Ernie Johnson, Jr. is a three-time Sports Emmy Award-winner and popular host of TNT’s, Inside the NBA, He is also author of a new book about his life; “Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary.” Ernie discusses his early life and how unexpected moments along the way led him to trust God in every situation.
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today we speak with Ernie Johnson, Jr. a three-time Sports Emmy Award-winner and popular host of TNT’s, Inside the NBA, He is also author of a new book about his life; “Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary.” Ernie discusses his rise to the top of sports broadcasting, and how his life intersected with his faith when his path took some unexpected turns.
Ernie Johnson, Jr.: Pursuing Wholeness over Happiness – Jesus Calling Podcast 39
Ernie Johnson: I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where my father was a big league ballplayer. He played for the Milwaukee Braves in the ‘50s and was part of their world championship team that beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
My early years; it was all about baseball; every home movie that you see of our family, I’ve got a bat and a ball in the front yard playing. That was really my dream. When the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, we moved in the mid-60s down south, and that’s basically where I’ve been ever since. We’d go to the stadium when I was really small, because as he transitioned from being a player to a broadcaster, I was able to tag along with him a lot.
I’d be hanging out at the batting cage watching the Braves take batting practice, and Hank Aaron’s asking me how my little league team is doing. So for a kid it was like this dream childhood. That really is where I learned so much from my father.
In high school, I was a pretty good player, but it wasn’t like I had colleges beating down my door or sending me letters saying “please come and play for our program.” So, I had to try and walk on at the University of Georgia and try to make the team that way; and somehow, I did. As I tell people, I walked on as a freshman and then was told to walk off as a sophomore. But what that did; it kind of forced me to now look at life realistically; this baseball thing was not going to happen. I kind of told myself, if that doesn’t work out, you can always be an English teacher and a baseball coach in high school.
I hadn’t really thought about broadcasting all that much, even though I watched my dad do it for so many years, until I finally just decided to give the campus radio station at the University of Georgia a shot; and I liked it! Then once that decision was made, I switched from being an English major to a journalism major.
So I was learning so much about the business and about the news business. Then thankfully WMAZ-TV in Macon called me and said “hey, we have an opening for a news anchor if you’d like to audition for that.” So, my first TV job was anchoring the news at Channel 13 in Macon, Georgia.
The First Moment: Meeting Cheryl
Narrator: As Ernie was breaking into the field of broadcasting, he met a girl who would eventually become his wife, Cheryl. Ernie talks about how they met and how their early life together seemed to unfold seamlessly, until the moment where things took a twist from “the script” he thought was being written for their future.
Ernie: This girl named Cheryl DeLuca, I met her right down the street from WMAZ; it was the bank where I would cash my checks. Every Friday, I would drive up to the drive through window, and it was always the same teller.
We would have these conversations; she likes to say we met through six inches of bulletproof glass. We just kind of hit it off a little bit, and it was always fun.
The thing that really impressed me about Cheryl when I was dating her, was that in addition to working two jobs to put herself through school, on her weekends she would be involved in the Big Sisters program in Macon. She was pouring into this 13-year old girl who had had kind of a tough life. I was so impressed because I was older than Cheryl, but she was so much more mature.
She was working her way through school and we kind of reached that “hey, ‘this is it’ point” and I went to Spartanburg for my next job, and she stayed in Macon to finish her school. But I knew she was the one. So, I tried to rekindle that long distance, and then wound up going back to see her a lot, and then eventually we would get married.
When we got married, we knew we wanted to have kids. Didn’t really know how many, but we had a little boy named Eric in 1984, and then had a little girl named Maggie in 1987.
So to me, the script that I had written, we were following. I had this wonderful wife, a great job. By that time, I had moved from Spartanburg to Atlanta – a top 10 market – and we had a boy and a girl. So boom, here we go! We’ve got all we want. That’s it, good, we’re good to go. That’s where the “unscripted” comes in.
Unscripted Moments In Life
In 1991, here we are. We’ve been married for almost 10 years, and we have a boy and a girl, and everything’s proceeding on course. I came home from work one day, and Cheryl said, “you know what we need to do?” I said, “I don’t know chicken or fish, I’ll have whatever you feel like.” She says “no, this has nothing to do with dinner. I think we need to go to Romania and adopt a baby.” I’m like, “really?” I mean this is straight out of left field.
She shared with me that a couple of nights before, she had been watching ABC News 20/20 show, and they had profiled the situation with all these Romanian orphans after the fall of the Ceausescu regime there and a lot of them were being abandoned. Those who were born with disabilities or any kind of defects, they were basically warehoused and forgotten. This just brought my wife to tears when she saw it. She said, “I’d love to be able to go over there and get one of those kids.” So, we looked into that.
Cheryl called me from Bucharest when she was there, because I was home with Eric and Maggie, I was watching them while she was over there with this group of people she had just met, who were in the process of adopting a child.
Cheryl calls me and says, “I’ve been to an orphanage here, and the first child they brought out is a boy nearly three years old.” This boy, Michael, that they brought out, even though the nurse, when she handed him to Cheryl for the very first time, said to her; “Do not take–boy is no good.” But there was something; Michael had a key to this inner recess of Cheryl’s heart that only he had.
She said “but I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to that little blonde haired kid in that Romanian orphanage.” I said “well, bring him home.”
That was God saying, “look I do this all the time. Here’s a little orphan from Romania. He’s going to be right in your path,” and all Cheryl could do was say “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t have this child,” and all I could do is say, “bring him home.” So He was all over it, even though we didn’t know it.
I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to that little blonde-haired kid in that Romanian orphanage.
As it turns out, we fixed all the things that the doctors could fix. Then the doctors came back with the diagnosis a short time later and said, “he’s got muscular dystrophy. There is no cure for it. The muscles don’t grow they just waste away, and a lot of kids don’t make it out of their teens.” that was a punch to the gut, to say the least.
Finding Your Spiritual Grounding
But the spiritual angle on this didn’t take hold until 1997. It was at that point that Cheryl and I were having one of these discussions, that married couples have, about “how are we doing, look at the kids; maybe we should be giving them some spiritual grounding.”
So, we found this non-denominational church called Crossroads, near our house outside Atlanta, and we decided to give it a shot. So, we’re doing this for the kids, okay? The first two weeks we’re there, the pastor Kevin Myers; it’s as if the church has cleared out and he’s just talking to me. He’s saying “so who’s the provider in your life. What are you pursuing; happiness or wholeness?” And I’m like, I’ve got those. I’m the provider, and happiness of course. We had been going for like four weeks and at this point, now, this is a guy who has neglected church for the last 20 years. I’m saying, “I can’t wait till Sunday.” Suddenly, I’m reading the Bible, which I considered this outdated, “irrelevant-in-our-times book,” and I’m devouring it at that point.
What are you pursuing; happiness or wholeness?
I cornered Kevin after a service one day, and I said “hey look, you and I need to sit down and have lunch or something, ‘cause God’s messing with me.” He said “well, let’s have lunch.” The following week, we sat down, and midway through, we’ve joined hands and I’m praying to accept Jesus Christ and to turn my life over, and get out of this me-centered life into a Christ-centered existence. That was December 10th, 1997; and it’s the turning point of my life.
When I looked at my life going forward in 1997, I thought; there’s got to be more to this, than just what I’m getting out of it, and what my plan is. Then to have that explained in such clear terms by Kevin Myers at Crossroads, was what told me; this is the time to make a change.
You know what it taught me there; is that even when I’m not paying any attention to God, He’s paying attention to me. Even though at that point in our lives, we we’re going through this adoption, God was at work; the Holy Spirit was at work.
The Man I Follow
One of the things that’s interesting about that whole thing; people talk about “how can can it work to be a Christian in this business,” and that kind of thing. Charles Barkley and I have worked together now for 16 years. Charles will say, “you know what I like about you, Ernie? I know you’re a religious guy, but you don’t hit me over the head with it.”
When the election is held this year in November, and we’re going to talk on our show about how we processed that election, and we all have two minutes; me and Kenny and Charles and Shaq each have two minutes to give our take.
Look, this is The Man I follow. It’s not the guy in the Oval Office.
I talk about the fact that I didn’t like the choices that we were presented as a voting public, and that I’m still hopeful for the future. Each of us has to look in the mirror to see how we can make the world and this country better; and then to say, “Look, I never know who’s going to be in the Oval Office from election to election, but I know who’s always on the throne.” Having said that, then I said, “Look, I’m a Christian. I follow this guy named Jesus, you might have heard of Him, and what I’m supposed to do is love and what I’m supposed to do is pray for our leaders, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”
When I left the studio that night, my Twitter exploded. Social media exploded after that. All that time, all those 28 years. It’s kind of like, “OK. Now here’s this platform where everybody’s gonna talk about what the world is talking about now; how are you going to use it?” And it was, “Look, this is The Man I follow. It’s not the guy in the Oval Office.”
I haven’t been shy about expressing my faith when I have the opportunity and not forcing it. Whether that’s when I announced that I had cancer on the air; I did that in 2006. I told folks then, that the only way that we’re going to get through this; my family and me, is to trust God. Period. That is something that’s become a mantra for me.
Trusting In The Lord With Jesus Calling
It was right after the election, and in the mail comes this beautiful gray leather Jesus Calling with my name and you know engraved on it and “Trust in The Lord” written on it. I love it.
The themes of trust, the themes of stepping back, the themes of not trying to solve tomorrow. Finding just peace and comfort.
There was a day last week when we were in New York to do the March Madness thing, and those days are really, really hectic. I remember that morning, before I walked over to the studio, just sitting there, and I take it on the road with me.
It says, “don’t take yourself so seriously. Lighten up and laugh with me. You have Me on your side, so what are you worried about? I can equip you to do absolutely anything as long as it is My will. The more difficult your day, the more I yearn to help you.”
I was like, “thanks, I needed that.” It happens every day; it happens every time I open it up. It’s almost like it had just been written that day because God knew what I was about to embark on; what I was going through. It is a valued book that’s never far from my grip.
I Love You Too
Narrator: As Ernie acknowledged God at work in his life, despite the twists and turns in the script of his story,” he felt prompted to share his journey with others who might relate to having “Unscripted” moments in their lives as well.
Ernie: Our friends would say, “man, when are you guys going to write a book?“ And I’d say “you know, somewhere along the line I would like to write one.”
But really the impetus for it I think, was the fact that a competing network, ESPN, chose to do a feature on our family a few years ago; back in 2015. Jeremy Schaap is one of the best journalists around, he kind of knew our story to an extent, and knew about Michael’s situation with his muscular dystrophy, so they came to us and said “hey, we want to do this.”
Cheryl and I talked about it and prayed about it and it was like, “do we want to grant somebody with cameras that kind of access to our family?” Then we said, “Look. If it speaks to somebody who’s thinking about adoption, if it speaks to somebody who’s faced with cancer, or if it speaks to somebody whose father/son relationship was great or was horrible; if it speaks to them in some way–if it speaks to the faith piece–then yeah, let’s go!”
So they they turned out this 25-minute profile, and the reaction we received was just staggering. So then it was crazy, to be honest. My agent called me and said “we’ve got a half a dozen literary agents who are wondering if you’re going to write a book.” It was kind of based on them seeing this life story on TV. It was just a wonderful experience. It was draining, it was exhilarating, it was emotional; it was just awesome.
I talk about Michael’s experience; he’s 28 now, which is a gift and a miracle in and of itself. To have muscular dystrophy and to have to have been on a ventilator here, for the last, going on six years now. He can’t breathe on his own.
One of his favorite things to say, and he didn’t speak until he was 8 years old; one of his favorite things to say is “love you too.” I think it’s because he probably just heard it so much in our family as he was growing up. He’s got almost this “Rain Man” kind of memory when it comes to cars, and so he associates people with what they drive.
This new high school opens here near our house and near Brazelton and Pashtun–Mill Creek High School. This coach goes in and his name is Phil Bollier, and Phil goes in and just introduces himself to Michael. and Michael says “what car drive?”
Phil says, “here’s what I drive,” and then he decides he’s going to leave. As he turns to walk out of the room, Michael says,” love you too, coach. The coach stopped and was so taken by that.
God’s Plan Comes Together In The End
We have this discussion in the parking lot a few days later, and I said, “what’s up?” And he said “I want him to teach my team “maximum effort,” because I know that he can’t do much in his chair, but with every ounce of strength he has, he drives it or raises his arms. I want him to teach a heart for others because this ‘love you too’ thing is awesome.”
So he becomes part of this basketball team, and a few years later on senior night, when they’re giving all the kids their blankets with Mill Creek embroidered on it, and their number and their name, he’s the last one they call up. “Michael Johnson.” Michael rolls out there in his wheelchair with me and Cheryl behind him.
What Phil Bollier had been doing in his classroom for three years, was telling his students, he said, “look, I know this guy named Michael Johnson. He loves to say three words; he loves to say ‘love you too.’”
He taught them how to say “I love you” in sign language. On this senior night, they introduce Michael, they give him this blanket. People are clapping and I look up in the students’ section, and they’ve all got their arms raised making this “love you too” sign.
…he loves to say ‘love you too’.
I sit here, not just for that story, but for so many things that happen in my life and I just stand back in awe of how God orchestrates life and connects dots. Because only God takes a basketball coach from Indiana and sticks him in Pashtun, Georgia and takes a Romanian orphan out of Bucharest and sticks him in Pashtun, Georgia, and teaches a bunch of high school kids; ”I love you.”
When you see that happen; when you seen Him work that way. Then you say, “He can do anything.”
Narrator: Ernie Johnson Jr’s new book, “Unscripted, The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary,” is now available everywhere books are sold, or by visiting Ernie’s website at ErnieJohnsonJr.com.
Narrator: Our featured passage for today’s show, comes from the March 16th entry of the Jesus Calling audiobook:
It is good that you recognize your weakness. That keeps you looking to Me, your Strength. Abundant life is not necessarily health and wealth; it is living in continual dependence on Me. Instead of trying to fit this day into a preconceived mold, relax and be on the lookout for what I am doing. This mind-set will free you to enjoy Me and to find what I have planned for you to do. This is far better than trying to make things go according to your own plan.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. Lighten up and laugh with Me. You have Me on your side, so what are you worried about? I can equip you to do absolutely anything, as long as it is My will. The more difficult your day, the more I yearn to help you. Anxiety wraps you up in yourself, trapping you in your own thoughts. When you look to Me and whisper My Name, you break free and receive My help. Focus on Me, and you will find Peace in My Presence.
Narrator: Hear more great stories about the impact Jesus Calling is having all over the world. Be sure to subscribe to the Jesus Calling Podcast on iTunes. We value your reviews and comments so we can reach even more people with the message of Jesus Calling. And if you have your own story to share, we’d love to hear from you. Visit JesusCalling.com to share your story today.