Q&A: Ernie Johnson on family, faith, cancer and embracing the unscripted

Ernie Johnson is best known for his role on “Inside the NBA.”<br>(Credit: Turner Sports)
Ernie Johnson is best known for his role on “Inside the NBA.”
(Credit: Turner Sports)

Ernie Johnson Jr. is a busy man. On Monday, the Turner Sports host will cover the National Championship game between Gonzaga and North Carolina. Less than a day later, he’ll be at the NBA Store in New York from 2 – 3 p.m. for a public signing of his new book, “Unscripted.” Then, it’s back to “Inside the NBA,” the show he hosts with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, to finish out the NBA season. But, as Johnson says, “If I were doing any better I’d be jealous of myself.”

Basketball fans familiar with Johnson’s role on “Inside the NBA,” where he walks Barkley, O’Neal, and Smith down the fine line between soaring entertainment and complete mania, might get a kick out of the title of Johnson’s first literary endeavor, but as it turns out, it’s a very apt description of Johnson’s life.

As Johnson tells it, he had very much been living life by the script, with a prime job at Turner Sports, and two kids with his wife, Cheryl. Then, in the early ’90s, everything changed. Cheryl presented the idea of adoption to her husband, not just any adoption, but adopting a special needs child from a Romanian orphanage.

Three more adoptions (including Carmen from Paraguay and two girls from foster care in Cleveland), a cancer diagnosis, the death of his father, Ernie Johnson Sr., and all the highs and lows of life in between later, Johnson took the time to speak with Yahoo Sports about his career, his faith, his experiences raising a child with special needs, and what he calls “blackberry moments.”

The ESPN E:60 piece that aired recently did a lot to introduce people to your unique life experiences, but what made you decide that it was time to tell your own story in your own words?

Ernie Johnson: It was one of these things where, for years I had friends of mine who had been asking me when I was going to write a book, because they know the story, they know me pretty well.

I kinda told myself “I’ll do it when the time comes, maybe, years down the road.” But then there was some interest from literary agents who had contacted my agent and asked the same thing. Then I looked at the situation and said, “You know what, I think I could do that now.”

How long did it take you to write the book? Because of the nature of the book, was it an emotional process?

Ernie Johnson: It was very emotional. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I wanted to write every word. I was not going to use a ghostwriter. … I wanted to write every word. It was pretty emotional. My work schedule, like during the NBA playoffs it was very difficult to have writing time because I was working every day. When that eased off, when I got through the NBA season and before I dove into baseball season, I had a lot of time to write and there was no real set way to do it. There were times where everybody would be in bed and I’d be writing and I’d look at my watch and it was a quarter to 5 [a.m.]. It was really a very cool experience.

Going into what my life has really been about, yeah, it was emotional. It was draining, but at the same time it was really exhilarating.

What’s it like seeing that finished product in your hands?

Ernie Johnson: The first book that arrived at our house … I didn’t open it. I called my wife because she was out with one of our kids and I said, “Hey I’m not going to open this until you get home.” When she got home, we had a very low-key ceremony, opening the package and looking at the image. It’s very gratifying. It’s very humbling. It’s one of those things where now I can check that off the list.

The title of the book is “Unscripted.” How did you come to the conclusion that these moments should be embraced?

Ernie Johnson: When I was thinking about the title, “unscripted” was always the word that came to mind. “Unscripted” describes the show [Inside the NBA] that we do perfectly, and it also those moments that you don’t expect that catch you off-guard and rock your world with no script, they come out of nowhere.

It kind of ties back into me and my childhood at the Little League park and our game was delayed because two our outfielders, instead of looking for a ball over the fence, started eating blackberries. So, the script was, “Play the game and be focused on that,” but they had seen this opportunity and said, “Wow, blackberries!” And I thought about that as I grew up. We get so focused on things that we’re doing, like our individual game or work or the next conference call, or the next meeting or the next sales appointment or whatever that might be that sometimes we miss these things that are right at arms length that we can be enjoying. Those are the “blackberry moments.”

Much of it is perspective. I think a lot of times when you have a child with special needs or a child who is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy or even the process of adoption itself, these are the unscripted moments.

I had kind of written the script for my life, I thought. I had the great job, great wife and a boy and a girl and then here’s this script that we’re following and suddenly adoption comes into the picture. That was the huge unscripted moment in my life which led to many, many others.

Ernie Johnson, his wife Cheryl and their six children pose on Father’s Day, 2016.<br>(Courtesy of Ernie Johnson)
Ernie Johnson, his wife Cheryl and their six children pose on Father’s Day, 2016.
(Courtesy of Ernie Johnson)

I want to talk a little about your son, Michael. He’s obviously a very important part of your life. How has your experience watching him grow up and handle life’s challenges influenced you?

Ernie Johnson: His is such a special case because when we adopted him, he was really 3 years old and in this Romanian orphanage and he had never been outside before. They found him abandoned in the park. This kid was forgotten. He had so many mental delays and so many physical problems and this is even before we found out after we adopted him that he had muscular dystrophy and there’s no cure for that. He’s 28 years old now, when a lot of kids with muscular dystrophy don’t make it that far.

We’ve seen him progress from the point where he couldn’t speak and just made noises and banged his head on the crib and finally saying his name when he was 8 years old and just having this incredible spirit about him that just attracted people to him.

One of the things he’s taught me is just being satisfied with what you have and not thinking about what you don’t. For him, that could be the ability to walk. He can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ability to communicate as well as the rest of us do, but he is just satisfied with the simple things. I think that’s been a great lesson, not just for me, but for our entire family.

What his condition does for me is, everyday it puts me in a position of servanthood because when I wake up and Michael’s ready to get up … we’ve got to do everything for him. He can’t do anything on his own. I think when you wake up and you serve somebody, it takes your mind away from, “Hey, me me, me. What’s somebody going to do for me?” And I think sometimes in my life I had too much of that me-centered stuff. At its very foundation, this is “Hey let’s help this guy get up and start another day.”

When you look back on when you were kind of sticking to the script, could you ever have imagined that this would one day be your life?

Ernie Johnson: It was crazy because the first adoption came so out of left field. I had just come home from work one day and Cheryl says, “You know what we need to do?” And I honestly, I thought she was talking about dinner. … And she said, “We need to go to Romania and adopt one of these kids that’s been forgotten in the orphanages over there.”

I could just tell by the way she said it that she was really serious. That really was the beginning where it was like, “Hey, don’t be afraid to step out. Don’t be afraid to go somewhere and reach out to somebody else and not be so concerned with sticking to your script.” Cheryl’s always been very good at that. … It was really her leading and being like “Hey, let’s think about this,” and we are so happy that we did.

So, obviously family is extremely important to you, but you’ve also got an incredibly demanding job. How do you balance the two?

Honestly, in the course of being at Turner for 28 years, I don’t know sometimes. A lot of folks out there have that same kind of balancing act to do. We’ve always known known what the most important part of that is and schedules just kind of work out. Even with Cheryl, working as the founder and CEO of a non-profit that’s fighting the child sex-trafficking trade called Street Grace. There were demands on her time, there were demands on my time. But not being on the air every night is a huge plus because then I can do my work from home when I’m not at the studio. …

It all just works. It’s truly a team effort. There’s no way we would have ever have done it without our entire family unit just pulling on the rope. If anybody had their own agenda getting in the way, it just wouldn’t work. We are blessed to have this incredible team of just caring kids and we’ve found a way.

You’ve talked a little bit about the importance of faith in your life, particularly after the recent presidential election. Is it something you were brought up with or did it come later in life?

Ernie Johnson: It came and it went and it came back. I grew up going to Catholic school and I was altar boy even going back to the days where the altar boys had to learn the Latin clergy for mass. I think that really when I went to college I kind of got away from it. It’s one of these things where suddenly Sunday morning was used to kind of stave off the effects of Saturday night.

As I continued to drift away from the spiritual center of my life, here’s my career starting to take shape and here I am getting married to Cheryl and we had these kids. It really got to the point where it was like, “Wow, things are going great and I haven’t really given God a second thought, so why change anything?”

That all changed in 1997. Cheryl and I are sitting around talking, by this point now in 1997 we had Eric and Maggie and Michael and Carmen and we were just having this conversation about, “We should probably be giving the kids a little spiritual foundation.” … So we decided to try this church, this non-denominational church near our home and I found within a month of going to this church, I mean, we were doing this for the kids, I found that I was being impacted profoundly by the message from this pastor Kevin Myers who was roughly my age and had a wife and three kids and was just a normal guy who just happened to have a real good handle on the bible and a way of teaching.

Suddenly, I found myself really drawn to Christianity. I was reading the bible and I’d always considered it an outdated book that has no relevance and suddenly I was devouring it. Everything changed back in 1997. The focus of my life changed from, “Hey this is all about me,” to “this is all about living whatever God has planned for me and devoting my life to Jesus Christ.”

How has that newfound faith helped you get through some of these trying moments that you’ve experienced?

Ernie Johnson: I really do think that that time in 1997 prepared me for what was gonna come in my life ahead. It prepared me for having a doctor tell me, “Yeah, you’ve got cancer.” That happened six years later.

That day in 1997 essentially was a decision to trust God with my life. When I had cancer … you know you’re confused, you’re a little angry and I was ready to punch God in the nose in 2003 when I got this word and again it was my pastor Kevin Myers and we had this great Starbucks conversation where he was writing down notes on a Starbucks napkin and asking me about this trust in God that I had professed, what it looked like now in 2003 with a cancer diagnosis. He said, “So, are you going to trust Him if your next test comes back clean? Are you going to trust him with a question mark?” We came to the decision that, I was going to trust God, period. Anytime anybody gets an email from me, that’s always the signature at the bottom of my email “Trust God, period.”

Faith has been central to how I live life. People always talk about, “Is he a religious guy?” like your life is a pie and its divided into the 50 percent bad slice and here’s the 35 percent work slice and here’s the Sunday spiritual religious slice and it’s sort of life you divide the pie up that way. To me, faith is the crust. It’s in every piece of that pie and it’s how I process everything that goes on, whether that’s things in our lives with Michael’s health or my cancer struggle to anything that we encounter as a family.

When you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, you delayed treatment to stay on the air throughout the 2006 NBA season. What was the thought process behind that decision?

Ernie Johnson: When I was first diagnosed in 2003, only a few people knew about it. My family knew about it and a few folks at Turner knew about it. As it turns out, because of the kind of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma I had, there was no need for treatment right away. So I could continue to keep working and doing my thing until it got to the time where my oncologist and I determined it was time for treatment.

That time didn’t really happen until 2006. If you look at me between 2003 and 2006, you’d never think anything was up, but in 2006 my lymph nodes started to swell up. And so, my appearance on the air, you could see something was up. That’s when I decided that I would address that on the air one night. That was right after the All-Star game in 2006 and my doctor and I had talked and he said there’s no need to start treatment and that I could do chemo during the summer. At that point, I made the decision that I was going to keep working.

I didn’t want people to think that because I had cancer that I was going to go into hiding. To be honest, it was difficult, not because I was feeling bad, but I was self-conscious about the way I looked. The choice was between [staying on the air] and having people ask questions or make comments online or starting treatment now.

I said, “I’m going to stick this out and I’m going to get it all done in the summer.” That’s what it was. I said, “I have cancer, but I’m not going to go into hiding. I’m going to keep on working and not let it stop me.” And that summer, I did my cycles of chemo.

Ernie Johnson credits his wife, Cheryl, with helping him expand out of his comfort zone.<br>(Courtesy of Ernie Johnson)
Ernie Johnson credits his wife, Cheryl, with helping him expand out of his comfort zone.
(Courtesy of Ernie Johnson)

What was the reaction to that decision, particularly by your co-workers at Turner?

Ernie Johnson: One of the toughest conversations I had was talking to Kenny and Charles about it. I called them into my office separately and I said, “Here’s what’s going on. I have cancer. Here’s what you gotta promise me: you can’t change the dynamic of the show. I can’t be the sympathetic cancer guy. You can’t feel like you can’t make fun of me because I have cancer. We just gotta have the same vibe. I’ll get through this and everything will be great.”

They were tremendous. They did what they always do. They said, “Anything you need, I’m here.” That’s always been the way Charles and Kenny have been and the way all of us are with each other. These are my brothers. We’d all do anything for each other.

And I’m sure that just seeing you out there on camera helped viewers or other people who may have been struggling with similar situations.

Ernie Johnson: I think that when you do go through this, and cancer survivors will relate to this, you find that when you get in that club, that club that nobody wants to be in, you feel an inner-responsibility to help the next person. There’s an unspoken language in those infusion centers where you’ve got 12 people in a room sitting in recliners getting these chemo drips and there’s an unspoken wink of the eye or a clenched fist. It’s this support group that just kind of forms.

I can’t tell you how many times I get phone calls from folks and they say, “Hey I’ve got a buddy of mine and he’s about to start cancer treatment.” And you just call him up, and you talk to him and you say, “Hey, look, I’ve been down that road.” I always tell them, and this is what I told [Craig Sager], right after he got diagnosed and was in the hospital, I said, “Hey, somebody told me, Craig, when I was going through one of these body scans, ‘You may have cancer, but it doesn’t have you.'” That was one of the greatest things somebody ever told me and I share that with everybody that I’m in contact with now. It’s that message of, “I’m not going to let cancer take away who I am. I’m not going to let it dominate me, I’m gonna fight like mad.” I’m telling people that all the time.

When that happens it goes back to when you were telling your kids and you see the fear and the anxiety and the apprehension and you know that his family is going through the same thing. It’s one of these things that happens when you have cancer that suddenly you will support somebody else through it and give them encouragement.

I know that’s something that you want people to take away from the book.

Ernie Johnson: The thing about “Unscripted” is, our families lives have had so many different layers. You could write a book about fighting cancer, you could write a book about adopting, you could write a book about special needs kids or the special nature of a father-son relationship or about the whole question of faith and where you stand on it. That could be five different books and our lives have had all five things of those things wrapped up in them.

What I think “Unscripted” does is it can speak to people in a number of places where they are right now. I can see somebody saying, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a buddy going through cancer right now. He should read this,” or somebody saying, “We’ve always thought about adoption.”

That’s kind of the reaction I got after the E:60 piece. I heard from all of these different groups. … That reaction kind of sparked the idea to write the book. The reaction has been staggering. This is not to blow up our family. That’s not what this is about. This is about, “Hey people are reading the story and its resonating on so many different levels with them, so now is the time to write the book.” That would be the hope is that this book would wind up in the hands of somebody who can take some of it and apply it. It can get them through a time. This is not to put this Johnson family on this pedestal that says, “This is how you should live your life.” No, this is just how one family navigated some pretty rough waters. It’s that kind of a feeling and my prayer is that the book winds up in the hands of somebody who needs it and it might inspire somebody. So, we’ll see.