James Brown, Game Changer in Life and Sports
December 1, 2010
James (JB) Brown
*Photos: Kerry Ensinger/DC Spotlight (Above: Wendy Thompson and James (JB) Brown)
When James Brown–or JB as he’s more commonly known–steps into a room, all the occupants erupt in smiles and rightfully so. His warmth is immediately obvious as he offers his hand and asks for each person’s name graciously. Given the behavior of the famous and infamous today, naturally, it’s hard to believe you’re in the presence of a celebrity.
In the sun-drenched room of his attorney’s downtown office, he reclines on a couch and apologizes if he kept us waiting. He happily waits as photographers take snapshots and adjust their cameras, asking the reporters questions, genuinely interested in where they are from and how they are doing. When the interview begins, his discipline as the pro that he has become is evident as his focus is keenly on the questions at hand.
A Washington, DC native, Brown never strayed far from his roots. After attending college at Harvard, he returned to the city where he began working for large corporations when his dream of playing professional basketball didn’t quite materialize. Despite his disappointments, he never became despondent or regretful; instead, he cites his belief that “God always opens another door” as the creed to live by throughout life.
Throughout his successes in sports media, it has been his family and faith that he chooses to focus on. His face immediately lights up when asked about his mother, whom he cites as a major influence on his life and the primary contributor to his success. “My mother was just an awesome woman — an awesome lady,” he says. “She always wanted to be an excellent homemaker. She wanted to raise a family, and I thank God my father was on board with that, which is why he worked the two jobs and seasonally during the holidays would work a third job so that mom could stay home and raise us. Four boys and one girl–I’m the oldest.” He goes on to say the foundation she set helped him to orientate himself and his siblings in terms of what was important in life. She helped him understand the role of discipline, “…wanting us to make certain that we had an educational foundation that laid the foundation for success in the game of life. I affectionately called her “the sergeant” because her rules went. There was no deviating. We did not have a democracy in that household. It was a dictatorship, but one that was based on love, respect and determination and wanting us to be successful and to enjoy a better life than they did.” He says she instilled in him the importance of education, being respectful of others, being confident in one’s self and later in life, the importance of a faith foundation in God. He lives his life everyday as a testament to her memory and legacy, trying to embody all that she was and the standards she set for her family. He so appropriately dedicates his book to his mother and graciously admits that she was the impetus for writing the book.
As he speaks, memories seem to flow, and he turns from his parents to high school basketball coach Morgan Wootten, remembering the profound influence and motivator who entered his life at an early age. It was not just Wootten’s attitude, but his actions that affected Brown greatly. “My high school coach Morgan Wootten continued that which my mother and father instilled in us and set as a foundation.” He outlined Wootten’s priorities, which stuck with Brown throughout his adult life. “He had four priorities that he had every student athlete who played for him to adopt. That was God first, family second, school third and then basketball. Morgan Wootten was such a wonderful example and influence in my life, because he modeled the behavior that he preached. He set the example, yet he was a master motivator. He worked harder than he wanted us to work. He was well-read. He put in the hours necessary to be the excellent coach that he was, not only a coach of basketball, but a coach who helped to shape us and influence us for the game of life.” He said one of the most important principles his coach taught him was to keep working hard when you get to the top, because “you’re never standing still – you’re either getting better or worse.” Perhaps the greatest lesson Wootten instilled in Brown was the importance of teamwork and putting others above yourself. “An unselfish, team-oriented approach pays big dividends,” he says firmly, noting that this approach has always worked for him. Apparently, the approach also worked for Coach Wootten, who retired as a high school coach with the most wins ever and was recognized at a national level through his induction into the NBA Hall of Fame.
A team player, Brown’s mindset and willingness to work with others are reflected in his on-air persona. However, he is quick to shift the attention from himself to credit those who have extended themselves to help him – persons such as his coaches, friends and his pastor. After working in the corporate world for a few years (including Xerox), he began his media career working in television locally, joining a friend’s public broadcast show. His first venture into sports journalism was as an analyst for the Washington Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) basketball team, where he was lucky enough get an audition and win the stint. It was during his work as an analyst that he was “bitten by the media bug” and knew it was the career path he wanted to pursue. However, he didn’t become a star overnight. Through hard work and perseverance – taking on various projects and jobs — he has become instantly recognizable in the sports industry and a Washington, DC institution of sorts. He says his background and training in sales and sales management helped him feed his hunger for work, because he knew how to aggressively go after things. “I started adding on work. I started doing some regional work for NBC, doing college basketball then with CBS. …It ultimately led to me getting an opportunity at the network level full-time; so that’s how it started.”
Brown’s big break on Fox’s NFL Sunday actually came after somewhat of a disappointment. While he had spent 10 years covering basketball at both the national and college levels along with some NFL work, when CBS began losing its sports inventory to other networks, his future with the network became unclear. It was shocking when CBS lost the NBA to NBC, but their biggest blow came when they lost their NFL coverage to the Fox network. “I was thinking, what was I gonna do? I thought maybe I’d come back and work in local TV,” Brown says. “But then Fox asked me to come out and audition for the job and I got the job, because they were concerned with having a strong co-host to manage some strong personalities like Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson. And it was an absolute wonderful ride.”
He affectionately refers to the Fox’s NFL Sunday show as “controlled chaos” and had nothing but praise for his on-air cohorts, referring to them as hardworking individuals who refuse to rest on their laurels. “It was like animal house, but yet we were dispensing information on a humorous platform. That was pretty much the mantra of our boss, who said ‘sugarcoat the education pill, make it fun’. It was a radically different approach to doing a pre-game show than what had been done previously –where you could have some fun, but still not forsake the delivery of good information.” Although he eventually moved to CBS after a long run with Fox, he stays positive. “I made the right decision, and I would make it again. Plus, it’s fun being competitive with my old guys at Fox.”
When asked about the Washington Nationals, a franchise in which he is a minority owner, he speaks fondly of baseball, calling it his “first love” of sorts. For Brown, strong memories come to mind when he thinks back to his youth and growing up in southeast DC near the old stadium. While not involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, he calls being a minority owner a “thrill”, stating the love of baseball that his father and uncle bestowed on him; his grandfather even ran a baseball team in Mississippi when the Negro Leagues were still in existence.
Despite the excitement Stephen Strasburg generated for the Nationals, Brown is practical in his outlook for the team’s future. “It’s gonna take some time to be honest, because the cupboard was bare when ownership got the team from Major League Baseball, so it’s gonna be a slow, methodical foundation-building process…as opposed to just going out for the quick fix and not being able to sustain the success. And I buy the philosophy that’s being employed and the approach that’s being employed, which is to make certain we get some good quality talent, young talent that we can build from within, and then go get some nice pieces that we can add. I believe in that formula for success. I know I learned that from John Madden — as a football thing — that if you have a good core that you work with, you can go out and get a couple pieces to add to it, but that foundation’s gotta be solid.”
Despite his fame and success, Brown remains humble and level-headed, acknowledging God as the reason for all that he has. His humility and kindness are obvious, as when he is asked what DC means to him, he responds “I’m a native Washingtonian, a loyal person, a homebody. I came back here because it is home for me, and I want to play a role in contributing to the success of this city; it’s done well by me and I hope that I can do well by it. I especially feel a commitment to the young people here, there are many people who have influenced and had a hand in my life, those role models, those people that are not in the limelight that have invested in me and encouraged me, and I want to do the same for some of the young people as well. At this point in my life one could say I could stand on the sidelines, but I don’t want to stand on the sidelines, I want to be involved.”
Through hard work, dedication and discipline, Brown is a testament to the proverb “In all labor there is profit”, as he understands nothing comes easy or free. While he could easily sit back and enjoy the things his success has afforded him, he chooses to be involved in the world around him and after only a few minutes with him, it’s easy to see why he is, and always has been, in the game.
You can watch JB in action on NFL Today on CBS, Sundays at 12 pm or on Inside the NFL on Showtime, Wednesdays at 9 pm.
MLB: The San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series, winning 4 out of their first 6 games against the Texas Rangers to claim their first World Series Title since 1954 (as the then New York Giants). The MLB Rookie of the Year Award was given to Rangers relief pitcher Nefatil Feliz (American League) and catcher Buster Posey (National League). Philadelphia Phillie Roy Halladay won the 2010 National League Cy Young award; the American League Cy Young winner has not yet been announced though Seattle Mariners’ pitcher Felix Hernandez is rumored to be the favorite to win; New York Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia is also a top contender.
NFL: After criticism and confusion around the benching of Donovan McNabb for the last two minutes of their Oct. 31 game against the Detroit Lions, the Redskins stunned the city by offering McNabb a 5-year contract extension worth $78 million. The same day as his signing, McNabb led the Redskins to a devastating loss against division rivals the Philadelphia Eagles, losing 59-28. The Skins fell behind early, never quite recovering from a first quarter 35-0 deficit. With that loss, the Skins fall to third place in the NFC East, ahead only of the floundering Dallas Cowboys who, after firing longtime coach Wade Phillips, enjoyed their first win since the beginning of the season, topping the New York Giants on Nov. 14.
NBA: Despite the addition of No. 1 draft pick and crowd pleaser John Wall, the Washington Wizards have struggled so far this season, currently at 3-7. The team is also Wall-less until further notice, as the rookie suffered a sprain left foot during the team’s Nov. 13 loss to the Chicago Bulls. As a result of Wall’s injury, Gilbert Arenas is starting and struggling to regain his form.
NHL: The Washington Capitals remain the most successful DC sports franchise, currently enjoying an 8-1-1 record. They are No. 1 in their Division and tied for first place in their Conference with the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens.