‘There is value inside everybody’

Last week, “Inside the NBA” host Ernie Johnson announced on Instagram that his adopted son, Michael, had passed away at age 33.

Duchenne muscular dysfunction is a rare genetic disorder that Michael suffered from. Two days after his death was announced, the NBA on TNT shared a video of a speech Johnson gave in 2019, recounting Michael’s adoption story.

Johnson and Cheryl adopted Michael from Romania in 1991. Cheryl left the United States to start a family.

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“We wanted to give some kid a chance that he didn’t have or she didn’t have,” he said.

Cheryl was told that Michael, who was three years old at the time, had only been outside one day in his life—the day he was abandoned in a park at birth.

Cheryl first saw the boy at the orphanage as a child, but a woman who worked there gave her a warning.

A young Michael Johnson
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“You know what she said to Cheryl? ‘Don’t take this boy, he’s no good,’” Johnson said.

Michael couldn’t walk or talk.

“I remember what my wife said on the phone was that this guy’s so much more than we can handle, but I can’t imagine going through the rest of my life wondering what happened to that blonde-haired boy in that orphanage,” Johnson recalled.

After he was adopted, Michael was diagnosed at three years old with Duchenne muscular Dystrophy.

“He’s three years old and he’s got this fatal disease, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to handle that, you wonder, where’s the value?” Johnson said. “What’s amazing is the value reveals itself.”

Michael Johnson and Ernie Johnson
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Michael used a wheelchair for mobility and a ventilator to inhale. He became a beloved part of the basketball team at his high school, Mill Creek, in Georgia, and was known for saying “Love you, too,” to everyone.

On Senior Night, students pulled off something extra sweet for Michael—they saluted him with the sign language gesture for “I love you.”

“Don’t take ‘Boy’s no good.’ He had done more through that point in his life and impacted more folks than I could ever hope to, because there is value inside everybody,” Johnson said in his speech. “May not be able to do things the way we all do it, may have a different strength, a different weakness and that kind of thing, but there is always value. Find it.”

The “Inside the NBA” crew, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith, paid tribute to Michael before TNT’s telecast of Heat-Mavericks.

“We’re hurting right now because Ernie is a brother. He’s more than a brother to me. We looked up to him,” O’Neal said.

Michael Johnson and Ernie Johnson
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Smith, who has worked with Johnson for 20 years, talked about experiencing life’s highs and lows with colleagues.

“To see Michael when Ernie and his wife would come around with him — we always talk about lighting up the room,” he said. “It’s a gravitational pull. There are people who have a gravitational force regardless of their gender or status. Michael felt a gravitational draw that would cause you to gravitate towards him. Ernie’s usually the person that we lean on — Ernie: this is the first time that you need to lean on us.”

Barkley spoke of how touching it was for Ernie and Cheryl to adopt Michael, even though they knew he would need a lot of care. They were able give him a wonderful, fulfilling life right up to the end.

“That story just makes me appreciate Ernie and his wife, Cheryl — that just shows us what type of guy we’re working with,” he said.

Listen to Ernie Johnson talk about Michael’s powerful adoption story in the video below.

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