Johnson fired up on and off the air
CLEVELAND – Even as Gus Johnson sat courtside at Quicken Loans Arena last Thursday, watching George Mason practice, the enthusiasm that made the sportscaster a fan favorite was clear.
The seconds of an NCAA tournament game weren’t winding down and no one was keeping score, so he wasn’t adding a sound bite to the growing compilation of his calls on the Internet .
Still, he looked at the team practicing, then pointed to the upper deck.
“Look at where we’re sitting; this is incredible,” Johnson said. “As a kid, I probably wouldn’t have come to a game like this. If I did, I’d be sitting way up there somewhere.”
Sitting is a relative term with Johnson as he’s calling a game, especially if the score is tight and time is ticking down, as could happen this weekend when Johnson calls play-by-play during the Southeast Regional in New Orleans, which features Wisconsin, Butler, Florida and BYU.
Johnson, 43, has been a part of CBS’ and now Turner Sports’ NCAA tournament coverage team since 1995. He has been the voice of the NBA’s New York Knicks. He also has been a part of CBS’ NFL coverage since 1998 in addition to working on the Big Ten Network and with Showtime Championship Boxing.
Johnson describes his style as “passionate, enthusiastic, non-critical. And a little wild.”
If Johnson had followed his original career path, he might have been “a little wild” in the courtroom. A graduate of Detroit Jesuit, Johnson was a political science major and baseball player at Howard in 1989 with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Then he shadowed an attorney for a day.
“I spent one day with a lawyer and knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he said. “They work too hard.”
He called his mother, Btroy, back in Detroit. Her advice: “Whatever you do, make sure you jump out of bed in the morning to do it, even if it only pays you enough to meet the bills.”
An adviser at Howard steered him to an internship at a local FM station. He was the only one who applied for the $500-a-semester internship, but there was no on-air work. Thus, he went to the college radio station as well. No sportscasters were on staff, so Johnson became the sports director.
His first calls were for Howard’s women’s basketball team on the campus-only radio station.
“They had this little bitty remote box, so I’d take it to the gym and plug it into the phone line and we were on the air,” Johnson said. “We were broadcasting all on campus. Nobody could hear that broadcast unless you were in the dorms.”
Ed Hill, Howard’s sports information director for 27 years, said even then, Johnson set the seeds for his trademark style.
“He made it exciting because he had passion and enthusiasm,” Hill said. “You knew people who weren’t listening were missing something.”
While his first broadcasts had an extremely limited reach, Johnson treated it like a big-time job. Bruce Speight, who was a classmate and an intern with Johnson at WHUR-FM, recalls walking into the radio office late at night and seeing Johnson pulling news stories off the Teletype machine.
“At night, I’d come back from the studio and I could see him reading the copy by himself,” said Speight, now a senior director of media relations for the New York Jets. “You could tell he was working his own voice.”
While Johnson refined his delivery, the enthusiasm always was present. That enthusiasm is no act, Speight said, and that enthusiasm took him into television at stations in Waco, Texas; Huntsville, Ala.; and Winston-Salem, N.C. But his style was modeled after icons in Detroit. Johnson grew up watching Detroit sports teams with his family, following the careers of Pistons announcer George Blaha and Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell.
If Johnson sounds like he’s bouncing off his couch while he’s calling a game, that’s with good reason. He did as much at home.
“I come from a loud family – a passionate family, a positive family,” Johnson said. “We know how to have a good time. We’re not afraid to have a good time. We would have a good time, and a lot of our time was watching sports.”
Somewhere, aspiring broadcasters may be following his lead. The lesson for them, Johnson said, would be to live in the moment.
“Half the time, I don’t even remember what I said,” Johnson said. “I just say whatever I feel and see. I don’t watch them after it’s done because I don’t want to judge myself and change what I’m doing. I don’t want to screw that up if I’ve got something good going.
“I don’t want to mess with my luck by tweaking it or becoming self-deprecating and judging.”