NBA Chat with TNT’s Ernie Johnson

E.J. was right there to see Sir Charles outrace Dick Bavetta in a hilarious moment at the 2007 All-Star game.

Ernie Johnson, the Emmy-award winning host of "Inside the NBA" on TNT, took some time out of his Monday to speak with us about his career, Charles Barkley's hilarity and much more in an audio chat.

To listen to the interview, click below:

ERNIE JOHNSON INTERVIEW

We've also included a full, verbatim transcript of the interview:

Ernie Johnson Interview: Complete Transcript
Intro: Hello everyone, this is Wolves reporter Mike Trudell thanking you for listening to our timberwolves.com chat with Ernie Johnson of the Turner Sports Network. You may know him best for his Emmy-Award winning work on TNT's "Inside the NBA" alongside Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, though he's also the play-by-play announcer for TNT's PGA Tour coverage, the studio host for TBS' college football and the Major League Baseball playoffs. Ernie, how are things in Atlanta?
Ernie Johnson: Things are outstanding down here. Here we are in December, and it's 70 degrees. Not to make anybody up in the Minneapolis-area feel jealous or anything, but I have a tank top on.

MT: A tank top? Wow!
EJ: (Laughs) No.

MT: I'm sure we'd like to see you wear that on Thursday at the show. I wonder what Charles and Kenny would have to say about that?
EJ: Yeah, we'll put a logo on there, "NBA on TNT" and see how it flies.

MT: Excellent. Well, if you'll allow me to rewind a little bit to the beginning of your career, let's go back to 1977. When you were a student at the University of Georgia. After graduating in '79, you started working as a news anchor in Macon, Georgia. What I was thinking (is that) Herschel Walker’s ridiculous freshman season at Georgia was just one year later in 1980, when he was third in Heisman voting. If you'd just failed a few classes you would have been there at Georgia to see that.
EJ: Yeah, I came dangerously close to doing that as is. I didn't even know who Herschel Walker was at the time. But I actually had a chance to watch Herschel play a few times when I was working in Macon, and then later in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

MT: You were a news reporter in Spartanburg, right?
EJ: Yeah and in Macon too. I was a news anchor in Macon for a year and a half, and a news reporter for exactly one year in Spartanburg before they hired me at the ABC affiliate WSD in Atlanta. Actually, I switched from news to sports, and it's kind of weird how it happens, Mike. A new news director comes in at Channel 2, and on his first day, I'm filling in for the sports guy doing a live shot for the Braves-Dodgers game, and he calls me into the office the next day and says, "Did you ever think about doing sports? I said I used to do it on the radio, and I've always been a big sports fan and played some baseball at Georgia. I thought I was pretty much pigeonholed into the news thing, but he said, "Well, I want you to be the new weekend sports guy. That kind of changed the direction of my career drastically.

MT: As a news reporter in Spartanburg, before we get over to sports, I was wondering if there were any ridiculous or crazy stories you had to cover on the news beat...
EJ: There were a few things that (were) maybe not crazy, but when you're in Spartanburg, you're doing everything. I covered trials, I would cover meetings, I would cover (anything). Basically anything that moved, I had to cover. I actually covered a fire once at the apartment complex where I was living.

MT: (Laughs) Were you taking any time to run in your room while you were on the mic and grab all of your goodies? Maybe some tank tops?
EJ: Well, it was like three in the morning, and I'd taken a camera home with me because I had to shoot something the next day, and about three buildings down I hear all these sirens. I wake up and am basically out there shooting video that I used the next day when I got on the air. That was kind of strange.

The glue that keeps the NBA's best show together on "Inside the NBA," E.J.'s pictured here with Magic Johnson, Kenny Smith and and Charles Barkley.
MT: That's a good story. Now, I want to fast-forward to 1989, when you were hired by Turner Sports. Then in 1993, you became the radio voice of the Atlanta Braves. Who was your partner, but your father, Ernie Johnson Sr., a former Major League Baseball player. Could anything have topped that for you early in your career?
EJ: Oh no, and nothing ever will. What we were actually doing was working on the regional cable, which was Sports South at the time. He and I did TV games for parts of four years together on Wednesday nights. Since he had played baseball with the Braves and was an announcer for them for more than 35 years, so to be able to sit in the booth and work with him was just a thrill. I just went into each broadcast hoping I didn't embarrass the family and him specifically, and it was the greatest time. There have been a lot of things I've done since and will do in the future, but nothing tops working with my dad.

MT: You must have had a special kind of chemistry with your old man. And in fact, that might be the primary reason why we love watching you so much with Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on “Inside the NBA.” You guys truly seem to enjoy being around each other, and it makes for a great vibe.
EJ: What happens there Mike is I think it's a genuine deal. Nobody is trying to fake it. Basically, what you see is what you get with all three of us. Nobody is trying to be anything different from what they are off the air. We approach the game from different angles, and actually, we just enjoy each other's company. We like hanging out. So that's what makes it work. It's unrehearsed, spontaneous, let 'er rip (TV). Nobody asks for permission to talk, and I think that's what really makes it fun. People at home don't know what's going to happen next, and half the time, I don't either.

MT: Once again, we're talking to Ernie Johnson of the Turner Sports Network. You probably know him as "EJ." EJ, what is the ideal sponsor for your always-entertaining “Neat-o-Stat of the Night?” Maybe a company that would produce some nice perks, like an airline, or a great steak restaurant, or maybe Krispy Kreme to keep Charles happy?
EJ: I don't think at this point I'm in any position to pick or choose. In this day and age, where everything in a basketball game is sponsored, the "Neat-o-Stat of the Night" remains - aside from just a couple of times where somebody bought in for a time - an unsponsored item. Maybe one of these days somebody will look up there and say, "Hey, why not, it's 2 a.m. on the East Coast, but I'd like to invest my dollars on the "Neat-o-Stat of the Night." Who knows. We had Vitamin Water for a little while, and we've had a couple of other guys, but that's been about it. Mostly it's unsponsored.

MT: But it sort of makes it better that way, doesn't it?
EJ: Yeah, when the guy tags it, "Sponsored by ... Nobody." And then obviously it gives Charles another opportunity to hit me. You can't get enough of those. When he gets tired of saying, "You're just a hillbilly with a big forehead," he always likes the opportunity to say, "Of course no one is going to sponsor you. You're a nitwit."

MT: All right, I have a bunch of Barkley quotes to run by you in a second. But on a serious note, if you talk to long-time ushers, reporters or players, everybody says that Charles is their favorite interview. How would you describe your partner, Charles Barkley.
EJ: I can go back because I remember him as a player, and I know he was entertaining ... because when you went to the arena to watch him, not only did you know he was going to play hard for the entire 48, but he was also going to entertain you. Whether that was punching out a mascot, or having fun with the crowd, he would do that. He's the same guy now that's he's on TV. He walks in the building at night, and just says, "Let's have a good time." I think he also realizes that we're talking about basketball. We're not talking about anything that's really life changing. Every now and then you have to talk about a story that's serious, but for the most part, we're watching basketball and talking about it, and providing people with an escape from the harsh realities in life. Maybe we can give them two hours, or if they want to sit through a double-header, four or five hours of something to take them away from the stuff that really matters.

MT: Charles is often sprinting to get onto the set before the cameras start rolling. What is backstage? Is there just a room with a bunch of TVs to watch all the games...
EJ: Yeah, there is a green room where guests will hang out, and then there is the viewing room that has a million monitors in it, and also has food in it, so that's where Charles can be found. Charles and Kenny watch the game from in there, and I watch some of the game from in there when I'm not in my office working on my stuff. I'm kind of in three or four different places when we're not on the air, just getting for the next time that we're on. Sometimes it's just the three of us sitting in there with a few other folks watching the game, or if there's something else that grabs your attention. Sometimes there's a football game that might be on along with the basketball, etc. etc. But yeah, (Charles) doesn't want to get out there and sit for three minutes waiting to get on, he just wants to run out there when it's time to start and do the show.

MT: One of my favorite quotes that I've actually asked other people on (timberwolves.com) about starts with Kenny: "There's guys who go over to Europe and play overseas from America, and they dominate."
Charles says,: "Those are called 'brothers.'
EJ: (laughs) Yeah, if you're asking for whether or not these actually happened, I'd say yeah, that probably happened. Yes.

MT: OK. Before we get to another quote, I have a picture I saw for this article of you, (Charles and Dick Bavetta) after they raced (at the 2007 All-Star game). I was wondering how awesome it was to watch in person, and how you kept a straight face in the interview afterwards.
EJ: Oh that was such a fun night. It really was. The thing that I thought about it, how many times during All-Star weekend do you just sit back and laugh? It's not very often. You know, they'll watch the rookies and the sophomores play, they'll watch the three-point contest, the dunk contest. They'll get some enjoyment out of that and maybe laugh about what a great dunk (they saw), but it's very rare when you have people just roaring with laughter about what they're watching. To be apart of it, to watch Charles and Dick do that thing was just hilarious. It was a funny mix. We wanted it to almost be a parody of a major event ... but not all the questions were asked that way. It was just such a fun evening, and I've looked back at that tape a few times and I laugh every time I see it.

MT: You're often faced with the tough task of keeping a straight face when something hilarious happens when the camera is rolling, Ernie, and it's something you've gotten quite good at. But there have been a few times when you almost had to just stop, wave over to Kenny and tell him to talk when Charles says something stupid.
EJ: Well sure, and that's the beauty of the show, because if you sat there and rehearsed every segment: "OK, Kenny is going to talk, and then Charles is going to make this point, then we'll throw a graphic up and then you do this," it would come off that way. I think the genuine moments on the show come when Kenny and I are speechless at something really funny that takes the show in a totally different direction. We're very fortunate to have a producer named Tim Kiley who has a great feel for the show, and knows if something is working or if it's not. If we're going to deviate from a point we thought we were going to make, he lets us go. That's really a luxury to have.

MT: One of those moments came when David Blaine stayed under water for nine minutes during the 2006 playoffs. Charles responded by staying under a small tub of water ... For 24 seconds. Your thoughts at the time on that stunt?*
EJ: That was one of those things that's on in the viewing room when we're doing the game, and Charles said something as he's watching like, "I could do that!" That's all that we really needed. Then our producer Tim Kiley gets me aside with director Steve Fiorello, and Charles didn't know this. They were like, "Do you think we can get this done? What can we do?" Steve was like, "We could get this huge fishbowl type of thing, I can mount a camera underneath and shoot up" ... None of this was planned. It was 9:30 at night, and the crew gets all this stuff ready for the postgame show, and all of a sudden, here it is. We surprised Charles with it, and it was, "OK let's see what you can do." That was one of those things that was just priceless ... To see him in there, and Kenny is just killing him while he's doing it. It's very hard to hold your breath while you're laughing, so yes, he lasted about 24 seconds.
*Take a look at the clip of Charles' attempt: CHUCK'S 24 SECONDS

MT: Then in 2002, Barkley told Kenny he would “Kiss his butt," not in those words, if then-rookie Yao Ming scored 19 points in a game. Yao of course did it later that week, so you guys brought a donkey in, and Charles kissed the rear end of a donkey. You had to keep a straight face during that, too. Well, not really.
EJ: Yeah, but here's the deal. The direct quote was that Charles said he would "kiss his ass." So Kenny got them to rent an ass, and brought it in. He really didn't need to kiss the donkey on the backside, all he needed to do was kiss the donkey. He could have kissed him on the forehead, which would qualify as kissing his ass. But Charles took it one more step and kissed the donkey on the butt.

MT: (laughs)
EJ: Jesse Ventura was our special guest that night on "Listen Up," as a matter of fact. That was just one of your more bizarre shows. If you just took a freeze-frame of that: here's Jesse Ventura, me Kenny and Charles with Charles planting one on a donkey, you might say, "That show might be worth a watch."

MT: That should have been a Christmas card. Now as you talked about Charles giving you a hard time, one of those special moments was when Reggie Evans got caught grabbing Chris Kaman in an inappropriate place, a naughty place. You said: "Reggie Evans got caught with his hand in the cookie jar."
EJ: (mimicking Barkley) "I don't know where you're getting your cookies!" (laughs)

MT: Yeah, the direct quote I have was, "Ernie, I don't know where you get your cookies at but the rest of us don't get ours there."
EJ: That's exactly what he said. That's again one of those things where something will happen in the league, and you say, this doesn't pertain to anything we're doing tonight as far as the games go, but it sure would be funny to hear what Charles and Kenny have to say about it. So you crank some video out, and there you go. Again, if you try to rehearse that, it doesn't come out anywhere near the way it happens.

MT: And you've seem to really master, Ernie, the way to put your stamp on the show but also just back off sometimes and let Kenny and Charles do their thing...
EJ: It's all about knowing your role I think, Mike. My role there is to get these guys where they're at their best. The show is not about me, and it's not about Kenny and Chuck either. The game is the thing. Our presence is wrapped around the games you're watching. And if somebody wants to know what's going to happen in a basketball game, they don't want to hear it from me, they want to hear it from the guys who have been there, like Charles, Kenny, Magic (Johnson) or Reggie (Miller). They're the guys that have been in the huddle with .6 seconds to play, and know what's being said. So you get them to their strong suits, and I'm just trying to get us from point A to point B as far as the show goes, and try to bring out the best in those guys. Along the way we just have the interaction of three or four guys who are sitting on the couch, all reacting to watching a basketball game.

MT: Once again, we're talking to Ernie Johnson on timberwolves.com. Ernie, you have had some great interviews with other players in the NBA, whether it's after the game, or as guest hosts on the show. Who are a few guys you enjoy spending time with that are still in the league.
EJ: I think Kobe Bryant was great. We had him in a couple of years ago during the playoffs, and he gave a demonstration on the court that was really great about taking last-second shots that you really don't think about. He talked about having an internal clock, without having to look at the game clock and know how much time he has to get rid of the shot. He's saying, "OK, I have the ball here, and I'm counting backwards in my head ... Six, five, four. I'm saying, "Wow, how about that." Sometimes you hear guys that (took that shot) that say (they) looked up at the clock to see how much time they had, but Kobe already had that ingrained ... He knew what he had to do while he was making his move. He was a very good guest.

Chris Webber used to be a wonderful guest to have in. Very loose, and a lot of fun. Chris Paul is 22-years-old, but sounds like he's been doing this all his life. We had him on earlier this season. It's always fun to add someone in there who's into it and who is not nervous, because you see some guys ... There's a big difference between saying you can do the show and sitting there when the red light goes on. Sometimes people forget that.

MT: Another good (guest) you talk to often is Shaq, and my buddy e-mailed me a quote from Shaq that you could ask Charles on the air sometime. Shaq said this after dropping 30 points in a win over the Knicks a while back: "I had an awful first quarter but I picked it up. To all you single guys out there, it's not how you start the date, it's how you finish the date."
EJ: (Laughs) Yeah, I'm sure Charles would have some fun with that, for sure.

"Remember guys, it's not how you start a date, it's how you finish it." - Shaq
MT: If you can't work it on, we understand, I just thought I'd bring it up for you.
EJ: That may take me a little bit of time.

MT: I did want to ask you where you want to take the show in the future? It's so successful right now, as you're winning Emmy's and having a great time ... Do you have any thoughts about where the show can go down the road, or are you just enjoying the ride?
EJ: I think part of it (is) you just enjoy the ride because you never know in television how long a show is going to last, how long the ingredients of the show are in place ... If somebody gets a head coaching offer, if somebody decides they don't want to do TV anymore. There are just so many variables out there, so I think what you do is enjoy every show that you do, and I think when we look back, we'll always be able to say, "Man we were part of a show that was pretty different and that was a pretty special time."

MT: OK Ernie just a few more questions for you. If you were to see an NBA Royal Rumble, old-school WWF style, would you take anybody other than Shaq or Dwight Howard?
EJ: A Royal Rumble?

MT: Right, where you have everyone in the ring, and whoever the last man standing is wins.
EJ: I think I'd go back and recruit Xavier McDaniel. He was something. Charles Oakley wouldn't be a bad guy to still have in there in a situation like that. Aside from those guys, I don't know. Current day, having Shaq just for his mere size and being able to get some people (out of the ring) ... I don't know if I'd have Dwight Howard. Dwight's a very mild-mannered, great kid. He may not go for that Battle Royal stuff.

MT: But he is the opposite of small.
EJ: Yeah. (laughs). True.

MT: I want to ask you about the broadcast booths you have at TNT, with either Marv Albert, the Czar Mike Fratello and Reggie Miller or Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins. Do you want to comment on how terrific these guys are?
EJ: I have the greatest respect for the guys who do the games on our air. Kevin Harlan, you know...

MT: Formerly of the T-Wolves, baby...
EJ: Very familiar with his Kevin Garnett calls, "With no regard for human life!!!!" Kevin is such a good guy, he really is, and he has probably the world's greatest insatiable appetite. What I can do from where I sit in Atlanta - I have an earpiece in all night - I can hear these guys talking at commercial breaks. It gets late in the game, and Harlan is making plans for dinner during every commercial break and talking about it. (insert Harlan voice) "I could really use an In and Out burger, animal style. If this goes much longer, I'm going to gnaw my own arm off!" It's legendary. We have a staff dinner before the season every year, and the guy just puts away some grub.

MT: Wow, up along with Charles?
EJ: That's a different weight class. (Harlan) has some incredibly metabolism, where he just puts away food. If Chuck had his metabolism, he'd be unmanageable. Harlan is great, and Doug (Collins)...

MT: He always tells you something that you didn't see on the basketball court, don't you think?
EJ: Oh he always does. He's so good, has such a great coaches' perspective and is able to get that across to the viewer, but not like a coach talking to a player where you have to grow up in the game to understand it. It's very common sense. Then on the other side...

MT: "The Czar of the telestrator!"
EJ: Marv's voice is on so many big game moments it's unbelievable, and he has this very bizarre relationship with the Czar (Fratello). Very strange sense of humor that they both have, and you throw Reggie in the mix. I think we have the greatest crews out there.

And just in terms of big picture in broadcasting, one of the greatest guys out there, Verne Lundquist, actually used to do some basketball with us at TNT. If there's a finer guy in broadcasting then Verne Lundquist over at CBS, then I haven't met him.

MT: Gotcha. Ernie, I wanted to bring up that when Kevin Harlan was in his early days here with the Timberwolves, it was more unfiltered. He's talked about being at TNT now, and since it's on a national stage he doesn't inject as much of his personality. But when he was calling games here with the Wolves ... We have to get you some old tapes.
EJ: One thing I shy away from is getting ahold of anybody else's old tapes, because I know my old tapes are still in existence, and the last thing I want is somebody digging up some of my stuff from Macon, Spartanburg or weekends in Atlanta.

MT: You'd think your producers would do that to you (more often)...
EJ: Oh they've thrown some stuff on there on the air. They have that video of me in the dunk contest, and we're getting near All-Star weekend, so I know that will make an appearance. I had those shorts on that were too tight and too short, and it's just really embarrassing.

MT: I wanted to ask you about the situation (early Sunday morning) with Jamaal Tinsley and the shooting incident (in Indianapolis)...
EJ: Here's the deal: When you see something like that happen - and he could be totally innocent, and just be a victim in this whole thing, that he didn't incite anything, he wasn't asking for it, etc. that could all be true - the point is when you're in that role, you have to have the responsibility to say, "You know what, I don't think that's a very good place to be. Something bad could happen." I just think it all comes down to decision making. Sometimes you have to put the good of the franchise (first). Wherever you go, you're representing them. If you're going to hang out in a place where, potentially, there could be trouble, then it's not about you. It's about your team, your teammates and what kind of light you're going to put on them. Even though you have the freedom to do what you want to do, you have to sometimes say, "You know what, that's probably not a good place to be." ... Doc Rivers had one of the best things ever to say about that. He used to say, "My dad used to tell me, 'That's why they deliver the mail during the day, because nothing good happens after midnight.'" I think sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. Despite the fact that you might want to be somewhere, the wiser decision is to stay home.

MT: Maybe one exception to that rule: "Inside the NBA" goes after midnight.
EJ: It always does, but it's a pretty safe environment for the most part, where we do that show.

MT: One last thing Ernie. Especially as a fan of yours, it was really inspiring to see you overcome Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I wanted to see how much that impacted you in a positive way going forward, and (perhaps) lending some perspective.
EJ: Any time you go through something like that (and we all have stuff in our lives that we're going to have to deal with) ... Some of it is physical, some of it's emotion ... You can go down any road, whether it's marriage, raising kids, whatever. There are going to be issues in your life. I had such great support from so many NBA fans out there, and I handled it basically with three words: "Trust God Period." That's the way I handled the whole deal. Not trusting that this test comes out well, or the doctor says this ... He's been on my side in mountain-top times and then in valley times like going through cancer. Basically, it was in His hands. The support was wonderful, my faith saw me through it and my family was tremendous. I figure, I'm blessed. Every day is wonderful. Not to sound to Pollyanna, but it really is. It deepens your appreciation for all the things that you have, and you spend very little time thinking about the things that you don't. I think that's a good thing.

MT: All right, well that's TNT's Ernie Johnson. Thanks so much for your time Ernie, we really enjoyed talking to you on timberwolves.com. Is there anything you'd like to add before we get out of here?
EJ: I think I'm done, but I would say this: Check us out Thursday night's, the NBA on TNT, and you never know what might happen.

MT: If you're not watching right now, you're crazy. Please set your TIVO's and DVRs. I know I'll be listening, Ernie. Thanks again. I'm Wolves reporter Mike Trudell on timberwolves.com, and that's Ernie Johnson. We'll see you later.
EJ: Thank you Mike.