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.
Let’s talk about how the game gets covered now, specifically with regard to analytics and advanced stats. Do you feel like the conversation has shifted noticeably in the last decade?
It’s changed everything in every sport, the advanced stats. To a degree, I can see them, but to a larger degree, I can’t figure out what they’re trying to do. With all numbers, you can make them say whatever you want. To me, it sometimes takes away a gut-level reaction to the game. We even talked about this in an Open Court show: A lot of those players were like, “Give me a break. That doesn’t tell you everything, it’s just a number.”
The thing is, when you’re dealing with players from the generation of Charles, Kenny and Shaq, they know what makes a player tick. Isiah Thomas explained the other day that his toughest matchup was playing against Steve Colter. Now, you have anybody with advanced metrics look at that, and say “OK, I’m going to put all these numbers into a machine and [determine] the toughest matchup for Isiah Thomas.” Steve Colter’s name will never come up.
And it was just because Steve Colter had this crazy move that drove Isiah crazy. He told us this story: He looked at Joe Dumars one night, they’re playing Washington, their backcourt is Jeff Malone, who’s scoring about 25 a game and Steve Colter. And Isiah looks at Joe Dumars and says, “You take Colter, I’ll take Jeff Malone.” And there’s no reason for Zeke to want to guard Jeff Malone except that Steve Colter drove him crazy.
There are just certain nuances of the game that cannot be defined by stats and that’s why you can’t rely on them. That’s why Popeye Jones was Charles Barkley’s biggest headache, not Kevin McHale. That’s why Big Country Reeves is the guy who ate Shaquille O’Neal alive. Those are the things you learn when you talk to these guys. Stats can only tell you so much.
What do you think makes for a good interview with a player or coach?
Somebody who’s unafraid to voice an opinion. I mean, obviously, with Charles I used to interview him when he was a player. And anybody who covered the NBA knows that Charles was always All-Interview Team. Always had an opinion and was always willing to share it: didn’t care if you liked it or not.
I think what makes a good interview – putting Charles aside – is if you get truthful answers to good questions. A lot of times the interview relies not so much on the interviewee, but on the interviewer. Any time I talk to athletes, I always say [to myself] “If I’m sitting at home, what am I hoping that this guy asks this player?” That’s always the kind of feeling I’ve had going in. And then you go from there.
So do you think that kind of blunt honesty is why everyone loves to watch Gregg Popovich do interviews?
See again, if this were a coach who was 20-62 in his NBA coaching career and you watched this kind of act, you’d say, “Wow, this guy’s never done anything in the NBA and he’s giving guys three-word answers.” But this is Pop, one of the greatest coaches who’s ever walked the sidelines. This is Pop, who’s got this military background. This is Pop, who knows that we’re doing these things because we, as coaches, agreed we would do these things but I’m not a big fan of them. You know all of that going in.
And now this whole thing has taken on a life of its own. It’s like its own reality series. But the episodes don’t last a half-an-hour: they last 28 seconds. How brief will he be? You look at the scoreboard and go, “Gee, San Antonio’s down 12, here comes Pop, I can’t wait for this interview.” And a lot of that comes from the fact that he’s one of the most successful coaches anywhere and people tend to know this sense of humor.
I always enjoy those. Especially if the game is going tough for San Antonio and I’m sitting there on the other end saying, “I want to see how David Aldridge navigates this one, I want to see how Craig Sager navigates this one.” It could be its own show.
It would be a very short show.
You could do one hour-long episode out of the whole season [laughs]. But there are times where you’d rather get the short answer than “The Look.” Because when the three-second look precedes the answer, you know the wheels are grinding in there and he’s thinking, “I’m not going to kill this guy, but he’s going to think twice before asking it again.” You know something good is coming.