It was one of the most heartwarming moments in the bubble. The Phoenix Suns taped family members announcing the players and played the intro before a seeding game. Other teams followed suit, and last night the guys on Inside the NBA got the same surprise. Shaq got choked up and wiped off a few tears in the end and Barkley made a great joke to cut the tension, but pay special attention to Ernie Johnson and his family.
The young man you saw next to Ernie’s wife, Cheryl, is their son Michael. Michael is from Romania, where Cheryl went in 1991 after the Johnsons learned about the country’s crisis of abandoned and orphaned children. The following is an excerpt from Johnson’s autobiography ‘Unscripted.’
Cheryl left for Romania on May 16, 1991. She made her first visit to an orphanage in a village outside Bucharest. On one of those rare occasions when we were able to secure a phone line, Cheryl detailed that visit for me. As she waited in the lobby, a nurse brought out a child. It was a boy, not quite 3 years old. He had been abandoned in a park at birth. He could not walk. He could not speak. On the other end of the phone, my wife was having trouble speaking. She was in tears.
“Hon, I met this little boy today. The first child I saw. The nurse told me, ‘Do not take. Boy is no good.’ Ern, he has so many issues, he’s so much more than we said we could handle, but I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to him.”
Her words hung there, demanding a response, for 10 seconds, with neither of us speaking. Sometimes you are captured, even on a scratchy telephone line halfway around the world, not by the words you’re hearing but by how they are spoken. Those words were coming from some inner recess of Cheryl’s heart, some place not easily accessed, some place for which only an abandoned, hopeless Romanian orphan had the key. Suddenly, all the things we had talked about and all the things we had written in the required adoption paperwork about the severity of a child’s condition we were willing to take on became secondary.
“Then bring him home.”
That’s exactly what she did. Cheryl brought Michael home. He was about to turn three years old and the entire family welcomed them at the airport. Everyone wanted to hug him, let him know he was with family.
The following year was spent visiting numerous doctors. The challenge was huge. If figuring out what kind of help Michael needs wasn’t enough, a lot of things we take for granted were a project. Michael spoke no English. The orphanage gave him only liquid food, so something as simple as chewing became a challenge. How to explain to him how to chew? There was a lot of work ahead, and the prognosis wasn’t encouraging.
“One doctor told us Michael would never talk, would never bond with another person. In short, what we were seeing now was not going to change appreciably.”Ernie Johnson, Unscripted
There was improvement, as Michael started to develop physically. But after a visit to a neuromuscular specialist, Michael was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Duchenne is a genetic disorder in which the muscles gradually weaken and deteriorate. There is no known cure. Ernie’s friends would tell them they are sorry when they heard about Michael’s diagnosis, and added something that mad Ernie mad. Often people would add that if Cheryl and Ernie had known Michael had muscular dystrophy, they probably wouldn’t have adopted him.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth. In as understanding a tone as I could muster, I would explain that we had adopted Michael not with an eye on what he would become, but for who he was – a neglected, forgotten child who deserved another chance.”
29 years after landing in Atlanta, Michael announced his dad as a member of a big, happy family. Ernie Johnson, the real MVP.