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Care Taker

Ernie Johnson is a masterful host on set and at home

LATE AT NIGHT, when the family he lovingly calls a "circus" is sleeping, TNT's Ernie Johnson starts crunching box scores. The longtime host of Inside the NBA scours every game in search of significant achievements, such as 30-point scorers and double-digit rebounders. These standouts are then transferred into a three-ring binder, in which Johnson uses shorthand to track other data, including winning streaks, overtime results and triple doubles.

There are research assistants to handle such grunt work, but Johnson, 60, finds comfort in the routine. Eventually he pares down his findings to a few pages, which he color-codes with highlighters. Johnson brings both the binder and the notes to the set, allowing him to provide real-time fact-checks when one of his fellow commentators—NBA greats Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith—starts blowing too much hot air.

If that sounds laborious, consider Johnson's mornings. When he's not on the road, he helps his wife, Cheryl, get their 28-year-old son, Michael, ready for the day. Michael, who was adopted from a Romanian orphanage in 1991, has muscular dystrophy and his breathing is supported by a ventilator. Johnson showers and shaves his son, who uses a wheelchair, assists him in the bathroom and dresses him. The process takes up to 90 minutes. "He's a miracle," Johnson says, noting that his son defied doctors' opinions by living into his 20s.

Somehow Johnson found time last summer to write a book, Unscripted, in which he recounts his 2006 battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and his relationship with his father, Ernie Sr., a former major league player and broadcaster. While he says he tries to follow his father's mantra—"If somebody spikes you at second base, never rub"—Johnson writes candidly about his chemotherapy, Michael's disease, and the challenges of raising six children, including three adopted daughters.

On set, Johnson conducts Inside with no teleprompter, steering the conversation toward points of debate. "I'm a rogue traffic cop trying to get someone broadsided or rear-ended," Johnson says. He understands that Inside's staying power is driven by the honesty, humor and insight of the former players who surround him. His job is to maintain rapport.

Despite his hectic schedule—Michael's health is deteriorating—Johnson recently signed a contract that will carry him into his mid 60s. His producers marvel at his consistency and focus. "My home life has made work my escape," Johnson says. "If I ever get to the point where I don't want to do the prep, I'll get out." At last check, his binder was updated and the highlighters were arranged neatly on his desk.