It’s a valid question that many have asked: How does Ernie Johnson do it? How does he manage to keep order on the set of TNT’s popular Inside the NBA broadcasts? This is an especially intriguing question when you take a look at Johnson’s unpredictable teammates—former NBA stars Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith.
The answer to that question is simple. Johnson is able to navigate the award-winning program by following a piece of advice his father once gave him: “Be yourself.”
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Johnson talks about what being himself looks like along with the two topics that matter most to him—his family and his faith:
Chad Bonham: Tell me about how you became a Christian?
Ernie Johnson: Though I always believed in God, I never had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ until December 10, 1997. That was long after I had gotten into broadcasting. I actually accepted Him as my Lord and Savior over a lunch outside Atlanta with Kevin Myers–the pastor at the church we had started attending about 3 months prior (Crossroads Community Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia). I remember telling him that over the previous three months “God was messing with me” about my priorities and my perceived purpose. Kevin told me I was “a prayer away” and we prayed at the table.
Bonham: What are the biggest challenges of being a Christian in the sports broadcasting business?
Johnson: The greatest joy is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The biggest challenge is living my life that way. There are a lot of land mines out there in broadcasting, chiefly to me the recognition and praise and criticism that comes your way. I really struggled for a long time and still do from time to time with pride and arrogance and concern over what viewers and critics think of me. I remind myself that if anybody’s going to get any glory out of this thing it’s God, and no matter what any critic might write—good or bad—I am concerning myself only with an audience of One. Am I living the life that God intended for me to live? That keeps me in check.
Bonham: Sports broadcaster are becoming more like celebrities these days. As a Christian, is it ever difficult to fight off the temptation to give into ego?
Johnson: It’s a danger, and it goes back to what I talked about earlier. You can’t get carried away with what people are thinking, saying, or writing about you, whether it’s positive or negative. My life verse is Philippians 2:3-5: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
Bonham: Is it getting tougher to find the good in sports with so many negative stories about athletes?
Johnson: I think there is always good in sports. There are always stories of courage, sacrifice, and selflessness. The problem is that the only stories that grab the headlines involve athletes using steroids or getting busted. I’ve always said you never want to see your name in the same sentence as the phrase “wee hours of the morning” because you know that nothing good is coming from that story. Often, that first story is the one that sticks with people even if it’s later proven untrue. I’ve often shared at the FCA Peach Bowl breakfast and the John Wooden Keys to Life Award breakfast at the Final Four. Those events re-charge me and renew my belief that there is indeed a lot of good in sports.
Bonham: Are you encouraged to see more Christian athletes and Christian broadcasters coming to the forefront?
Johnson: Sure, and I think it can really be beneficial to encourage fellow broadcasters and athletes. While doing NBA research one afternoon I was reading something about Kyle Korver who was keeping an online diary during an extended road trip. He wrote in there that he had picked up a great book on the road, The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. Man, that pumped me up. In the next week or so we spoke on the phone. I gave him a couple more ideas on books I’d read, and he did the same. That’s why I read John Eldridge’s Waking the Dead, because Kyle said it was one of the best books he’d read. I think encouragement among brothers is huge because athletes and broadcasters alike can tell you about the toll that travel takes on you—being away from the family, being badgered to do this or do that with the rest of the guys, etc.
Bonham: What is the responsibility of the Christian broadcaster?
Johnson: Here’s a better question. What is the responsibility of the Christian? Bottom line: It’s to love your neighbor as yourself. The rules don’t change because you’re a broadcaster, a power forward, a librarian, or you’re selling real estate. I mean who am I? A broadcaster who happens to be a Christian, or a Christian who happens to be a broadcaster? It’s the latter, though for several years I had it wrong. My identity was tied to what I did for a living. God sort of got a hold of that thinking and fixed it.
Bonham: How are you able to influence others with your faith both in front of the camera and behind the scenes?
Johnson: My dad (Ernie Johnson Sr.) was a broadcaster for the Braves (in both Milwaukee and Atlanta) for over 35 years. The best advice he ever gave me was “be yourself.” I don’t think you can hide who you are on the air. It’s revealed in the way you react to certain circumstances and certain stories and how you respond in discussion segments. Again, I think it’s important to realize what your role is. During the winter I’m in the studio as host of an NBA show. I’m not there to preach. But I am there to speak from the heart when the situation warrants. Behind the scenes I’m just living out my faith, and one way I’ve found that to be visible is maintaining an air of peace when things get pressurized on a show night. That’s God’s work, not mine.
Bonham: What biblical principle do you find yourself leaning on most at any given moment?
Johnson: I am trying to live each day with a simple formula. Trust God. Period. It’s the signature on the e-mails that I send and it’s a statement of faith that marks my life. It’s the assurance that no matter what the situation, God’s got a handle on it. He sees the big picture, whereas I get just a glimpse of just a fraction of that picture. That goes for issues of parenting, issues at work, or health issues. It’s not a case of trusting God “if” the test from the doctor comes back with good news, or “if” my kids make the honor roll, or “if” my wife Cheryl and I able to iron out a difference between us. It’s a matter of trusting God. Period.
(Photos: TNT Press; CSE)