The postgame show. Fans may come for the sport itself, but, when done right, the postgame show can be as entertaining. Perhaps, more critically, it serves as a true “audience surrogate” for the event.
Over the past 30 years, the studio show that has cemented its place as the greatest in its class has been Inside the NBA. Although he would be the last to admit it, much of the program’s success reflects its smart, steady, and gifted host, Ernie Johnson Jr.: one of sports broadcasting’s great audience surrogates.
“EJ is a trailblazer behind the desk,” says Craig Barry, EVP/chief content officer, Warner Bros. Discovery Sports, “and, as impactful as he has been to this industry, he is an even more impactful human being. His ability to bring that authentic human quality creates a unique emotional bond with his audience. It’s a gift, and it’s truly special to have that kind of connection.”
Milwaukee-born Johnson is the son of former Major League Baseball player Ernie Johnson and moved with his family to Atlanta following his father’s retirement from baseball and transition into the broadcast booth for the Atlanta Braves. Junior dreamed of following in his dad’s footsteps as a player.
Following a short stint on the University of Georgia baseball team, however, he turned his sights to broadcasting, getting his start as a local news anchor and expecting to follow a trail of on-air talents he admired, such as Dan Rather. He even studied the late, great Johnny Carson.
In 1989, Turner Sports came calling, and, in 1990, Johnson took over hosting duties for the program that would ultimately define his career: Inside the NBA. The weekly postgame show on TNT has reached iconic status over the decades. A winner of 17 Sports Emmy Awards, the show has the unique distinction of having been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It has also developed a long-standing reputation as one of the more fun and informative studio shows in sports-television history, one whose charm lies in its chaos.
“It’s what we hope happens,” laughs Johnson. “It’s not-going-according-to-plan that makes the show go. I think the key for me is always just knowing your role. As the host of that show, I’m just trying to steer the conversation to have at my disposal the things that I think are going to generate conversation. That all goes to the preparation.”
Inside the NBA’s charm comes from a cast loaded with some of the biggest personalities in the history of basketball: Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. However, it’s Ernie’s steady hand and respect for his partners that give the chaos a sense of reason.
“I think Ernie has been our moral compass,” says Tim Kiely, veteran former lead producer of Inside the NBA. “When we have tough decisions to make, we all can go to Ernie and ask, ‘What do you think?’ His judgment and his ability to pull apart an argument and look at it from three or four different angles and make sure we are covering everything is part of his brilliance.”
Says Johnson, “When you have the kind of relationship that Kenny, Shaq, Charles, and I have, where we’ve been together for so long, I know how Charles is going to react [to a topic], and, when he reacts that way, I know Kenny’s going to broadside him in the intersection. A lot of that is just knowing each other for so long; knowing just from a look and knowing from past experience how somebody’s going to react and knowing that will create a really cool moment. It’s very cool just to be right in the middle of what is often a chaotic show. Every one of our shows is somewhere between a walk on the beach and a train wreck.”
Notes Barkley, “He’s the perfect teammate. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer. He can work with any teammate and make them successful.”
Johnson’s impact and influence extend far beyond basketball. Over the years, he has occupied the host’s chair on Turner Sports/Warner Bros. Discovery Sports’ coverage of the NFL (1990-97), Wimbledon (2000-02), two Winter Olympics (Albertville 1992, Lillehammer 1994), a FIFA World Cup (1990), Major League Baseball (2007-present), and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (2011-present).
“The thing I admire about [Ernie] is his ability to go from sport to sport,” Barkley points out. “He does it seamlessly. That tells me he’s well-prepared. That’s what makes him The Godfather. The one word I would use to describe Ernie Johnson is professional.”
He has also been afforded opportunities to handle play-by-play duties for Turner Sports properties, including TNT’s coverage of the PGA TOUR and, in a life-coming-full-circle moment) calling Major League Baseball Postseason games (2010, 2012–18).
“That was a real tie to my dad,” says Johnson. “That was a spiritual experience for me. It really was. There was this tie to doing what my dad had done and what I had grown up tagging along with him to the ballpark to do. He and I did games together for the Braves for parts of three or four seasons when my schedule would allow, and, with as many cool people as I’ve gotten to work with in my life, nothing topped working with my dad in the ’90s. After he had retired and after he had passed, I’d always feel the weight of the ballpark on the day of a game. It was really cool to be able to be going to a ballpark and do what my dad did for a living for so long.”
Says Scooter Vertino, SVP, programming and production, sports and NBA content, Warner Bros. Discovery Sports, “Ernie is a Hall of Famer because he’s the rare person who has mastered their craft yet still is the hardest worker you’ll ever encounter. He holds himself to an extremely high standard while he makes everyone around him better. It’s a unique combination that’s unmatched.”
Johnson has also established a reputation across the industry as one of its “good” guys. A father of six, he has been an inspiration to many for beating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and for his continued commitment to his Christian faith.
“[Ernie] is an ambassador for what we do, for the leagues and the properties that we work with,” says Barry. “Quite frankly, he’s an ambassador for the human race.”
A six-time Sports Emmy Award winner, Johnson was named 2023 National Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association, has received the Vince Lombardi Award of Excellence, and is a New York Times best-selling author (Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary). The Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame induction is another treasured recognition.
“It’s gratifying beyond words,” says Johnson. “When you look at the class, it just points out that, in our business, it takes everybody from every facet of the industry to get things done. You’re talking about engineering; you’re talking about programming; you’re talking about every facet of the business. To be included in this group is ridiculous, it’s crazy. And I’m deeply honored and deeply thankful.”