The Back Nine: A Q&A with TNT's Ernie Johnson Jr.
TNT's Ernie Johnson Jr. is back in the booth at the Open Championship after missing last year while being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Also the host of TNT's award-winning pre-game show Inside The NBA, sat down with us for a Q&A.
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- For most of the year, Ernie Johnson Jr. is the studious, modest host of Inside The NBA, TNT's award-winning pre-game show. This week, however, he's at Carnoustie, serving as host for TNT's coverage of the 136th Open Championship. Johnson, a two-time Emmy winner, is returning to golf after missing last year's TNT golf swing while being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Johnson sat down with PGATOUR.com's Mark Spoor on Saturday to talk golf, baseball, Charles Barkley and Heavy D.
Q: How's it feel to be back doing golf?
Johnson: Oh, wonderful. It's great to be back here with these guys and, you know, it's the British. The Open Championship is always special, just everything that goes into this week.
Q: What are some of the differences between doing this and doing the NBA studio show?
Johnson: Well, there's usually a lot more food available here than there is when I work with Charles (Barkley). It's a totally different feel and that's what's fun, because the rhythm is totally different. Here you're constantly on, you're watching all the time, you're talking all the time, but it's more of a relaxed feel. There it's a 10-or-15-minute burst of, you know, a pre-game show or a halftime show or a half-hour post-game. But I think the similarity is that you're trying to keep it conversational and fresh and interesting and just reacting to what you see. It's similar in a way and in another way it's totally different.
Q: Do you see doing golf as a nice change of pace or is this something you would like to do more of?
Johnson: Well, people have asked me "what's your favorite thing to do," and it's like talking about your kids. You don't have a favorite, whatever you're doing at that time ... the NBA season is long and you really pour your life into it because you're living it every day for nine or 10 months, it seems. This is, yeah, we'd love to have a part of all the majors and do those. It's a great change of pace and it's a nice thing to have a piece of.
Q: What do you think of Boo Weekley?
Johnson: I think he is a breath of fresh air. You just pull for him. He's got a lot of game. The guy has won. To see him in this setting is almost surreal sometimes and to sit back and watch the way the Scottish papers are just drawn to this guy like, "Oh, come and see this guy. There he is, the guy wearing camouflage. Or is it tattoos?" And the things that they ask him are just amazing. I've never seen a guy where you pick up the paper three days in a row and they're still talking about him fighting an orangutan at a country fair once in his life. But it's great to see. It's so cool to see him on the first page of the leaderboard, just a natural, no airs about him, kind of a guy saying, "Here's who I am. Let's tee it up."
Q: How's Charles Barkley's swing?
Johnson: I didn't think it was possible, but it's actually gotten worse. He told me he gave it up for a while and said, "I've retired from golf. The only time I play is when I play with Tiger." And I said, "that must be such fun for Tiger to be around you as you're scraping it around the golf course." He said he was going to go to golf school and fix that hitch and all that stuff, but then I saw him at Tahoe this year. I saw the highlights and he still had that dead stop and then just trying to make everything happen in just that little 8-inch span. I'm afraid it's gotten worse. It's almost to the dangerous level.
Q: I read somewhere that Chuck D called you "the coolest Caucasian in America."
Johnson: I think he ... It was on his Web site somewhere and he was in the studio one night and I asked him about it and he said, "did I ... I guess I ... yeah E.J., you're cool. Don't worry about it." So I think he did say it at some point, but I think it's because of the company I keep because I hang out with Charles and Kenny. We had a guy on that My Space page we had for the playoffs that asked, "What's the deal with Ernie? Is he black or white?" and we addressed it on the air. I said, "Give me a tight shot," and "the question was is Ernie black or white and the answer is ... yes."
Q: I hear that you're going to do some baseball next year, doing the pre-game show with Cal Ripken Jr. on TBS. You excited about that?
Johnson: Oh yeah. I get to work with some great people. I really do. And getting back into baseball. Baseball is a lot of fun and I got to do some baseball with my dad (Ernie Johnson, Sr., a MLB relief pitcher in 1950, 1952-1959, most notable with the Milwaukee Braves World Series team in 1957) for parts of four seasons and that was just a kick, to be with him and it's just great to talk baseball. I don't think there's a sport out there that's more fun to sit around the table and talk than baseball because of the rich history and everyone has an opinion on how managers should manage and how players should play. I don't know if it's the relaxed pace of the game that allows you to do that. I just love it. And to be sitting next to a guy like Cal, it's just great.
Q: Is there any sport out there that you haven't done that you've always wanted to do?
Johnson: It's weird that in the course of my Turner years, what's been great is that they haven't been afraid to let you try something or assign you to do something different. It's not like, "You're the NBA guy. We need you to do the NBA." Through the course of the Goodwill Games over the years, back in 1990, that was the year that Bo Jackson was playing all those different sports, I was telling everyone that I was doing the sports that Bo didn't know. I was doing rowing. I was doing team handball, equestrian. I was doing all this stuff. I've done boxing play-by-play at the Goodwill Games, done track and field. I've done a bunch of stuff, both kinds of speed skating, short track and long track. I would think that if there were one sport I would like to do it if I had a chance, it would be full-contact Yahtzee. There's got to be a market for that.
Q: Since your recovery from cancer, do you think the whole experience has changed you at all?
Johnson: I don't think it ever changed my outlook on anything. I think my priorities have always been in line. That's been something I have never questioned. What I think it's done is it deepened my faith. It deepened my trust in God. Those kind of things, when you come face-to-face with something like that, it was more deep-seeded than how this is affecting work or this and that. I've always felt blessed to be able to do this for a living and then to be able to come back to it because the folks at Turner were great. They gave me the summer off and told me to concentrate on that, get better and then come back. I've always considered this as fun and games. What we do on Turner is a diversion, because there's too much going on in the world that people are just burdened with on a daily basis that you need something to escape with and just say, "Let me watch a ballgame. Let me watch the golf tournament just to get away." My view of what we do has not changed a bit.