Back in the Game

Turner Sports' Ernie Johnson returns to the studio after battling cancer

Ernie Johnson kicked off another season covering basketball for TNT when his studio show Inside the NBA returned on Oct. 31. The familiar cast of characters was on hand: Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Magic Johnson. But fans knew this was no regular opening night. Johnson, longtime face of Turner Sports and one of the best-liked people in the business, was returning to the air after taking months off to battle cancer.

Now hairless as a result of treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, “E.J.,” as he is known, began the show talking hoops. But Magic surprised him by introducing a taped series of messages from a who's who of bald NBA stars, including L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “Welcome to the land of the brothers,” Bryant laughed.

“I'm not real good at controlling my emotions,” Johnson says. “I'm glad it was lighthearted, or I would have been a mess.”

As the son of former major-league pitcher and Atlanta Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson, Johnson grew up around baseball stadiums. “Hanging out at the batting cage having Hank Aaron ask you how your Little League team is doing,” he recalls. “That makes you want to be a ball player.”

Johnson was a walk-on first baseman for the University of Georgia. But when he was cut from the team, he turned to broadcasting.

He began in news, landing some local on-air jobs before moving into sports at WSB Atlanta. It was there that he caught the eye of Turner Sports, where he has been since 1990.

Johnson started out covering “obscure” sports for the Goodwill Games (“Remember those Bo Jackson commercials? 'Bo knows football' and 'Bo knows baseball?'“ he says. “I covered all the sports Bo didn't know.”) But his confident, understated style soon propelled him to a marquee role at Turner Sports on major properties, such as the British Open, Wimbledon and the National Football League.

“He has been our foundation and the base of Turner Sports,” says Turner Sports President David Levy.

Johnson has shined as a studio host for TNT's NBA coverage, acting as much more than a moderator for the boisterous cast. With the comic timing to dish out as much good-natured ribbing as he gets from the ex-players, he is a major reason Inside the NBA has won two sports Emmys (he also has an individual Emmy).

“Some people call me a traffic cop, which I think is an insult to good traffic cops,” he says. “I just want to wave Kenny broadside into Charles. The collisions are what make that show go.”

Going Public With Illness

Johnson and his wife, Cheryl, are devout Christians and have four children, two of whom are adopted. The son they adopted from Romania in 1991 (after Cheryl saw a story about an orphanage there on 20/20) was later diagnosed with muscular distrophy. But that didn't stop the couple from adopting a daughter from Paraguay two years later.

Johnson was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. “I was floored,” he recalls. “That's a moment you never forget: when you lock eyes with your wife and have to tell her what is happening.”

But he kept it under wraps until early this year, when swelling on his face became noticeable on on-air. He took four months off after the NBA season, skipping his golf and college-football duties to undergo further treatment.

Now back in the studio, he looks forward to another season. And when Turner begins its new Major League Baseball package next year, in which it will air the National League Championship Series, Johnson is expected to play a major role.

He also got a promising bit of news last week: Doctors told him he needs no further treatments right now.

“The support has been unbelievable,” Johnson says. “People have no idea what that does for you. It just juices you.”