 75 feet straight up and you wouldn’t even have to move to make the catch. We’d stay in the front yard and do that all day long. He taught me how to pitch, he taught me all about baseball.

Just watching him be a father and a husband and a man, you learn a lot. Not so much that he sits you down and says, “Look, you follow these five rules and you’ll be a success.” I watched him. I watched how he treated people, I watched how he approached fatherhood. You can learn a lot just by observing and that’s how I learned from him.

On his mother, Lois

She’s a fighter, is my understanding. You call her “Betty White on steroids” in the book.

Yes, she is. My mom’s got so much energy and she’s 90 now. And just as vivacious as ever. It’s funny, I’ll take her out to dinner and we may have a drink before dinner and I’ll say, “Lolo, would you like another one?” And she’ll say, “If I have another one, I’ll be too adorable.” She’s a pistol.

When your dad is involved in baseball, especially when he’s a broadcaster and the baseball season takes you on the road for so much of the year, there were a lot of things he missed. My mom was always the one filling in every one of those gaps, just a big time supporter.

In my illustrious baseball career, which extended through one year of college baseball, I hit one home run in my life in an American Legion game and my mom was out there watching. Nobody else in the family was there, so she’ll always have that one rare time when I took a left-hander who hung a curveball deep, she was there watching.

Lois Denhard and Ernie Johnson Sr., Ernie’s parents.

On parenting

They’re going to have to learn from screwing up. I’m not going to be a parachute dad. I’m not going to come in anytime you might be getting in trouble. I go back to the way I was raised and the way Cheryl and I try to do with the kids.

We say, “Enjoy life. Experience life. Go get it. You’re going to make mistakes, just don’t try to let those mistakes mean something that’s going to alter your life or alter somebody else’s life in the wrong way.”

It’s not mom and dad to the rescue all the time and it wasn’t them with me either. And I was able to spread my wings a little bit without doing anything too terrible that I wouldn’t regret.

On mentorship

What did you hone in on from the time you spent tagging along with your dad at the ballpark and then later when you worked alongside him?

Seeing how he treated people with respect, how he appreciated when viewers and listeners would come up to him and talk and have these conversations like they were long lost friends. The way my dad prepared for every broadcast and how he never wanted to make himself the show.

He would tell me, “Ernie, the game is not about me. It’s about the teams that are playing. I’m just here to describe it. So if I ever make it about me then I’m doing the wrong thing.” Those kinds of words you never forget. He was the greatest mentor of all-time.

His simplest advice to me was, “Be yourself.” You have to let your personality come through, and I think that’s what makes our show so much fun. We are all ourselves, we just all happen to approach the game in a slightly different way, from Charles to Kenny to Shaq to me, and we all know our roles.

It’s truly one of the most gratifying parts of my job now that I’ve been in that chair for 30 years, I talk to college kids all the time. Part of me says, “Well, that’s my job now, to tell the next generation of broadcasters, ‘Hey, this is kind of what I’ve experienced, you may experience the same thing and if you do, here’s how I got through it.’”

I spent a half-hour on the phone today with a guy from Twitter who had just commented on something he saw on the show last night. He said he was a broadcasting student at Kent State, so I responded to it and I said, “I’d like to hear about what your career path is and I’ll be in touch with you.” So I reached out to him and we talked. He had all kinds of questions about the business and sports talk radio and TV and everything else. To me, I think that’s part of our responsibility, letting the guys who want to replace us know how we got to that point.

Ernie Johnson Jr. and Ernie Johnson Sr.

On ‘Inside the NBA’

They’re the analysts and I’m the host of the show, but it’s been described so many ways. “You’re the point guard.” “You’re the traffic cop.” “You’re the ringmaster.” The best thing I ever heard was from a guy on a radio interview. He said, “You’re the dad who’s driving cross country with the kids in the back seat and you’re turning around and saying, ‘If I hear one more peep I’m turning this car around.’” That is the way it feels every now and then, but it’s great.

You learn something every time you watch a game with those guys. They’re the ones that have been out there. Plus the fact that we just enjoy being around each other. For a show to have three of its guys there for basically 20 years — I’ve been there 30, Kenny’s 20, Chuck’s 19, and Shaq for the last seven or eight — to have that kind of longevity is pretty rare in TV.

There’s usually somebody in an executive position that wants to tinker and say, “Oh, I think this would probably work better if this guy were here. Or we could bring this guy in.” Sometimes you just ride with a chemistry that works and guys that play off each other well. You can never predict it, but it’s been a heck of a ride to be on.

What people love about the show is that element of surprise…

Look, Kenny and Shaq and Chuck would not want to be at the studio three hours before we hit the air for a production meeting and we wouldn’t want them there anyway. Because we don’t want everybody involved in the show to know that, “Hey, in the second segment of the pre-game show we’re going to do this.” We want genuine reactions.

The producer and I need to be on the same page. We need to know what we’ve got in the saddle bags. “We got this embarrassing piece of video of Kenny, okay good. It’ll be great to watch him because when he reacts to that I know what Shaq’s gonna say and then Charles will probably do this.” We want gut level, genuine reactions. We want a conversation or a discussion or a debate to just organically happen.

Half the time, the stuff that people talk about the day after the show is stuff that was never discussed in the production meeting.

It’s Shaquille saying that he didn’t know the Golden State Warriors played in Oakland, as he did on the air one night, as I’m doing the Golden State highlights and I’m saying, “So we go to Oakland for the highlights” and then, “Look at that crowd in Oakland.” And Shaq says, “How come you keep saying Oakland?” I say, “Because that’s where they play the game.” “How come?” “Because that’s where the Warriors play.”

And we’re live! And he says, “I did not know that.” I said, “Shaq, how long did you play in the league?” He says, “All I know is we stayed in San Francisco. I didn’t know we were going to Oakland, I just got on the bus.” Then Charles jumps in and kills him on it and then the rest of the show is basically references to Shaq not knowing where the Warriors play. But you could never sit in a production meeting at three o’clock in the afternoon and predict that at one o’clock in the morning, that’s gonna happen.

Organically, the show can take such wonderful turns. And people say, “Oh, you just make me laugh.” And it’s like, “Yeah, the show is funny, and most of the time it’s unintentionally funny.”  

And so much of talk TV strives to be that, but ya’ll pull it off so authentically.

We’ve worked with other producers on different events where they try to do this funny thing and this funny thing and this funny thing, and it’s like, “Well, we don’t know if it’s going to be funny.” The funniest stuff just happens when you don’t try to manufacture it.

We’ve got these three great personalities on air and they can all at any moment say something that throws the show off the rails, that makes you laugh or makes you tear up. We do all the things on that show that TV producers have said, “No, you can’t do that.”

Maybe Charles spills something on his tie and we spend 45 seconds talking about how much of a messy eater he is during the half-time show. Other shows would say, “Quick, somebody get one of those tie pens! Get that spot out of there! We don’t want him to look like that.”

We live for those times when somebody does something like that, or somebody dresses a little differently or if Kenny wears a suit that somebody tweets about and then we’re all over him for the next two minutes. That’s us. That’s what we like to do. It’s a very special mix and I never, never take for granted what a good thing we got going on.

What was it like when Shaq joined the crew? Was Charles a little intimidated?

It was more of a learning curve for Shaquille. The reason he wanted to come to work with us was that he had watched the show, he saw how much fun we had, and how unpredictable it was. And look, Shaq’s the world’s biggest kid and he loves to laugh and he loves to make people laugh. So I think he thought that there was a responsibility on him to come up with some kind of a bit every show. You know, “Push that Christmas tree over on me and it’ll get two million YouTube hits and people will like it.”

The inside joke with me and Kenny and Charles was, “The dude’s gonna want to set himself on fire here pretty soon.” We even told him, “Shaq, you don’t have to do something every time. A lot of the humor just takes care of itself because it just happens.” And so there was kind of a curve of, “You can be funny, we will have a good time, but always be prepared to talk hoop when you get there.”

I remember sitting with Shaq in my office one day and I said, “You know what makes Charles great? It’s the fact that while he does say some outrageous things that might get a lot of pub, there’s not a night that he shows up here that he doesn’t have five things he wants to say, about a certain player, about a certain team. He wants the opportunity.” I said, “Do that same thing. Come in here armed with something to say. There’s not gonna be a night all the time where you can bring somebody in to tase you and see if you can take it.” Because that is something he’s offered to do!

On his favorite music

I’ve probably been to a half-dozen Jimmy Buffet concerts. I like Jimmy because I think anytime you can do your job barefoot, it’s pretty cool. And I think it’s impossible to be in a bad mood when you’re at a Jimmy Buffett concert. There’s so many smiles.

You know the first concert I ever went to? The Beatles. In Atlanta, ’65. My two older sisters were besides themselves and at that time, I’m 9-years-old, my sisters are 13 and 17 and here come the Beatles. I remember some of it. I remember it being a very short show. It couldn’t have been more than 45 minutes. They ran out from one of the dugouts in their khaki colored suites and did all of their songs that lasted two of a half minutes each. It was awesome.

I’m not a huge concert guy but I’ve seen Chicago and the Beach Boys and Paul Simon, Dan Fogelberg. I was a big Fogelberg fan when I was in college. Part of that is I just enjoy good writing. I enjoy music with a message.

On his poetry

Pete Van Wieren, who used to do Braves games with my dad, would do poems every now and then for events that he would emcee. I’d be at those events and I’d say, “Man, that’s a great talent to be able to do that.” And I got to know John Wooden a little bit and I got to know how John used poetry to keep his mind sharp. So I started doing that.

When we had the NFL contract, we came to the end of our season and when we had the wrap party I decided I was going to write a poem about all the things that happened. Some of it’s going to be things people don’t want to hear repeated, but it’s just going to be an in-house thing. I wrote like three pages of stuff and people were laughing, they were clapping, they said, “Oh, read it again, read it again!”

It became something that I did for all the major events we did, whether it’s for the seminar going into the NBA season, to recap the previous year or Wimbledon or whatever. It got to the point where they became kind of like a thing. You know, there’d be some event at Turner and they’d say, “Somebody is retiring from the engineering department. Here are a bunch of facts on his life. Would you write a poem about them?” I’d say, “Sure.”

So [in 2014], Lenny Daniels, one of our executives, came to me before this handful of NBA execs came by and said, “If you could write a poem about our dedication to the NBA, I’d love for you to kind of unannounced, come in and read that.” It was like, I want to say, four days before the event, so the pressure was kind of on. I sat down and wrote this thing out and then it was Ted Leonsis, the Washington Wizards owner, who told Sports Business Journal later it was a real goosebump moment. I had no idea it would impact one of those guys that way.

You know what else was cool? When Michael Jordan used to do his Flight School, it was a weeklong big deal in Vegas, and so I get this ask from Michael. He said, “Will you come out and emcee the opening banquet at our place?” And I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” And so I wrote a poem for that thing that introduced all the coaches and I did it. The night wraps up and I didn’t know it, but B.B. King was there and his guy comes up to me and says, “B.B. King really liked that poem. Would you come over here and meet him?” And I was like, “Dang! Yes, of course I would.” So I went over and he said, “I really liked that rhyme,” and I said, “I couldn’t ask for a higher compliment.” It was unbelievable.

On what he loves about his job

It’s the preparation. I’m still addicted to the work that it takes to get myself ready for a show. And it’s probably a lot more than I need to do. I could probably rely more on our stats guys to provide me with some of that stuff. But there’s a certain part of me that, for me to really feel like I’m engrossed in the job, I need to do that hands-on stuff.

If it ever gets to the point where the preparation becomes mundane, then it’s time for me to say, “See ya later.” But that’s still what drives me. Doing the show is fun. That’s the easy part. The work is all the background stuff that you put into it. If all of that background work ever gets to be tedious or it gets to the point where I say, “Oh, I don’t really feel like doing that,” then I’ll know that it’s time to say, “See you later.”

On balancing career and family

Thankfully, for my studio job, most of the stuff I do is in Atlanta, so I may be having to work, but at least I’m not out of town. At times like this when you’re on the road for a few weeks for the playoffs it’s difficult. Sometimes I would tell the kids, “I know this is hard, but you know Mr. Rutherford who lives next door, he’s gone five days a week and he comes back for the weekends, but then he has to go back on the road. So it could be worse than I’ve got it.”

There were times when I had to go out of town, especially when we were doing the Olympics or the Goodwill Games or something like that and I would be gone for three or four weeks, it would tear me up. I’d be driving to the airport, I’d be in tears, just be in a funk.

Then I began to look at it in a different way and I said, “How lucky are you that you have a family that you love so much, that it tears you up to be away from them?” I turned it around and I considered myself blessed to have a job where I was going to miss my family that much and they were going to miss me that much. That helped me to try and get through times like that.

We all have to do what we have to do. Doesn’t mean we have to love that part of it. It takes a very understanding wife and kids, and understanding on my part too.

The Johnson family.

On his son Michael, who has muscular dystrophy

So much of this is perspective, because when that whole chapter of our lives began, we already had two kids and it was like, “Why rock the boat? You’ve got a boy and a girl. They’re both great. They’re both healthy.” Then when we decided to adopt from Romania and Cheryl went over there and brought Michael home, we knew that he had so many issues and it wasn’t going to be easy. It turns out he had muscular dystrophy and that doesn’t get better; it just gets worse. A lot of kids don’t get out of their teens when they have it.

He celebrated his 30th birthday this past August and we are blessed beyond measure by his presence in our house. Because despite some of the limitations he has, he has this wonderful spirit. Now when he’s 30-years-old and he’s on a ventilator and he needs somebody to do everything for him, here’s where the perspective comes in. His condition puts me in a servant’s posture from the moment I wake up in the morning. It is, “Michael, what do you need? I’m here to do it for ya,” in a world where you’re kind of encouraged to think that it’s all about me.  

People have talked about, “What you did for him, getting him out of an orphanage in Romania.” But he’s done much more for us than we’ll ever do for Michael. He’s been such a blessing to us and to everybody in our family. I mean, for our two kids it was a realization that life isn’t all Happy Meals and Toys “R” Us. There are kids out there that have nothing. You have a new brother who knows what that’s all about. There’s his situation and we adopted Carmen from Paraguay and then we adopted two girls out of foster care about eight or nine years ago and they’re teenagers now.

We’ve just always tried to look at this and say, “How are we going to make the place better? Let’s not think about us, let’s think about giving somebody else a shot.”

On Giannis Antetokounmpo

I see a guy for whom family is vital. A guy who has never been overly impressed with his own talent. I think he realizes he has this skill set and an ability to do things that a lot of guys can’t do, but he hasn’t let it go to his head.

He’s one of those guys that you just hope never changes. You see guys during the course of their careers who you say, “Boy that guy really gets it. I hope he doesn’t turn into one of those guys.” And then they do. But I don’t see that in Giannis. This is not a show of humility. This is who the guy is. And I think he considers himself so fortunate. Like, “They’re gonna pay me to do this and play this game that I love?” He just looks like the perfect teammate to me.

What adjustments or improvements do you think he needs to make to become a champion?

Obviously you can look at him and say, “If he were a better knock down shooter, he’d be absolutely unstoppable.” I don’t know if you’re asking too much for somebody to have every facet of their game be a 10 out of 10. We had Oscar Robertson on the pregame show before Game 1 and Shaq even asked him that question. He said, “Does he have to develop a jumper to take it to the next level?” Oscar said, “Magic never had a jumper.” That’s all he said, as only Oscar can. He didn’t even need to explain.

It would add another level to his game and I know he tries to shoot the three ball every now and then and has some success with it, but I still think he’s doing teams a favor if he settles for that. They would probably say, “Giannis, you shoot that three as many times as you’d like to tonight, we’ll live with that.” He’s at his most devastating when he’s taking it to the hole, with those physical attributes he has, being able to get by guys.

On the city of Milwaukee

I missed the NBA Tip-Off show before Game 3, but I recorded it and I watched it the next day and there was something on that broadcast that really kind of broke my heart and got under my skin. It was a yellow sign that a guy in Toronto was holding up that read, “AT LEAST WE DON’T LIVE IN MILWAUKEE.”

Ernie, you grew up here for a little bit, you’ve come back, you’ve spent time in the city. I’m wondering if you can say something about the city, about the people, that might be an antidote to what I was feeling when I saw that sign.

I don’t know if I would take that as a direct hit on the city of Milwaukee. But look, I know what Malcolm Brogdon has said about it and I know what the stats say about the segregated parts of the city and obviously you don’t want that to be the image of the city. And it’s not the city that I grew up knowing. And again, given that I move when I’m 8 years old, I’m hardly the guy to talk about demographics or the social impact of where I was living.

All I know is that every time I’ve come back here it’s felt like home. I know that the more of those walls we can break down, the better we’re going to be. One of the best times I’ve had during this trip was going to Mr. Perkins Restaurant the other day with Shaq and Charles and a few of our security guys, and the family was in there. They had closed the restaurant a little bit early just so we could have a private lunch in there and we all just kind of hung out.

Ernie Johnson, Shaq, Charles Barkley and the Perkins family at Mr. Perkins Restaurant.

Moments like that where you can kind of shrink the world and say, look, we’re all on this planet and we’re all dealing with what can seem like a very divisive atmosphere in the country, anytime you get a chance to knock that down and just try to appreciate where somebody’s from, I think we’re on the right track. I think you can’t be afraid of having everybody come together and learn about the other person. Have some empathy. And so I would hope that that would be what cities around the country are known for, Milwaukee included, is empathy. Not you do your thing, I’ll do my thing.

And I have to say, it is so good to be back here. It is so good to bump into friends. I get the distinct feeling that it’s appreciated that we’re talking Milwaukee up. I make it a point to get to the set early before the show so I can hang with these people. So I can say, “Hey, thank you for watching us and supporting us.” When we were in Milwaukee for the first two games, the crowds were spectacular in the Deer District, just as excited as they can be. This has been one of the best conference finals trips I’ve taken, if not the best, in 30 years of doing this.