Gus Johnson has called a panorama of sports during his career — from epic Big Ten football games to Champions League semifinal soccer between Bayern Munich and Barcelona to the craziness of March Madness. But Johnson says NBA basketball is something different for him, an assignment he says is close to a religious experience.
“I’ve been part of the NBA since I was a child,” said Johnson. “My father worked at a place in Detroit called Cobo Hall, where the Detroit Pistons used to play. He was a facilities worker, a janitor. He actually used to lay the floor at Cobo Hall for the Pistons. He used to tell me stories about how it was like 64 pieces and they would lay it out to get the court ready. He would get me t-shirts, and one of my favorite pictures of myself as a kid is sitting at the Boys Club playing checkers with a Pistons shirt on at about six years old. So the NBA has always been part of my life. The NBA is special to me. It’s almost a religious experience for me. Having that opportunity to be a part of this league that’s done so much for me in my life, I’m tickled pink and I’m ready to roll.”
This month Johnson has a new role at age 54: he is calling the NBA playoffs for Turner Sports. He’ll be on the mic for Game 5 of the Hawks-Heat series on Tuesday night alongside analyst Greg Anthony and reporter Rebecca Haarlow. It is Johnson’s first time working on a national NBA platform, though he does have deep experience calling the NBA, including working for the Madison Square Garden Network from 1994 to 2010 as the lead radio play-by-play announcer for the Knicks. He also called select bucks games on FOX Sports Wisconsin from 2015-18. Still, most younger sports fans know Johnson from his work at Fox Sports, where he has served as the lead college football and college basketball play-by-play voice. He has also called NFL games for Fox.
I recently spent some time with Johnson to talk about his return to the NBA. As part of the interview, he revealed that he is currently a 2022 Fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, a group that includes Chile’s former undersecretary of defense, the former Minister of Foreign Relations for Ecuador, and a recent chief of the Dallas Police Department. Here’s an edited version of our talk.
Why was it challenging for you to get back into NBA game calling?
Johnson: Well, it’s situational. First of all, I’ve never donated a national NBA package. I prayed for this, I really did. I’m a very religious person and a very spiritual person and I prayed to get an opportunity to do a national NBA package. But it’s situational. It doesn’t have anything to do with if you’re good enough or if you have the talent. It’s what kind of spots are open. At Turner, you know, the legendary Marv Albert, the icon, retired. So there was a spot. And we have incredible announcers here — Kevin Harlan, Brian Anderson, Ian Eagle, Spero Dedes — I mean, these guys are wonderful. They’re the best. So to be able to get on this team is hard because there has to be an opening. Fortunately, well, unfortunately, Marv retired. But fortunately, a spot opened up and I got a chance. Sometimes that just takes time. It’s not personal. It’s not even business. It’s just a situational play.
One of the things that’s interesting about this stretch for you is when you call an NBA team every day, as you know, you get a real feel for the league. Here, you are parachuting into the playoffs. How did you go about preparing for this, given that you haven’t been calling NBA games all year?
I got a call right before the playoffs began, maybe a week before. So I had to go into a deep dive and try to inhale as much information as I possibly could. But you take it on a one-game basis. You try to get through the first game and the second game and not overdo it. Watch tape, go to shootarounds, talk to the PR staffs, and get a good feel for the guys, especially considering that I don’t really know them. But I have Greg Anthony there who’s been steeped in basketball, steeped in the NBA. He knows everything about everything and everybody. So I lean on him a lot and just try to stay out of the way and keep it as clean as I possibly can.
You can tell based on your game calls just how excited you are to be back in the NBA. How has it been for you?
Johnson: Having a chance to be in that atmosphere again and watch the greatest players in the world? The other night I was in Philly and it’s james harden, Joel Embid, Tyrese Maxey. It’s just been wonderful. It’s almost like a dream come true.
How did you end up doing work for Turner Sports on its NBA playoff coverage?
Johnson: Well, I had always wanted to get back into the NBA. I was the voice of the Knicks on radio for 14 years, a voice of the Bucks on television for three years. One year, I served as the voice of the Timberwolves. Getting away from the NBA is hard because once you’re out, you feel it. So I had some representatives put some feelers out, and there was an interest, and here I am calling the NBA playoffs.
What is your thinking now regarding next year and calling the NBA more regularly?
Johnson: You know, I don’t know. That’s not up to me. They’re giving me a great opportunity to be on the team and to be a part (of it) right now. There’s an old saying — be where your feet are. That’s what I’m trying to do. The past is history and the future is a mystery. So let me be where my feet are and enjoy every moment. Don’t look too far ahead. Don’t look too far behind. Go to the stadium tonight and delight in the excellence of these young men who are going to be on the court competing for their cities and their clubs. It would be nice to have an opportunity to continue to be apart of this. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m so satisfied with this current experience. It’s something that I’ll go into the offseason feeling good about.
What are your memories of calling Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee?
Johnson: I always try to get to the game before the players even come to the court. I want to be there two hours before the game. When I called Bucks games, and that’s either on the road or at home, I could never beat Giannis Antetokounmpo to the court. He was always there before me. There’s an old saying, if you’re not early, you’re late. So he was always there, working and working and working and trying to get better. He reminded me of Patrick Ewing. When I covered Patrick Ewing, pregame he worked so hard that he would have to take a shower after he warmed up to come back on the court to play a game. I just think Giannis is one of the rare athletes who not only has unbelievable talent, but his work ethic and his passion for winning are second to none. I’ve never seen a player that has that kind of work ethic. I remember one time with Giannis, it was the winter, really cold outside. The Bucks lost a game at home that they should have won. After the game, for some reason, I was outside. It’s snowing outside and Giannis Antetokounmpo comes running outside in his uniform to the practice facility to work after the game. He was, I guess, so incensed that they had lost that game. I see a seven-foot guy running down the street in a Bucks uniform in the winter with snow coming down. I wish I would have had a camera, because I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.
As we look forward to the 2022 NFL season, what’s your thinking in terms of doing NFL games for Fox, as you did last year?
Johnson: Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do the NFL this year because I went back to school. I’m back in college now. My classes are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. So I can call the college games on Saturday and then get a flight and get back so I can get some rest and prepare for classes on Monday. At my age, the travel and prep work is a lot. So I’m probably going to have to take a time out on the NFL this year.
Where are you going to school, and why the decision to that?
Johnson: Well, I’m in a fellowship program called the Advanced Leadership Initiative. They bring leaders in for an intense discussion on some of the problems that mankind face. We study race, human rights, mental health. We hear from some really great professors, renowned professors, on all different kinds of subjects. I have a religious class. We talk about cosmic law and collective effervescence. We study the Aztecs, Buddha and Hindus, which I find very interesting. It’s been a cool process and I want to finish strong in the second semester, which starts in September.
I just Googled this. It’s the Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. Congrats. That’s a big deal.
Johnson: Yeah, man, it’s pretty cool. Tommy Amaker, the head coach at Harvard, I’ve known him for 30 years so I reached out to him and said I was interested in going back to school. He said, OK, you’re going to come here. I have recruited myself. I mean, Tommy Amaker is an educator, not only a great basketball coach. He wrapped his arms around me, and he made sure that they found a good program for me to go to. I had to apply for it. I had to write my papers, do my faculty interviews, and get my recommendations. As a matter of fact, Eric Shanks, my boss at Fox, wrote me a recommendation letter. He supported me fully on this and I appreciate that, because Eric Shanks is a man that’s about growth. It’s because of him that I got this opportunity at Turner. I asked him if I could have permission to do it, and he said yes.
I am learning things here from so many people from all over the world. In my program I am in a cohort with Isabel [Saint Malo], she’s the former vice president of Panama. Another classmate, Cristian [de la Maza], is a former three-star admiral in the Chilean Navy. The people come from all over the world, Bulgaria, the Republic of Georgia, Chile, Mexico, India, everything. It’s making me better as a human being. There are 45 people in my cohort. If you had to rank 1-45 five in terms of intelligence and intellect, I am number 45, period. But that’s OK. I’m in the room. Renee Hall, the former chief of police in Dallas, is from Detroit, so she’s my homegirl. We walk back and forth to class together and talk. I think the greatest thing about it for me is that at 54 years old, I’m making new friends that I think I’m going to have for the rest of my life.
(Photo: Porter Binks/Getty Images)