There are few more recognizable and beloved voices in the world of sports broadcasting than that of Gus Johnson. For three decades, Johnson has been calling games across all levels of college and professional sports, but Monday night in Philadelphia marked a first for the veteran play-by-play man, as he called Game 2 of the Raptors-Sixers series on TNT for the first time.
For many, tuning in for the start of Game 2 was the first time they learned Johnson is doing games for Turner during the first round, and NBA Twitter lit up with excited “Gus Johnson?!” tweets. On a national level, most know Johnson’s work on college sports, providing the soundtrack to some legendary moments in college football and basketball, but he’s a longtime veteran of the NBA, formerly serving as the backup play-by-play man for Knicks games on MSG and, most recently, Bucks games for Fox Sports Wisconsin.
Getting back to the Association for this year’s playoffs, even if only briefly, has been a true joy for Johnson, who will call Game 2 of Bulls-Bucks on Wednesday night (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
“I’m so, so excited. I just feel so blessed,” Johnson tells Dime on the phone from Milwaukee. “Words can’t express the amount of gratitude that I have for Turner, but more importantly to Fox Sports and my boss, Eric Shanks, for allowing me to be a part of this and to be on this team of incredible talent and announcers and sports historians in one of the greatest leagues in the world, if not the greatest league in the world, the NBA. It’s the greatest basketball league on planet earth with the biggest stars and legends and history. And, man I tell ya.”
While he’s called plenty of basketball games in recent years as the lead for Fox Sports’ Big East broadcasts, that first game back saw Johnson trying to find the rhythm of an NBA game again. The speed and physicality in the NBA is world’s apart from the college game, but Johnson credits his broadcast partner Greg Anthony with aiding in his comfort level diving back in to calling pro ball — Anthony is a familiar face next to him, as they spent time together doing games at CBS. As he got ready to call Monday’s game, Johnson thought back to his earliest years calling Knicks games on MSG and the advice of his mentor, Marty Glickman.
“You don’t overdo it,” Johnson says. “Meaning you don’t try to show everybody how much you’ve studied and throw all these notes in and the stats and analytics and all that stuff. You know the game is in front of you. As Marty Glickman once told me years ago — my mentor and my tutor when I studied with him. When I first started in the voice of the Knicks, I would train with Marty, go up to his house on the West Side once a week, and the one big note that he gave me was always, ‘Remember son, the game is in front of you. It’s not on all those notes you have sitting on that desk that you’re behind.’ So that’s what I tried to do is lock the gate. Don’t over talk. And don’t overthink it. I mean, I’m a basketball junkie, and I’m a basketball broadcaster for 30 years.”
That experience doesn’t just allow him to know the game, but he also knows the players — some just from a different time in their life. Johnson has called college games from many of the stars of today, and getting to call their NBA playoff games now brings things full circle.
“I really love that part of my job of being able to blend the college and the pros,” Johnson explains. “I think that it’s great to see young men grow up. Going from babies in college, dreaming of playing in the NBA to that dream actually becoming a reality and playing in the NBA. And then, you know, there’s an innocence that surrounds college ball, but then you get to the NBA and it’s a business. And to see how they handle their business, how they continue to develop and grow, get better, and elevate themselves and their families, it’s just a wonderful thing to see. Because I see the maturation in them and then I see the maturation in myself. I see I’m getting older now.
“I was talking to DeMar DeRozan today at shootaround, like, ‘Remember me, man? I used to call your games in college’ and he’s like ‘Yeah, yeah!’” he continues. “So now he’s been in the league for over a decade and is one of the best players in the league. Now he’s got four children, another kid on the way. The other things in life start to take precedent and you can sit down and talk to him about those things. I remember what happened when he was at USC and now I get a chance to talk to him about his journey going from playing for the all the teams you play for San Antonio, Toronto now Chicago, and what his journey has been like. I love the storytelling aspect of it. It’s really important to me, just to see the stories and see how it turns out.”
What makes Johnson a fan favorite in the booth is the joy and love for what he does, and how that is never in doubt on a broadcast. His energy in big moments is unmatched, something we unfortunately didn’t get to see in a lopsided game in Philadelphia, but you can rest assured he’ll be ready on Wednesday night and on any future games to deliver down the stretch. As he sees it, his job is to amplify the fun of the game and celebrate what’s happening on the floor, leaving the criticism and analysis to his right hand man in Greg Anthony.
“Personally, I want to delight in the excellence of other people,” Johnson says. “So I want to delight in the excellence of these players. So whether it be college or pros, I’m not a very critical person. It’s kind of not my thing. And I can’t be critical of an NBA player because I have no idea of actually what the heck is such a complicated and technical game. So as a reporter — I’m not an analyst, so I want to report on what’s happening and I want to celebrate what they do on the floor because that makes the telecast for the viewer more interesting from my perspective. I like to get casual fans, not necessarily the hardcore guys, right? My mom is watching this game. She doesn’t know a lot about basketball, but my dad is sitting there watching the game and she’s gonna sit there and watch the game with him. She wants to watch the game and just learn some new things or hear some interesting stories, and to be excited when it’s time to be excited. So that’s how I approach it.”
Some wonder if those explosions of energy in the booth from Johnson are forced, but talking with him, you can hear the genuine passion and love he has for what he does and how grateful he is to be on this stage. For someone who’s called big games at all levels for three decades, he still marvels at the athletic feats he gets to witness from his courtside perch.
He took me through Joel Embiid’s turnaround three from Game 2, step by step, still trying to grasp how a 7-footer has that much talent — “a perfect combination of the modern game of basketball.” He told stories of always being impressed with the work ethic of a young Giannis Antetokounmpo when he was calling Bucks games, and the joy he’s taken in seeing all of that come together in the form of MVPs and championships.
“I remember one time, I don’t remember who the Bucks were playing, but they lost a game at home. And I walked outside trying to catch a cab to go home, and all of a sudden I look up and I see Giannis still in his uniform. It’s snowing outside — it’s Milwaukee, it’s freezing. He was still in his uniform and I see him sprinting down the street — I think he was he was pissed off — to go to the practice facility to get another workout in. I wish I would have had a camera because I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. He still had his uniform on and it was freezing, it was snowing, and he’s running down the street, still in his game sneakers to get to the practice facility to fix whatever he needed to fix that night. That’s incredible. It’s just been wonderful to see him I’m so appreciative that I had a chance to see him, at that stage of his career before he went on to win MVPs and a world championship. The kid is just a supernova and he only he’s still getting better. He’s only 27 years old. So it’s gonna be fun to continue to watch him blossom and in the end become one of the greatest players to ever play this game.”
His perspective is part of why NBA fans were so excited to see Johnson join Turner’s crew, because the best broadcasters are the ones that make you feel like they’re having as much fun watching the game as you are, and can give them an additional peek behind the curtain to get to know their favorite players more. That is, at his very core, Johnson’s broadcasting ethos and it’s what has made him a beloved figure no matter the network or sport he’s covering. From college football and basketball to the NFL and NBA, his approach never changes and that joy shines through.
His presence on NBA Playoff games is a treat for fans, but many couldn’t help but wonder if Johnson joining Turner’s NBA team could open the door for a return of his voice to the NCAA Tournament, which many still most closely associate him with even though he hasn’t called a tournament game since leaving CBS in 2011. I asked him just that, if he has hopes of a return to the Big Dance, and he did his best to defer, but noted that even he can’t help but think about how fun that would be.
“I can’t let myself get that far ahead, man,” Johnson says. “It’s just, at this point in my life I’m so happy to be right where I am. There’s an old saying, be where your feet are. The past is history. The future is a mystery. So be where your feet are. In the back of my mind, of course, but I can’t let myself think about that because there are no guarantees that I’ll even be back after this game that I’m doing tonight for any more games. There’s no guarantees.
“But you know, I feel like if I focus and continue to be disciplined and put forth my best effort, then good things may happen. But if not, I’m happy, overjoyed by what’s taking place right now and I’m going to carry that with me regardless of what happens tomorrow.”