James Brown has created a highly successful career as a sports broadcaster by listening as much as talking, by being humble, not egocentric. “The Bible says to esteem others above yourself,” explains “JB,” as he is universally known.
We’re sitting in a cafe in downtown Bethesda, JB’s hometown for the last 13 years, and I’m pretty sure not too many people at the other tables are citing Scripture. But quoting the Bible is as natural to him as using sports metaphors. The host of two major shows—The NFL Today on CBS and Inside the NFL on Showtime—he works with many pro football stars, and as he puts it: “My role is to be a good point guard, to set them up to look good.”
Now 58, JB has written a book, Role of a Lifetime (FaithWords, 2009), detailing his journey from a poor neighborhood near the Anacostia River to a fancy suburban neighborhood bordering Burning Tree Country Club. It has been a long trip, and JB knows who made it possible: his parents.
John Brown worked two and three jobs—prison guard, taxi driver, car wash attendant—to support his five children, and his son says he was “like Joseph in the Bible,” playing a “quiet, background role.” It was JB’s mother, Mary Ann, who took center stage and today he happily concedes he was a “mama’s boy.” “She ruled the house with an iron fist,” JB says. “She was only 5 feet 5, but she was 7-5 in our eyes.”
Neither of his parents had extensive schooling, but they knew its value. “For those of us who grew up in segregated America, Mom and Dad drove home the point that academic excellence absolutely had to be the foundation on which you built your life,” JB says.
Once, when JB was a rising basketball star at DeMatha High, a private, Catholic school in Prince George’s County, he failed to return home by 7 p.m., the hour when schoolwork was done around the Browns’ kitchen table (“our library,” JB calls it). Mary Ann called the school and demanded to talk to Morgan Wootten, DeMatha’s famous coach. If James is not home on time, she informed him, he can’t play on the team. “Coach loved it,” JB recalls with a beaming smile. “He said, ‘Mrs. Brown, you’re absolutely right, we’ll terminate practice right now and it won’t happen again.’”
When JB was in the third grade, the Browns moved to a row house in North Michigan Park, a working-class neighborhood in the District near Catholic University. Still, they were a family “of very modest means.” JB remembers bill collectors at the door and secondhand sneakers on his feet. Moreover, the Browns had not left the stain of segregation completely behind. When the young boy took a book out of the school library titled, So You Want to Be a Doctor, one teacher told him: “You might want to consider a different career, because people like you just won’t do well in math and science.” That comment “planted deeply in my subconscious,” he recalls. “I felt crushed.”
There was one field, however, where no one could question his ability—the baseball field. When Wootten saw JB blasting long home runs in a playoff game, he encouraged him to apply to DeMatha. The $500 tuition “was a lot of money for us,” JB recalls. But his father took yet another job, and friends and neighbors chipped in to buy the new clothes JB needed for school. Under Wootten’s tutelage, he discovered basketball, and even if he had to be home by 7, he earned All-America honors, and major hoop powers came calling. But the importance of “academic excellence” pounded home by his parents argued for the Ivy League. So when Harvard accepted him, he went.
Harvard was tough academically but easy athletically. After a scintillating college career, JB was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 1973, and he assumed many years in the pros would follow. Then he got cut on the last day of training camp. “I cried, I was like a whimpering fool.” But when he “looked in the mirror,” JB realized the failure was his own fault: “I rested on my laurels, I got complacent.” It was a hard way to learn a vital lesson. “From that moment on, I have had a free-agent mentality,” he told Washingtonian writer Harry Jaffe in an interview last year. “I played the game of life as if I could be cut at any time.”
JB was working as a salesman for Xerox in 1979 when TV personality Petey Greene told him the Washington Bullets were looking for a color commentator on their broadcasts. That was his first big break, but the path to stardom was hardly smooth. He moonlighted at his media job for five years, taking vacation time to travel with the team, before finally getting hired by CBS. But during his first network assignment, covering pro football, he screamed as a running back broke loose: “He’s at the 45, the 50, the 60, down at the 65.” When he failed to get a plum job and was talking about quitting, a friend told him he couldn’t. “He said, ‘JB, there are too many black youngsters watching you.’ I said, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way.’”
So he stayed with TV, and in 1994 Fox made him co-host of its Sunday pre-game show with former pro quarterback Terry Bradshaw. There was an instant chemistry between the country boy from Louisiana and the city kid from Washington, and they teamed up for a “wonderful 12-year marriage.” But that relationship broke up over a contract dispute after the 2005 season, and JB returned to CBS. He’s still introduced as a Fox analyst, strangers still ask him about Bradshaw and his CBS show still trails his old Fox outlet in the ratings. But JB seems like a contented man today.
He had been searching for a home for a long time—a spiritual home and a physical home—and he has found both. He joined the Rhema Christian Center Church, back in his old neighborhood of North Michigan Park, and was ordained as a minister last year. He walks his “faith walk” quietly, and is careful not to come across “as someone trying to beat you over the head with what I believe.” But faith is part of everything he does. “People can think what they want,” he says. “Prayer works in my life. It’s real.”
As his career blossomed, JB and his wife, Dorothy, went looking for a spacious home that could be “family central” for the whole Brown clan. But the suburbs made him nervous. His boyhood block had been “a family-oriented place where everyone knew each other, [and] we didn’t want to sacrifice that.” But once they moved into Burning Tree Estates, the Browns’ anxiety abated; their new neighbors brought them food every night for a week.
JB’s mother celebrated her 70th birthday in 2004 at “family central,” and a picture in his book shows him leaning over her chair during the party. The caption reads: “My mother, Mary Ann, giving me instructions at her birthday celebration. I affectionately referred to her as the ‘sergeant.’?” Mary Ann Brown died two years later after a long struggle with diabetes, but JB’s daughter, Katrina, has produced two granddaughters since then, so the house is still full of raucous relatives. “It’s a wonderful neighborhood with wonderful neighbors,” he says, and then he pauses to apologize. It’s time to perform one of the less wonderful tasks of living in Bethesda: putting quarters in the parking meter.
Steve Roberts’ new book, From Every End of This Earth, was published in October.