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Walking the course with Ernie Johnson, the nicest man in sports

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - You spend enough time around sports -- heck, you spend enough time reading sports stories -- and you start to despair for the human condition, to wonder if there's anything more to us as a people than crass, arrogant moneygrubbing. NCAA violations, owners holding cities hostage, entire sports toying with their fanbases over how to divide GNP-size checks ... every day, a new scandal, a new reason to question why we waste our time with kids' games.

Then you get to spend some time with Ernie Johnson, and it all starts to click again.

If EJ, the affable TNT/TBS announcer best known for his role as studio host/rodeo clown on "Inside the NBA," isn't the nicest man in sports, he's in the top five. Calm and reasonable in an era of bombast, wry and self-aware where his counterparts are humorless and self-important, he's the rare broadcaster who makes a sporting event better by his presence.

This week, he'd been scheduled to helm TNT's coverage of the PGA Championship. But on Friday evening, he received news that his father, the legendary former Braves broadcaster who shares his name, passed away at the age of 87. And so this story about EJ's role in a hugely complex broadcasting effort became something very different indeed.

But we'll get there, in time. First, join us for a little drive around Atlanta Athletic Club.

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Ernie Johnson would be the perfect backyard barbecue guest. The man knows how to tell a story, yes, but more importantly, he wants to hear yours. And over the course of two hours roaming the hills at AAC, he'll hear plenty.

There's the security guard at the TNT tower overlooking 18; Ernie asks if he'll be at the same post all week. There's the fan along the gallery ropes who's eager to tell Ernie about his (the fan's) great-grandfather, who played in the first World Series and apparently invented the drag bunt, or something like that. There's Hunter Mahan, who greets Ernie on the fairway at 18 with "Are we going to have an NBA season or what?" (EJ's opinion: yes, but not a full one.)

It's Johnson's demeanor that encourages so many people to open up to him. He's tall, well over 6' 2", and though he looks like pretty much every other guy on the golf course when he's wearing a baseball cap and shades, his distinctive voice gives him away ... that, and the golf cart he drives with "EJ" emblazoned beneath the TNT logo.

"The guys at the [TNT] trailer did that for me," he smiles, shaking his head at the idea. "I don't mind. Beats having to find a different cart every time."

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Charles Barkley casts a long shadow.

Wherever EJ goes, one of the first questions he gets is, "What's Barkley really like off camera?" And the answer is, of course, "Exactly the same."

"Inside the NBA" is must-watch TV during the NBA season, with Johnson serving as point guard and Barkley and Kenny Smith riffing and throwing down on topic after topic. It's flawless chemistry, with each of the three players knowing his own role and understanding exactly how to play off the others.

"You can't fake what we have," Johnson says. "Other people have tried. 'Oh, let's have a wild man, someone to be like Charles.' You can't do that. When you've got people taking opposite positions just to create a debate, viewers can see through it."

Still, Johnson is quick to dispel the perception that Barkley is an anarchic loon on-set. "There are times when we'll have only three minutes, and we need to hit five topics, and so I'll say, 'Kenny, you can't rant, Charles, you have to stay on topic,' and then they do exactly that. Those guys know exactly when they need to rein it in and when they can cut loose."

Which makes the impending addition of Shaquille O'Neal to the "Inside the NBA" staff a gamble. How will he mix with the three regulars? Surely he had to do all kinds of screen tests and mock TV segments, right?

"Nah," EJ says. "We know what he can do. He gets it, he gets how lucky he is to be who he is. He'll be just fine."

The greatest sports show on television is fundamentally altering its DNA, and its host doesn't sound the least bit worried. Of course.

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Golf is a sport that demands concentration from its players and contemplation from its audience. As he walks the course, EJ is phenomenally easy to talk to, and he's got the calm, considered opinions of a man who believes what he believes without regard for how well it'll play in a soundbite culture.

We're standing about 250 yards down the 18th fairway, right where tee shots are landing. With the layup/drive-the-green choice ahead, it's an appropriate place to consider how the sport reveals character.

"Golf teaches you about yourself," Johnson says. "You haven't got anyone else to blame when things go wrong. You can't point to a teammate and say, 'I would've had a better outing if my second baseman had made that play.' You can't get the emotional release like you do in football, where you can go bury your helmet in some guy's chest. It's all on you."

That self-reliance, that self-awareness, surely appeals to a guy like Johnson, who -- despite his charmed career -- has faced down life's most terrifying challenges. In the mid-2000s, he took time off from broadcasting to deal with the effects of his treatment for non-Hodgkins' lymphoma. His testament, preserved here on YouTube, of how he got through those dark days, through faith and family, is one of the most moving stories you'll hear this year. It's well worth your time.

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When Johnson first began announcing golf, famed CBS announcer Verne Lundquist gave him one simple lesson: "Remember, you're creating captions." In other words, don't overtalk the moment, let it breathe on its own. (Consider, for instance, Lundquist's "In your life?" call of Tiger Woods' putt on 16 at Augusta in 2006.) Johnson reminds Lundquist of that advice whenever the two meet, and Lundquist has been more than happy to take over Johnson's TNT broadcasting duties for the Grand Slam of Golf, live from Bermuda, since EJ is now on postseason baseball coverage.

Lundquist is now helping out Johnson in a far more meaningful way, taking over TNT broadcast duties in the wake of Ernie Johnson Sr.'s passing. Johnson got the news Friday evening right around the time he was signing off from TNT's second-round coverage. It was a terrible blow, no less so because it was expected.

On Tuesday, he'd talked openly and honestly about how poor his father's health was. He knew that his father didn't have much time left, but his voice remained strong and thankful as fan after fan told him how much the sound of his father's voice on an Atlanta summer night meant to them.

After Ernie Johnson Sr. passed, EJ gave the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Carroll Rogers some telling anecdotes of how much his father meant to him, both as a son and a broadcaster: "Even when I knew I was terrible on the air ... I'm working on the radio in Athens, Ga. or I'm starting out in TV in Macon and there was nothing but encouragement. It was 'Hey, you're doing good.' You know, you might talk a little fast at times, maybe you want to slow down your pace a little bit. Then he'd say, 'You have time to shave today? You look like you had a little stubble on the air.'"

One of Ernie Johnson Sr.'s favorite expressions was that ballgames were "zipping right along," even during the 1980s when Braves games couldn't end fast enough. And every so often, EJ will drop the line into his own narrative of whatever game he's covering. It's exactly the kind of tribute a son wants to give his father, and Johnson knows how fortunate he's been to .

"Calling Jack Nicklaus's last trip to St. Andrews was a once-in-a-lifetime moment," Johnson says. "But broadcasting with my dad [for some Braves games in the 1990s]? That's probably the highlight of my career."

Johnson took off the rest of this weekend's coverage, but he'll be back soon enough for postseason baseball and, whenever it resumes, the NBA. Don't miss him when he returns. He's one of the best we've got.

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