As host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” Ernie Johnson has one of the most fascinating jobs in sports. Johnson serves as the conductor of chaos that is Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith.
Johnson chatted with Yahoo Sports about the show, his thoughts on the NBA season and his pick for league MVP.
For Ernie Johnson’s thoughts on adoption, faith, cancer, and his new book, “Unscripted,” read Part I of our Q&A.
You have one of the tougher jobs in sports, it seems. How do you manage to let Charles, Shaq and Kenny be themselves while still managing to complete a somewhat structured show?
Ernie Johnson: I love the way you said “somewhat.” I wish I had the definitive answer to that question. Here’s what’s made that show so much fun ever since Day 1. OK, well, Day 1, I was doing the show by myself, it wasn’t as good, when I was just sitting around doing highlights. Basically back then, everybody was kind of doing the same looking show. When we added Kenny, he was just a natural. … And then, the guy who changed the landscape is Chuck. The reason he changed the landscape is because he is the same person as a broadcaster as he was as a player. … If the game wasn’t any good he would just come out and say it.
We’d come on at halftime in years past and say, “Hey it’s a 63-41 game at the half, blah, blah, blah.” Now, you can, if the game is one-sided, Chuck comes out and says, “Man, who would be watching this.”
People loved it. People loved that he was just totally honest. One of the first shows we ever did, we were coming into halftime and Charles asked Kenny, “What are you gonna say about this?” Kenny just said, “You’ll find out.” That set the stage. … It was just like, “We’re going to be like the guys at home watching the game.” Nobody is asking for permission to talk. Sometimes whoever talks the loudest gets heard.
In terms of how you keep it from like going off the rails, it’s really just feel. It’s like sometimes they get off on a tangent that’s so funny and so good, you don’t want to rein that in, you just want it to go. Other times, if it gets away from what we’re trying to do, I’ll put my foot down. It’s the same as how it would be in the living room. We’re being real. Somehow it’s worked for a long, long time.
Some stuff works and some stuff doesn’t but boy we have a fun time doing it. It’s good to laugh. It’s a blessing to go to a job and you know you’re going to laugh.
I have to ask you about Charles’ feud with LaVar Ball. Where do you stand on that and do you think LaVar is making life harder for his son?
Ernie Johnson: I hesitate to ever, as one dad, tell another dad how to raise their kids. My thing with LaVar ball would just be, “Are you helping? Are you hurting in a way that maybe you hadn’t considered?” But, I’m not going to tell him how to raise his kid.
I watched a profile on them and I said, “Wow, this is how this is in his house all the time.” This is a dad who is very opinionated and very boisterous and very proud of his kids. To my way of thinking, no, I wouldn’t go that route. My dad [sportscaster Ernie Johnson Sr.] never put pressure on me to be the next this or the next that and I never did that to my kids. I want them to find their way and find what they’re passionate about and pursue it like crazy.
I do think that in a way, he gets everybody’s antenna up. Those guys who are in the league right now say, “OK, here comes this kid Lonzo. Let’s see.” He’s a special talent and he’ll probably have a great NBA career, but he’s put himself in a tough spot.
It’s funny because if you listen to Lonzo talk and give interviews, he doesn’t come off at all like his dad.
Ernie Johnson: Yeah, exactly. I guess he’s had his little thing with Markelle Fultz recently and that came off on the surface of kind of Lonzo maybe going down his dad’s road. It’s really, when I look at it, this is what great athletes do. They consider themselves better. I’m sure Charles when he went into games against Karl Malone said, “I’m better than he is.” You had to have that feeling to be successful. I don’t think that’s anything out of the ordinary for someone to say, “Yeah, I’m a better leader.”
But I also think, the greatest thing my dad ever taught me was just humility. I’ve always tried to live by that. Now if you go back to the spiritual realm for a second, C.S. Lewis described humility in a perfect way. He said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” You can recognize that you’ve been gifted in certain ways and be very thankful for that, but it doesn’t mean that you brag about it.
Now, I have to ask your pick for MVP.
Ernie Johnson: It’s especially interesting now because league puts out the voters and how they voted. So, your vote is out there and people do go through that. … This MVP thing is truly interesting. I think maybe I’ll try to confound the league and vote tabulators and say that the MVP is Russell Harden.
There’s been some talk about the league having co-MVPs. Do you think the NBA would do that?
Ernie Johnson: No, I don’t think so. The voting is pretty straightforward. I would say right now, I would take Russell. Just seeing what he’s done, something that [Oscar Robertson] hasn’t done since ’62 is pretty remarkable.
James Harden has had a tremendous year too. The difference between first and second on my ballot is going to be miniscule.
[Westbrook] is a special player. Sometimes we lose sight of the average fan has to decide, how they’re going to spend their money. … He’s a player that you pay to see. His motor is unbelievable. I love watching players who, you know when you go to see them, everything is going to be left out on the floor. Charles was that kind of guy. … You knew you were going to see all-out effort and you knew you were going to be entertained because when he wasn’t getting 25 [points] and 20 [rebounds] he was punching out a mascot during a timeout. Russell Westbrook is exactly that same way with that non-stop motor and that drive to do whatever it takes to help his team win.
So, who do you have in the Finals? Is it gonna be a Warriors-Cavs rematch?
Ernie Johnson: It used to be that I thought the East was an open-and-closed deal. I thought obviously it was going to be Cleveland in the East. I think the fact that Washington and Boston have closed the gap substantially, means it’s not going to be as easy for Cleveland. I still think they’re the team to beat, despite the fact that they’ve hit a little bit of a bump here.I still think it’s really, really hard to beat that team four times in a series when you’ve got LeBron James. You’re not talking March Madness. On any night, Washington could beat them, or so could Boston. But, to beat that team four times takes some work.
So, I guess I’ll still take Cleveland to come out of the East. In the West, it’s kinda that same thinking of beating a team four times. I look at what Golden State has done without Kevin Durant … If he plays like Kevin Durant when he comes back, in my mind, nobody beats them four times. If Kevin comes back and he’s effective, then this is the team that goes to the Finals and beats Cleveland.