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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Bryan Kalbrosky

Q&A: Ernie Johnson on life behind the scenes as the host of Inside the NBA

Ernie Johnson Jr. has one of the most recognizable voices on television.

He regularly contributes to NBA TV, Major League Baseball on TBS, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on CBS and Turner, and he was also the longtime lead play-by-play announcer for TNT’s golf coverage.

But he is most celebrated for his work on TNT’s Inside the NBA, which he has hosted for more than 30 years. Johnson is joined on Inside the NBA by analysts Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.

During his professional career, Johnson has won multiple Sports Emmy Awards for Best Studio Host. He was also named the National Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association in 2021.

Johnson recently showcased everything that makes him such a talented broadcaster when he facilitated a fantastic discussion with O’Neal, Barkley and Smith on Giannis Antetokoumpo’s comments about how to define failure in sports:

For The Win had a chance to catch up with Johnson, who provided some insight about his experiences hosting Inside The NBA.

“It’s a great time of the year. I love sitting down and getting ready for these games,” Johnson said. “That’s where I’m at right now: Basically staying here until 3 a.m., going home and coming right back and doing it the next day. You’re catching me right in the middle of another day of getting ready.”

Johnson, indeed, keeps an incredibly busy schedule, and the Inside the NBA crew holds an impactful place in the sports media landscape. During the broadcast of Inside the NBA on Tuesday, Johnson and his team announced that Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had won the 2022-23 MVP.

It was just another day at work for Johnson and his colleagues, who regularly create some of the most hilarious and thoughtful coverage that you will find. But when it is all said and done, he is grateful for the opportunity.

“Every night of the playoffs brews the stuff that has your jaw on the floor,” Johnson added. “We’re four guys sitting around getting paid to watch hoops, alright? Life is good.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How much of 'Inside the NBA' is improvised, and how much of it is organized chaos?

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for TNT )

Ernie Johnson: Everybody knows their role. I’m working with three guys who have been in every conceivable situation in an NBA game. They’ve won championships. They’ve been in every big spot. The last thing a viewer wants from me is my input on what is going on in a huddle with 1.6 seconds to go. They want to hear from Shaq and Kenny and Charles on what a player’s mindset might be when you’re trailing a series 3-1. I’m here to get us from Point A to Point B to Point C. I am here to generate topics of conversation. That’s why preparation is really important. I’ll read quotes from players or coaches. I know if I throw this out there, Chuck is going to jump all over it, and Shaq is going to broad-sight it.

Those are the kind of things I’m preparing for, but improvising and letting it rip is exactly how we like to do the show. These guys don’t sit in a production meeting and prepare for what they’ll say in each segment and get their thoughts organized. We just want a gut-level, genuine reaction, so when these guys sit down, it’s not like we’ve rehearsed. We’re just going to let her go. That has really resonated with folks who watch the show. They don’t know what’s going to happen next and most of the time, neither do I. I’ve got a roadmap for what we have available to us, and we have some points we may want to make. But as far as how these guys respond to it? Who knows! That is what keeps it fresh and fun and I think, at times, entertaining.

What are some of the moments that have surprised you the most on the show?


EJ: I wish I could say I am always genuinely shocked, but I never am, really, because of the personalities I’m working with. I don’t think I’m ever stunned by anything. I’m always pleased that the guys come in ready. Every now and then, you might be surprised by someone’s reaction to a play or to a suspension or to an ejection. But I think because the guys come at the game from such different angles, you are going to get that.

Shaq always feels like the big guy should be the one with the most dominant numbers, and he thinks they have to average 31 points and 17 rebounds to even get on his scale. I think that because of their unique takes on the league, you’re going to get differences of opinion, and you’re going to get arguments, and you’re going to get a show that is sometimes heated. That’s the way we work. Nothing would really surprise me except if they all agree — that’s for sure.

RELATED: Shaq and the Inside the NBA crew lost it when Ernie Johnson dropped rap lyrics

What can you share with us about your off-the-camera dynamics?

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Turner Sports)

EJ: You know what’s crazy? This happens to me, and it happens to all the guys. You see an NBA fan in an airport, and they’ll say, “Oh! Where is Charles?! Where is Kenny?!” It’s not like we travel around together. Occasionally, we’ll be on the same flights when we are going places for All-Star Weekend or the conference finals. I don’t want this to sound syrupy or corny, but we love each other. We really do. We’ve been together for a long time, and any one of us would do anything for the others because we’ve all been through a lot of stuff off the camera that requires somebody to lean on. We’ve all been through that.

That chemistry we have on the show comes from a genuine love for one another. It’s like we’re brothers. That’s why it works on the air. It’s kind of like the dynamic that we have off of the air is the same as on the air, that’s just when the cameras are rolling. We can jab each other. It’s a locker room setting. Nothing is off limits. But at the very foundation is a deep respect for what we all do. I have the utmost respect for what these guys have done as players and they share the same thing with me. I’m the one non-player there. I’m the “journalism school” guy. But we all respect our roles, and we just enjoy being around one another.

How were you able to earn that respect despite not playing in the NBA?

(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

EJ: I started off as a local sports guy. We covered everything, and the NBA was just a part of that. When I took this job with Turner in 1989, and I was put in the chair as the host of a studio show, I was learning the NBA. After years and years and years of doing this, it all became second nature. I go back to preparation. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend to know who the players are, and you have to know the teams and know how the league works. That just came about because I knew I would be in this chair. They respect the work that I do and all the knowledge that I bring to the studio. You can’t just show up and try to bluff your way because everyone will see through that.

RELATED: Inside the NBA dropped a hilarious video with its best moments of the decade

What are some of the changes you would like to see in the NBA?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

EJ: I think the issue at the top of the list is player availability and how many games they are playing. I think the load management thing is an issue because often, they almost forget the fans sometimes. We’re blessed. If we want to go to a game, we go. You get a press pass, and you get in there. Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that a lot of times, the common fan is just circling a date and deciding they want to go to an NBA game that day, and they pay the cost. I think that goes for all sports. When you factor in the price of parking and souvenirs and food and everything else, it’s not a cheap night. You want to see the players.

Sure, it’s going to happen every now and then. But man, when the best players in the game may not be available because of rest, I wish there would be a way we could make that better. I don’t know the solution. Teams and their training staffs are looking out for the best interests of those players. But at the same time, it can be too much. I think it’s an issue to get players to play. One of the toughest things I had to do on my awards ballot this year was figure out who qualified. Do you include a guy who played 55 games? I drew the line at who qualifies for the scoring title. As much as I love Stephen Curry and K.D. and Kawhi Leonard, I couldn’t put them on there. You’ve got to play games. I think we’ve gone the other way in terms of players being out there.

Who are some underrated players in the league who aren’t getting enough shine?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

EJ: When I was voting for NBA All-Rookie, Houston’s Tari Eason caught my eye. It’s easy to overlook teams that have had bad years. But he had nearly as good of a year as any rookie. Jabari Smith came in with all the hype, but Tari Eason was right there with him in terms of just getting a spot for NBA All-Rookie. Keegan Murray, too. Sacramento was relevant this season, but for a lot of the season, they didn’t get very much national T.V. recognition. He got some more confidence during the playoffs. The league has a lot of good young players. I can’t wait to watch Victor Wembanyama play against NBA competition and to see if he is as good as all these clips we see. Every day brings another story.

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