Ernie Johnson on ‘Inside the NBA’: ‘I would like to think we haven’t peaked’

‘Inside the NBA’ is a staple that basketball fans have appreciated for decades. Hosted by Ernie Johnson since 1991, the show has become one of the most entertaining television programs, winning 18 Sports Emmy Awards.

Johnson spoke with HoopsHype about the intensity of covering the NCAA tournament along with the NBA, working with Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, and more.

This year’s tournament on the men’s side lacks some of the star prospects that we've usually seen in the past. Yet fans and people still really pay attention to the tournament. When you look at the NBA, the product is nothing without the star power. Why do you think every year people still pay attention to the tournament?

Ernie Johnson: I think we are hungry for common ground. I think in this time, in our country where there are so much of this [tension], so many people going at each other… such disagreement on so many fronts, that sometimes it’s just nice to have a common ground where if you’re a basketball enthusiast, or if you’re a fringe fan, you’ve got someplace that everybody can join. If you’re at work, in your neighborhood, whatever, where you get wherever you got your pool, doesn’t matter how much you know about the game, but the game brings people together. The tournament brings people together. The tournament makes you feel good. You know you got people trying not to go to work because they want to watch the tournament. And that’s never going to change. Because it’s entertaining, it’s unpredictable, and you find yourself rooting for somebody maybe you didn’t even know existed a week ago. That’s the beauty of the tournament. It shrinks the world for a little while. And to be part of that is magical. And I cannot wait to see if we get another run going when it starts on Thursday.

Because of Caitlin Clark and just the competitiveness and rivalries developing in the women’s game, there’s been a growing trend of fans who are paying more attention to the women’s than the men’s side. Do you think the ratings could actually favor the women’s moreso than the men’s this year?

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

EJ: I don’t know how that’s gonna play out. A lot of times it’s how compelling the storylines are going into as the tournament progresses, but I do know this about Caitlin Clark, she’s a game changer. I mean, the fact that folks would show up hours before tip-off to try to get a seat before for games that are sold out… Because she puts on such a show. You know, she passes like Pete Maravich. I grew up wanting to be Pete. I’m old enough to have watched Pete play college ball at LSU. Watched him play professional ball with the Hawks and he was my guy. We know the numbers, and there wasn’t a three-point shot when he played.

Just appreciate the greatness that both of these players brought to the game. It’s amazing and I love the progress that the women’s game has made. I love being in center court and All-Star Weekend to watch Sabrina Ionescu and Stephen Curry had their shoot-out. To watch her stand at the three-point line and shoot the ball as well as anybody in the NBA that night with the exception of Steph, I think it’s great. I think it’s great for sports. And I think the more eyeballs you get on it, no matter what the sport is, is a great thing.

Let’s talk about the guys you work with: Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith. Because of how close you are with the guys, is it easier to adapt when your bosses ask you guys to pivot and talk about college for a couple weeks?

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

EJ: You know what, I go back to when this partnership started with CBS. I know there were naysayers back then, “Ah, this will never work. This is not the way they’ve always done it.” Can you imagine watching the tournament another way, where you can turn to a specific network and watch your game? No, you can’t imagine not doing that. And it’s worked so well. And it’s worked well because we got along great with the folks at CBS. They’ve included me and Kenny and Chuck as part of this.

And look, the three of us could sit down and talk about any sport. It would be entertaining because of Kenny and Chuck. We have a great time together. We all love the game. And so to be in there with Clark Kellogg on those long Thursdays and Fridays, man, it’s a blast. And this is the way it works. We take a little hiatus from the NBA. We do the March Madness. Come back for the NBA playoffs. It’s all basketball, it’s all good.

With how taxing the NBA season is, how do you guys prepare for the tournament?

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

EJ: It’s a lot of work, it really is. The prep for this is pretty intensive. Look when you’re doing the NBA, you’re worried about 30 teams. Here, not only do they have 68 teams in the field, but in the couple of months leading up to it, you’re prepping for maybe 100, 150 teams that potentially could get in there. So it’s not like you’re waiting until Selection Sunday to say, “Oh, I guess I better get down to work there and brush up on some of these things.”

Now I’ve been doing that for months, which allows for the Monday and Tuesday after Selection Sunday just to be finalizing everything and then sitting down Thursday and getting going. So it’s a cool thing and it’s nice to get a little break and change things up a little bit. But then the NBA playoffs are a grind. You know we’re talking about working once a week during the regular season, or basically working every night when the NBA playoffs come, so this is the intensive part of our calendar, March Madness, Final Four, NBA Playoffs. It doesn’t relent from this point on.

When did you think 'Inside the NBA' peak? Has it peaked?

EJ: It hasn’t peaked, what are you talking about!? That’s a great question though, man. Seriously, I would like to think we haven’t peaked. I would like to think that like, we’ve never rested on laurels, we’ve never gotten satisfied with where we are. I go into every one of those Thursday nights or any of those playoff nights saying, “What’s gonna happen tonight, and it hasn’t happened yet that might still happen.”

We were always thinking, how can we make the show better, and if you ever get to the point in any job, whether it’s ‘Inside the NBA’ or whatever, where you think, “Well, I’ve done the best we can do, it’s all downhill from here” then you lose it, and we’re not close to that.

What are you doing with your partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings?

EJ: I would be happy to [talk about this] because the Buffalo Wild Wings folks would say, “Hey, that’s a great opportunity to talk about the beef of Buffalo competition here as you go on, with your bracket and see if you can beat this buffalo who has made these picks while standing in the field, and looking one way or the other at the teams behind him. And so that’s what he did for the men’s and the women’s, Jack the Buffalo. It’s not a real scientific way about making your bracket, but this is what works for buffaloes. And he came up with McNeese, a winner on the men’s side, which might be a little bit of a reach, but hey, we applaud that kind of thinking come March Madness time, where you go outside the box.

And then on the women’s side, he really didn’t think much of the top seeds because three of them got knocked out in their openers, and then Iowa only won one game. And not surprisingly, he had the Buffaloes of Colorado winning. So buffalo picks the Buffaloes, and, so if you can beat him, if you feel like going to the Final Four next year men or women, you’re in the running for that if you’d be Jack the Buffalo and your supply win doesn’t get any better than that. So I know, from the look on your face, you’re in.

What are your predictions for both the men/women’s teams?

EJ: Well, it’s so unscientific. People try to make it scientific, people try to look at all the numbers and the metrics and everything else. When you watch UConn play, I would be surprised if they trot out the same guys every night, I would be surprised to see anybody beat them. So they would be my pick on the men’s side. Others. I mean, obviously Houston’s a really good defensive team, but I’ve got Kentucky getting past them in that region. Purdue’s trying to bounce back from losing in the first round. I’ve got Tennessee coming out of that region. I’m struggling with the other region with North Carolina and I just think it’s a real hard call and I don’t have to usually finish my bracket until Wednesday or Thursday morning. I want to see injury-wise who’s available, how teams are doing, that kind of thing. So with that said, UConn would be would be my team.

The way South Carolina is playing undefeated at 32 and 0, and I know the pressure ratchets up every time you take the floor when you’re undefeated… But the way they won that game against Tennessee in the ACC tournament, in a three-pointer from somebody who doesn’t hit threes may tell you that something special may be in the works for Dawn Staley and South Carolina.

Story originally appeared on HoopsHype