Next week, Ernie Johnson will suit up for his 25th season as host of Inside the NBA. Equal parts roundtable and soapbox – with the occasional highlight and “Shirt Off” thrown in for good measure – TNT’s studio show is much more than required viewing; at this point, it’s practically a tradition.
And while Inside is best known for the often unpredictable Charles Barkley and the banter between analysts Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal, Johnson’s steady (but not too steady) hand is essential to the show’s success, keeping it from veering off the rails while, at the same time, managing to work in his fair share of below-the-radar barbs. If it seems like he was born to do this, well, he was: His dad was a former major league pitcher turned play-by-play man for the Atlanta Braves.
In the lead-up to the new NBA season, Johnson spoke with Rolling Stone about his role as “rogue traffic cop,” how advanced analytics are changing the league and why he wants to T-bone Charles Barkley.
What do you look forward to the most at the start of the season?
It’s always good to be back with Kenny and Chuck and Shaq. Those guys are so much fun and I’ve said it before: I grew up with two older sisters, never had any brothers so this is the closest I’ll come to that. Just hanging out, busting on one another and getting our work done. I obviously look forward to that after this many years.
And in the NBA season, you just want to see how things play out after the LeBron move, and those offseason moves that happened. This will be my 25th year in the studio and every year has something different, some new element that makes it a really intriguing year. It never fails.
So do you have to think about how to keep the show fresh? It seems that takes care of itself.
It really does take care of itself. If this were one of those cookie-cutter shows where every show was basically the same, then I think you might have to say “How do we make it different?”
I think adding Shaq changed things up a few years ago, but our show is so different night-to-night, because of the guys who are on it, that I don’t think it ever gets that stale feel. There’s always the unknown of “What are those guys going to say tonight?” and we’re not afraid to go there. I don’t think there’s ever a real cause for us to sit around and ask “How are we going to make this show different this year?” Shoot, every show is different. We’ve got such a diverse cast and those three – Shaq, Kenny and Charles – you never know what they’re going to want to do that night. So that’s what keeps it fresh.
How do you define your role on the show?
I don’t want to get in the way. I want to put our guests or Chuck, Kenny and Shaq in the best places, get them in their comfort zones. I’ve been called a point guard, I’ve been called a traffic cop, I’ve been called a ringmaster, a lion tamer, whatever. And I guess the thing about the traffic cop is I’m more of a rogue traffic cop because a good traffic cop doesn’t want any fender benders. But I’m kind of the rogue traffic cop who says, “Yeah, come on, Charles, the coast is clear.” And then I wave Shaq in and T-bone him.