In Tampa, doing one of his first play-by-play telecasts for an NFL game, he was live on camera when one of the running backs broke into open field.
“He’s at the 45, the 50, the 60, down at the 65,” JB said.
“JB!” the producer screamed into his earphone. “There is no 60-yard line! Go to commercial.”
Despite the miscues, JB slowly became a solid member of the CBS sports-telecast team, doing college hoops and NFL games. When CBS fired Brent Musburger on April Fools’ Day 1990, two NCAA sportscasting seats were in play: studio host and play-by-play. The head of sports asked JB if he would be interested in one.
JB says he would have liked either.
“You would be the first black person to do lead play-by-play or host a major sport on network TV,” the executive told JB. “How would you handle it?”
“Same as I have handled everything else,” he said.
Jim Nantz got the play-by-play, and Pat O’Brien got the studio job.
“It hurt,” JB tells me. “The boss never came to me. It was like being cut by the Hawks.”
JB says he considered quitting and returning to the corporate world. A friend, Dan Jiggetts, told him that was not an option.
“Too many young black kids have come to depend on seeing you on the TV,” Jiggetts said. Like JB, Jiggetts had gone to Harvard. He had starred as a lineman and played for the Chicago Bears. He had gone into broadcasting and worked with JB at CBS. “You cannot quit,” he said.
JB’s sister, Alicia, suggested he start seeing a speech coach. He found one at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “She sharpened my diction and elocution,” he says.
His mother sharpened his prayers. “The Lord will make room for your talent,” she told him.
Three years later, Fox grabbed the rights to televise NFL games and hired JB to host its Sunday pregame telecast.
The train arrives in Philadelphia. A driver hired by CBS picks us up and drops us off at the Four Seasons, where JB spends Tuesday nights during football season.
In the lobby, an executive with Morgan Stanley stops to chat with JB. He has seen JB deliver the keynote address and prayer the week before at a dinner for the Executive Leadership Council, a national organization of African-American executives.
“Great event,” the young exec tells JB. “You were inspiring.”
After he leaves, JB wants to talk about race. He sits down in an armchair, crosses his feet—size-13 black Ferragamo slip-ons, silver buckles—and brings up the Washington Nationals.
“Remember when Marion Barry called the minority partners rent-a-blacks?” he asks. “That stung me.”
That was in 2006 during the selection of an owner for the Washington Nationals. Seven ownership groups were vying for the team. JB had joined the Lerner family as a minority partner. Barry and then–DC Council member Vincent Orange were supporting a competing group with a different set of minority partners.
“I joined with the Lerners to help bring baseball back to Washington,” JB says. “Baseball was my first love. I wanted it to come back to town and be showcased to the young kids who would grow up and play the game.
“Besides, the stadium was being built five blocks from where I was born.”
Brown says he agreed to become part of the ownership group with the understanding that he wouldn’t take part in the primary decisions of running the team.
“I knew that would be up to the Lerners,” he says. “My interest was to have African-Americans share in the economic pie and to spread some of the work in the stadium to black businesses in town. I think we accomplished that.”
Late in the negotiations, JB says, another prospective team owner approached him and asked him to become team president.
“That would have been using me for window dressing,” he says. He declined.
Has he been involved with the Lerner family’s contentious business relations with the city over stadium rent?
Is he pleased with the number of contracts going to minority-owned firms?
“It’s happening,” he says, “but not to the degree we would like. I would like to see more marketing to the African-American community.”
As for Barry’s “rent-a-black” accusation, JB says the former mayor approached him after the Lerners were chosen as owners. He didn’t apologize, but he did say, “Nothing personal against you.”
Late morning Wednesday: JB is doing drills on the set of Inside the NFL. Showtime tapes the show at NFL Films, the archive of pro-football footage and memorabilia in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
JB—in pinstripe suit, lavender shirt, and striped tie—is going through his drills: “Ring rang, sing sang, tung tang.” He’s puffing up his cheeks like Satchmo, grinning and squinting, the way an athlete stretches before a game.
Phil Simms is walking around cracking wise with Cris Collinsworth. Bill Cowher takes his seat on the set. For the next four hours, they’ll tape and retape and tape again segments and discussions that editors will mix into an hourlong show to air at various times Wednesday through Saturday.
Being with Showtime and CBS is a homecoming of sorts for JB, but it’s not how he saw his future back in 2004. He was in the tenth year of hosting Fox NFL Sunday. It was the premier football talk show; he and Bradshaw, Long, and Johnson had a chemistry that drew fans. “Controlled chaos,” JB describes the show. It had won four Sports Emmys; JB had won two more for hosting.
When his contract came up in 2004, JB says, the attorney for Fox played hardball on money and other matters.
“What turned me off was more the attitude,” JB says. “His belief was I was just a role player and the show would be fine if I was not there.”
The talks proceeded through the 2005 season without resolution. As Christmas approached, there was no deal.
“Their attorney figured I had no place to go,” JB says. “The seats for hosting NFL shows were taken: CBS had Greg Gumbel, NBC had Bob Costas, ESPN had Chris Berman.”
JB called Mary Ann Brown, who was beginning her battle with cancer.
“We prayed on it,” says JB. “I’m a firm believer, thanks to my mom, that the good Lord would make a place for my gifts to show.”
JB’s spiritual awakening came when he was a young man.
JB doesn’t recall religion being part of his life when as a boy in Southeast DC. When the Browns moved to Michigan Park in Northeast, he and the family practiced Catholicism. Kids played sports in CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization. DeMatha High was a Catholic school.
Religion became less important when he left DC for Cambridge. “After college,” he says, “I became a nondenominational Christian.”
His mother and sister, Alicia, began to practice “word-based” Christianity, rooted in a literal translation of the Bible. That came at the time JB was working for Xerox.
“I was making a good salary and driving around in a Corvette,” he tells me, “but it seemed I was involved in superficial pursuits. It seemed like an empty life to me.”
He joined his mother as she tried to find a spiritual home, first to the Isle of Patmos Baptist Church, then to the Miracle Faith Center.
“I was hungry to learn,” he says.
In 1975, at age 24, James Brown made his commitment to Jesus Christ and became born again.
“I consider my strong belief in God pivotal to my success in life,” he says.
The Browns found a home with Rhema Christian Center Church, a church in the Michigan Park neighborhood. Five years ago, JB was ordained as a minister; he occasionally speaks at church or Christian events. In May, he received an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address at Carver Bible College in Atlanta.