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Emmy Winning Broadcaster Confronts Life’s Challenges With Faith

For decades, Ernie Johnson has been a household name for NBA fans across America. However, many admirers don’t know the adversity facing the broadcaster in his private life…and what he does to stay strong. Read Transcript


of the most respected broadcasters in sports.

Best known for the nine-time Emmy Award-winning

"Inside the NBA," with co-hosts Charles Barkley,

Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O'Neal.

We're just like four guys, sitting around in a living room

watching a game.

A lot of times, the guy who's loudest gets heard.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Much of the show's appeal

lies in its offbeat, unscripted nature led by Ernie,

who in another unscripted moment,

gave me a tutorial tying his signature bow tie.

So this is the trademark NBA bow tie here.

This is pressure now.

That's one take.

I'm here to tell you, that was ice water in the veins.

ANNOUNCER: Ernie Johnson gives up a centerfield single

to Campanella.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Ernie Johnson, Sr.,

was a Major League pitcher and later became

the voice of the Atlanta Braves on TBS,

giving Ernie, Jr., a front row seat to baseball

and a love for sports.

Yeah, you go down to the field,

and you're hanging out in the batting cage.

And Hank Aaron is asking you how your Little League

team is doing.

It was, it was pretty good.

ERNIE JOHNSON (RECORDING): Good morning now, 8:25 and--

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Ernie would follow in his father's

footsteps, not in baseball but in broadcasting,

working his way up through small market stations.

That's when he met Cheryl.

The two married and were on their way to an idyllic life.

In 1990, Ernie got his big break when TNT asked

him to become the NBA host.

On the outside, it would appear that we've got it all.

And I've kind of followed my script at that point.

Beautiful wife, great job, a boy and a girl that we had,

you know, why mess with this.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): That's when the scripted life became


Cheryl sees this ABC special on "20/20"

about these Romanian orphans being warehoused,

especially the ones with disabilities.

I said I think we're supposed to adopt a Romanian child,

and he laughed.

She kind of shook my head at first,

like, oh, it looks like you're serious.

We had told the adoption agency we're looking for a little girl

under a year old, no permanent handicaps, that we

could give a fresh start in the United States.

Turns out the first child that she sees at an orphanage

is this little boy who is almost three.

CHERYL JOHNSON: And his legs were curled up,

and he couldn't speak, and he was terrified of everything.

And I called Ernie from Romania that night,

and I said, well, I saw this little boy.

And he doesn't meet any of the criteria,

but I don't think I can live my life wondering

what happens to him.

And I can hear in her voice, that her heart has been moved

in a way I've never seen it.

I said, bring him home.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Michael Johnson came home in 1991

and was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

Doctors said he would never talk,

and he would never bond with anyone.

He walked, he certainly talks, and he bonds with everybody.

Through all this, he becomes this remarkable, remarkable

influence on people because he's got this tremendous spirit.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Two years later, Ernie and Cheryl

adopted again.

And while life at home and work were busy,

Ernie's career couldn't have been better.

The only thing missing was church.

Ernie thought it would be good for the kids.

Turned out, he was the one affected.

And we walk in, and within the first two weeks,

I was getting pierced.

And the more I heard, and the mere fact

that I was opening the Bible at the age of 41, why have I

kept this hidden away and closed for so long?

And so it basically went from a me-centered existence

to a Christ-centered existence.

2003 was a big year for the NBA on TNT.

They would televise their first All-Star game,

and Ernie couldn't have been more excited.

But just days before the game, Ernie

discovered something that would make 2003 a big year

for all the wrong reasons.

And I'm, and I'm shaving on this side,

and I could see a bump that would,

when I made my face like this to do this, and I said,

that's, that's strange.

I came up with a million different things

that it could be.

I said, it'll go away on its own, and it didn't.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): So Ernie finally decided

to get it checked out.

He thought it was what's called a benign parotid tumor.

But at least it alleviated your fears somewhat

that it wasn't most likely cancer.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, because he

used the word, "benign," and I was, like, boom,

you know, good.

But if you want a second opinion,

I can set that up for you.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): The second opinion

confirmed his worst fears.

Ernie had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma,

an incurable but treatable form of cancer.

And now he had to break the news to Cheryl and his kids.

I said it's cancer.

I mean, I don't know how else to come out and say it.

I don't wish that on any person.

He was scared, and we were all scared.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Ernie sought advice from his pastor,

but he really just wanted to vent.

I said, Kevin, right now what I want to do

is punch God right in the nose.

Now where are we right now?

Are we trust with a question mark?

And he's writing this stuff down on a brown Starbucks napkin.

Are we going to trust God "if," we're going to trust God

"when," are you going to trust with a question mark,

or are we going to trust God period?

And we're looking at John 9, and I'm

looking at Jesus and the disciples

with the blind man at the side of the road.

But Jesus is basically saying, you're

asking the wrong thing, guys.

Not why did this happen, how is My Father going to use it?

And from that day on, that's, that became my,

became my mantra, trust God period.

Ernie, there was a time during that process

that you became resolved to beat this thing.


When did that happen?

Once you're told after those tests, OK, here's what you got

and here's what you're going to do,

then you just put your head down and go, then you compete.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): And that's exactly what he did.

Ernie's cancer battle was very public.

And with the renewed trust in God, he never missed a show.

Thanks to all of you guys.

And thanks to everybody out there who

sent me emails and letters and phone calls and everything


But see, you know what the first thing everybody does

when you get the bald head is--

Of course.

Yeah, baby.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Dealing with his cancer head-on

through treatments, Ernie got the news in 2007

he was cancer-free.

Things were back on track.

But in 2011, his dad and best friend passed away.

As he came to grips with the loss of his father,

just two months later Ernie got a call.

His son Michael's life was in danger.

ERNIE JOHNSON: And she's on the phone with me,

and she's got a doctor there.

She says, we need permission to intubate.

We need permission to put something down his throat

to help him breathe.

And I said, and if we don't, and he said,

your son is going to die.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): Michael was put on a ventilator.

He would spend the next nine weeks in the hospital

before finally coming home.

He would never come off the ventilator,

so Ernie and Cheryl turned Michael's bedroom

into an at-home ICU.

We're very clear he's borrowed.

We want to borrow him as long as we can.

Toughest guy I know by the way.

He's, this kid's been through so much.

We have to do everything with Michael.

We've got to scratch every itch.

We've got to take care of every need.

And for us, there's something that

is, that is deeply spiritual there because you wake up

in the morning to serve.

And while Cheryl and I went into the whole adoption

thing saying, maybe we can do something for somebody else

to give them a better life, he's done more for us

than we've done for him.

WILL DAWSON (VOICEOVER): In his new book "Unscripted,"

Ernie reflects on his own story and the lessons

he's learned along the way.

ERNIE JOHNSON: When I see the impact Michael's

had with his limited capabilities,

when I look at my own personal episode with cancer,

this is another page in this story

that God's written for my life.

When you've seen what He's done in the past, but say,

OK, I want to trust again, not going to trust "if."

Hey, God, if this test comes back OK, you and me, we're


Nah, it's not a question mark, not a comma, not an "if,"

not a "when," it's trust God period.


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