Ernie Johnson on his faith, health, bow ties and basketball

Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images
Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images /

NBA on TNT host Ernie Johnson sat down to discuss how his faith guides his life, how his health is doing, where the bow ties came from and of course, basketball.

Most people know Ernie Johnson as the measured host wearing a bow tie for NBA on TNT. He took some time to discuss his faith, health, basketball, baseball and where the bow ties came from with Hoops Habit.

The interview was done over the phone and has been edited for clarity.

Hoops Habit: Was God a part of your decision-making process as your family grew and your career took off? 

Ernie Johnson: The simple answer is no. I had a great wife, a great job — we weren’t paying God much attention, so why should I start doing that?

But during that time, when we adopted Michael in ’91 and then Carmen from Paraguay in ’93, we weren’t attending church or anything like that.

While we weren’t paying attention to Him, He was certainly paying attention to us.

HH: You’ve talked in interviews before how you continually try to maintain the balance between family and work, but now do you ever feel like you have to separate your faith and your work?

EJ: No, I’ve been involved with a really solid church down here for decades in Atlanta (it’s called 12 Stone) and the pastor is a great friend of mine, his name is Jason Myers.

As I got older I realize that my faith couldn’t be a slice of my life. If my life was looked at like a pie, my life couldn’t be a “work slice” and a “dad slice” and a “husband slice.” You have to slice up your life, but at the crust of the whole thing has to be my faith.

HH: You had to sit out MLB postseason coverage this past season due to blood clots in your legs. How is your health? 

EJ: I felt great even after I was diagnosed with the blood clots in my leg and when I released that video announcing my condition this past fall, but we’re still trying to figure out why they’re there.

I was just glad it happened the way it did, because those things are not to be messed with.

The only tough part about it was that I have this great ability to fall asleep anywhere. I can fall asleep on a plane, in a car, getting my haircut even! [laughs]

When I was flying I had to make sure I was up every hour and moving around because of them.

HH: Speaking of baseball, you once described calling baseball games as “spiritual” in an interview with GQ in October of 2016 and a way to to connect with and honor your father. What’s that experience like and what did he teach you?  

EJ: I got my work ethic from my dad. It’s not like he sat me down once day and told me how to do “this job,” I just watched how he worked — how he treated people, hearing how lucky he felt to be doing what he did for so long.

He never thought that just because he had the right to or should prepare less just because he had been in the booth calling Braves games for decades.

As a result my own personal preparation has increased through the years in both covering basketball and baseball games, largely due to my dad, but also because there are so many resources out there to do so.

My dad told me that the world doesn’t owe you anything and you have to work for what you want and everything you try to get. I’ve tried to model that and pass it along to my kids. Even today I don’t think you can substitute anything for that.

The avenue to success and the definition of the word has changed. Unfortunately it’s almost celebrated for people who skip a few steps and get their “15 seconds of fame.”

HH: You have told a lot of stories so far in your career, especially in baseball. What do you enjoy most about telling people’s stories? 

EJ: If you’re doing baseball games, baseball kind of lends itself to storytelling. Personally I can give insight to how the game used to be because my dad is former professional baseball player, so I try to shine light on an issue that can connect back to baseball today.

I also believe that storytelling is part of why we’re here and that there’s value in it.

I know what it’s like to have cancer and what it takes to care for a special needs child. Michael is 30 now and we have to do everything for him.

I know what it’s like to make the decision to add to a family through adoption. These are all stories I continue to tell so that I can hopefully encourage someone and shine light on some issues.

HH: Going off of that, what advice would you have for someone who is trying to break into the industry? 

EJ: Your first job is likely not going to be your “ideal” or “dream job.” If someone lets your foot get in the door, you have to take that opportunity.

For example, if you’re trying to work in television, working somewhere where you can learn how to write, shoot video and edit your film is a necessary first step in career advancement.

Being around the environment you want to work in and building connections — that cannot be overstated how important that is. Patience is key, but also being relentless in letting folks know what you want to do, where you want to be or go and what you’re capable of.

HH: What are some common misconceptions about Shaq, Kenny and Charles?

EJ: [Laughs] There’s this sentiment that the other guys on the crew just show up and wing the show, but they do all prepare in their own ways and contribute to the show.

There’s another misconception that Shaq and Charles are going to fight on air — but they get it. They’re two Hall-of-Famers that may be arguing a point and standing up out of their chairs, but they’re just doing television. It’s just Chuck and Shaq being Chuck and Shaq.

You truly couldn’t ask for three better guys to work with and the fact that we’ve been together for so long is a testament to how well we work together and are lucky to be doing what we’re doing.

HH: Finally, I have to ask: where did the bow ties come from?

EJ: The bow ties started about four or five years ago. One night during the Christmas season I bought a bow tie for the annual Christmas party my wife Cheryl and I host. I looked around at a few others in the store and bought them and just started wearing them.

I had worn standard ties all my life and wanted to try something different. Every once in awhile I’ll wear a normal tie during baseball or golf coverage, but bow ties are a hoop ties.

Nowadays some people will send me bow ties they’ve made or I’ll pick some up on the road, but I probably have about 75-80 of them. Some get worn more than others and some may be worn only once, but it’s been fun to do it.

A funny story about the bow ties – I’ve gotten so good at tying those bad boys that I tried to tie a regular tie (a year or so after I started wearing them) before a baseball game and I started to panic because I couldn’t remember how to tie it! Luckily it came back to me before the broadcast started, but that was a unique experience.

I didn’t know wearing bow ties was going to continue for as long as it has, but it’s become a distinct thing I do and I enjoy wearing them.

The key to wearing them has been to withstand all the jokes and criticism I got — “You look like Orville Redenbacher, blah blah blah.”

I stuck it out and now when I don’t wear one, people ask where the bow tie is!

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A huge thank you to Ernie Johnson for taking the time.