I first met James Brown in the 1980s when I called St. John’s University basketball games on radio. Brown, now 68, was covering the Big East for CBS. His warmth struck me immediately. It was genuine and engaging.
This past August, three decades later, I ran into Brown at CBS’ NFL pre-season media conference. Nothing had changed. JB’s smile was just as welcoming. He was unrushed, a rare quality among visible talent.
Success hasn’t changed his unassuming way. He treats people little or big equally. JB’s years on the television screen never got to his head.
In his early day at CBS, he was assigned game work and later found his long-term strength in the studio. When Fox shocked the sports world, usurping the NFL’s NFC rights from CBS in 1994, Brown couldn’t turn down an offer to join the burgeoning network as its top NFL host.
It meant commuting from DC to Los Angeles every week, good for his frequent flyer account but tough on the family. Washington is where JB grew up and still calls home. So, in 2006, he rejoined the Tiffany Network where he’s the face of its NFL studio programming.
Brown’s covered tons of football, basketball and more in his four decades through HBO, CBS and Fox. Yet, it’s human-interest stories that turn him on. He talks about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of driven Special Olympians, saying, “It was one of the most emotional stories I’ve ever covered.”
JB recalls another indelible feature: “I did a story for HBO’s Real Sports about a family that went over to Chernobyl, Russia to adopt an orphan. When they arrived, they saw how close the young man they planned to adopt, a double amputee, had become with a young lady at the orphanage who was a single amputee. The young lady had protected the young man while they were both in the orphanage and the family wound up adopting both of them as brother and sister because they did not want to separate the two.”
Brown and I had a chance to cover some interesting ground, his advice for youngsters and what he learned transitioning into broadcasting after starring on the Harvard basketball team and then working in sales.
Growing up in DC, who were your sports broadcasting heroes and what did you learn from them?
I took notes from so many:
- Glenn Brenner was the most popular sportscaster in DC when I was young. He used humor and everyday examples to humanize sports heroes.
- George Michael was an early pioneer of using video to support stories. It was critical to his success.
- Frank Herzog was the Washington football play-by-play announcer. He was technically proficient, setting up his analyst Sonny Jurgensen to play off him.
- Glen Harris kept his finger on sports at the high school level, particularly in the black community. He had a rabid following because of it. Glen was somewhat of a mentor to me when I broadcast Washington Bullets (now Wizards) games. He helped me understand the mechanics of game coverage.
You tried out for the NBA and then wound up as a salesperson for Xerox. What did you learn from being a seller?
I tried out for the Atlanta Hawks, after being drafted in the 4th round in 1973. The following year, I tried out with the Boston Celtics.
Selling and cold calling as a sales representative for Xerox taught me to interview and to learn quickly . It strengthened my observational skills. I also came to appreciate the importance of researching customers and their businesses. Applying parallel preparatory practices in broadcasting has helped me through my career. (Editor’s note: Broadcaster Greg Gumbel also began his career in sales, working for a pharmaceutical company.)
I leveraged those transferable skills from my position at Xerox, but it was the push from local radio and TV legend Petey Greene who strongly encouraged me to audition for the job with the Washington Bullets, coupled with the endorsement of my DC Hall of Fame, high school coach, Morgan Wooten that helped me land an opportunity as a broadcaster with the Washington Bullets locally, then TVS nationally, covering Track and Field and other events. Ultimately, I landed as an analyst for the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
What did you learn early in broadcasting?
When I eventually got to CBS, Executive Producer Ted Shaker strongly suggested that I become proficient at broadcasting a wide range of sports that would enable me to do sideline reporting, play-by-play and studio hosting. I took it to heart and covered a number of events outside of the traditional sports, such as water polo, rock climbing and the Tour de France
Verne Lundquist gave me unforgettable advice as well. Don’t ever turn down an assignment. Learn the basics of any sport. It set the stage for me to do events like figure skating.
Being from DC, you got to know the legendary Red Auerbach, what was your interaction like with him and what kind of suggestions did he share?
Red frequented the outdoor basketball courts in Montgomery County – where I and many others would play – to watch the games and talk to players. Auerbach stressed the need to master and internalize the fundamentals of basketball, think outside the box and maximize whatever God-given gifts you have. Auerbach was always thinking one step ahead of others.
You did play-by-play for a while in your early CBS years before you settled into being a smooth studio host. How did that happen and why?
I did do some play-by-play. Ted Shaker’s advice to broaden my experience made me comfortable in diverse roles. It earned me assignments from CBS News as well. The necessary mechanics to be a well-rounded reporter are uniform, whether it’s entertainment, business or sports. It’s how I wound up in the studio.
Between CBS and your 11 seasons at Fox, you’ve hosted NFL studio shows for 25 years. On the set, you have to constantly maintain mental bookkeeping to evenly distribute the minutes among the panelists. What’s the trick?
My colleague Greg Gumbel gave me great advice. He compared preparing for The NFL Today each week to covering the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s also been imperative to have a good feel for each analyst’s strength. Doing so, enables a host to pose the right question to the right analyst and initiate stimulating discussions – those that are enlightening, memorable and instructive for viewers.
Collaboration is critical too. At CBS, Coach Bill Cowher, even with his considerable experience and knowledge, demonstrates weekly that it’s all about the team. Teamwork strongly influences all of us positively. It isn’t about any one individual, it’s about the group as a whole.
What is a typical week? How do you prepare for each Sunday?
I keep on top of pertinent news and issues all week. I’ll also dig to find sidebar stories, covering an array of topics. This enables me to clearly stamp a discussion or voice an opinion when analysts raise any of a variety of issues.
You’re a regular on the Acela, commuting to and from DC to New York. Do you get a lot of “I know you” from strangers?
Yes, I do. I commute for 20 weeks, twice a week, for Inside the NFL on Tuesdays and The NFL Today on the weekends. Acela is a convenient way to travel. I get lots of work done on the train.
If you had to share three quick tips for younger broadcasters, what would they be?
- Be an excellent student in school. It sets the tone for the kind of person you will be after school.
- This is a relationship game. Be a team player; friendly and engaging. Treat everyone the same. I stress the importance of teamwork at the NFL’s Broadcast Bootcamp that I’ve hosted for 13 years. It requires more than lip service. Practice it.
- Be the expert that people want to see. Be well-rounded, be aware of current events even outside of sports. Don’t shoot from the hip, be informed. It will set you apart.