UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Johnson's love for calling hoops is pure

The Big Ten Network is banking on Gus Johnson being excitable and energetic - which is akin to Monday following Sunday. When it comes to college basketball, every day is a holiday, an instant classic for Johnson, whose caffeinated play-by-play delivery is intoxicating and pure.

Rise and shine is a command.

Rise and fire is a commandment.

The Gospel according to Gus.

"To say that he's enthusiastic is probably an understatement,'' said Shon Morris, a BTN color analyst who was Johnson's sidekick for Wednesday's game between the Badgers and Michigan at the Kohl Center. "It's genuine,'' he added of Johnson's persona. "He loves being around the game.''

That was confirmed by the 43-year-old Johnson, whose easily recognizable voice is synonymous with March Madness and some of the most dramatic upsets in the NCAA tournament. Because of his high profile - especially when he's reaching the high notes - he was a big catch for the Big Ten Network.

"When Gus Johnson calls a game,'' said BTN president Mark Silverman, "there's a feeling of anticipation and a sense that anything can happen. He brings a level of genuine excitement to the game that no one else does.''

That word again.


"I just love basketball and I'm very emotional about it,'' Johnson has said of his passion. "I love the opportunity to be around college students and their innocence and purity of spirit.''

That's what he told me two years ago when he was in Madison for a UW game.

So that begged a follow-up question Wednesday night. Do you still love what you're doing?

"Of course,'' he said. "My father worked 35 years for the city of Detroit as a janitor and security guard and when I got in this business he said, 'I can't believe they pay you to watch basketball games. That's a great thing about this country.' I still do love what I'm doing.''

But there have been changes in his life. His dad passed away a little over 12 months ago.

"My mother and I miss him very much,'' Johnson said. "It happened during the holiday season, December 21st of last year, and it was very difficult for our family. He was a basketball fan, a Big Ten basketball fan. I'm sure he's watching and saying 'Go Blue and Go Green.'''

Gus Johnson was raised in Detroit, a melting pot for Michigan and Michigan State fans.

"He was a great father,'' he went on. "He was hard on me all the time. He was always telling me to do better and not rest on any laurels. I think he was the kind of man every kid would want as a dad because he established discipline from a very early age and he made sure that I kept my nose clean.''

Growing up, Johnson idolized George Blaha, the voice of the Detroit Pistons. "My style is a direct reflection of his style,'' he said. "I love his enthusiasm and attention to detail and positive nature.''

Given this backdrop, Johnson was an ideal fit for BTN, which has more than doubled his exposure on the network this season. "I've had an opportunity to watch the Big Ten since I was a little bitty boy,'' he said, "and having the opportunity to come back into the area was very appealing to me.''

Johnson has definitely cultivated a following, especially among younger viewers.

"He's kind of a rock star,'' said Morris, a 1,000-point scorer and three-time Academic All-American at Northwestern in the mid-to-late '80s. "I just like the way he interacts with people who come up to him and say, 'I really like your work.' People love him for what he brings to the game.''

Johnson will return to Madison for the Feb. 6 game against Michigan State. "I love coming here,'' he said. "Northwestern is to Stanford what Madison is to Berkeley. Give me that? The people here are great, smart, free, bright, nice. And Bo Ryan is a wonderful coach. His record speaks for itself.''

Because Johnson has a lot of history with the NBA - as a broadcaster for the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks - he was asked if Jon Leuer had the game to play at the next level. "Of course, he's an incredible talent,'' he said, implying if not articulating a signature ''wow.''