JB checks in often with Virginia “Mama” Washington, who still lives in the house that backed up to the one where he grew up in DC’s North Michigan Park, not far from Catholic University. “I never forget where I came from,” he says.
JB turned to Bradshaw. “Hey, Mr. Redneck, don’t you have some of that for your brother?”
Bradshaw reached into his pocket and leaned over to take a look at JB’s lips.
“I’m going to need a whole handful.”
The director said, “Three . . . two . . . one,” and raised his hand for the live camera.
“We came on laughing from day one,” JB says.
James Brown never aimed to be a TV star. A pro basketball star, yes. A doctor or lawyer, maybe.
At DeMatha, he got straight A’s and was elected class president. At Harvard, class of ’73, he majored in American government and was a C-plus student. His first year, Harvard had admitted about 300 African-American students, about a quarter of the freshman class.
“It was a wonderful, exciting time,” he says. “There were so many people of color. I met students from all over the world.”
Bill Bradley, playing for the Knicks, was his model. “He had graduated from Princeton and been a Rhodes scholar. I realized you could be both a scholar and a pro athlete.”
Going into his sophomore year, he was a preseason All-America pick. He made the all–Ivy League team three years and captained the team his senior year.
The Atlanta Hawks drafted Brown in the fourth round. Cotton Fitzsimmons was the coach; Pete Maravich was the star. “I saw myself playing ten years in the NBA, then becoming an entrepreneur or going to law school,” he says. “I would do well in the game of life.”
The Hawks cut JB a few months into his first year. It was his first failure. He went home to DC, looked in the mirror, curled up on his bed, and had tears coming down his cheeks. For two weeks.
“It was shocking, jolting,” he says.
We’re still on our way to Philly.
Did he seek help from his mother or Coach Wootten?
“I didn’t need anyone to tell me why,” he says. “I didn’t work hard enough. In high school, I was religious in doing drills. But when I got to college, I started resting on my laurels. I stopped working. And I didn’t pick it up until I was getting ready for training camp in Atlanta.”
It was, he says, a seminal moment.
“I realized there are plenty of people with talent in this world,” he says, “but that will only get you in the door if you are lucky. Then it’s all about work and practice and more work.
“I vowed that I would never let another moment like that pass me by for lack of being prepared. From that moment on, I have had a free-agent mentality. I played the game of life as if I could be cut at any time.”
We’re almost in Baltimore when JB’s BlackBerry goes off—again. It’s his nephew John S. Brown Jr., who puts his son, Quentin, on the phone.
“How’s school?” JB asks. “Are you still on the honor roll?” Quentin goes to elementary school in Largo. “If you are,” JB says, “Granddad and Uncle JB would like to be at the assembly.”
JB turns to me.
“Understanding the value of getting good grades is a struggle for a lot of young African-American boys,” he says. “I always try to reinforce the importance of doing well.”
Doing well at Harvard helped JB get jobs after his NBA dream went bust. He first worked for DC Health and Human Services under Joe Yeldell. After a year, he landed a sales job with Xerox. He had an Afro and thick sideburns. A manager took him aside and suggested he start looking and dressing for the job. He did—and began moving up the corporate ladder.
“I realized pretty early on that going to Harvard would open doors,” he says, “but the key was how would I capitalize when the door was opened?”
He left Xerox in 1979 to become a top salesman with Eastman Kodak. He expected to become a corporate executive.
Petey Greene invited JB to be a guest on his WDCA TV show, Petey Greene’s Washington, in 1979. Greene, a local legend who went from prison to fame on radio and TV, wanted JB to talk about making the adjustment from disappointment to success.
After the show, Greene took JB aside.
“I hear there’s an opening for a sports analyst with the Washington Bullets,” he said. “Go over and audition.”
“I don’t know the first thing about radio or TV,” JB replied.
“I don’t want to hear about it,” Greene said. “Just go over and try it out.”
JB checked in with Bob Ferry, then the team’s general manager, and set up the audition with WDCA. He felt at home behind the microphone, and he knew the game. He became the Bullets’ team analyst.
After a year, Marty Aronoff, a Bullets statistician and a producer at Channel 9, suggested that JB apply for a slot on the sports desk, doing vacation and weekend relief for Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog.
“I thought he had terrific potential,” Aronoff recalls. “His personality would come through.”
Sonny Jurgensen had the job but didn’t always show up. Still working for Eastman Kodak, JB moonlighted for the CBS affiliate. He learned the basics of logging tape and hosting weekend public-affairs shows and reading teleprompters. He cohosted Fast Break, a high-school-basketball show with Morgan Wootten.
One Christmas Eve, Glenn Brenner was sick and Frank Herzog, his number two, was off. Aronoff told JB, “I think you are ready.”
JB had his doubts: Could he measure up to sharing the set with two stars, Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan?
“I can do that,” he says he thought.
Aronoff had reduced the sports segment to a couple of games with highlights, and he told Brown how to synchronize his script with the video. Midway through his debut, the teleprompter malfunctioned. JB looked down to read the script, but the video highlights had ended and viewers saw the top of JB’s head. He looked up and said, “Hi there.”
JB kept talking past his allotted time. Aronoff motioned for him to stop, but JB didn’t understand. Even when the cameras backed away, he kept talking.
Finally realizing his goof, he smiled and apologized—on live TV.
Says Aronoff: “Everyone felt for the guy. Even the viewers were pulling for him.”
There would be more messy moments.