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James Brown’s road to Sunday afternoons

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in Leaders & Managers

Three-time Emmy Award winner sports commentator James Brown is driven by values that show up in his choices.

Brown started early with a deeply religious upbringing. His father worked two jobs to send him to private school. His mother didn’t go to college, but "she had a PhD in common sense."  Brown had to be at the kitchen table doing homework when the streetlights came on. At DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, he came under the influence of coach Morgan Wootten, the winningest coach in the history of high school basketball, whose values were: God first, family second, academics third and basketball fourth.

That led to Brown’s early admission at Harvard and a mediocre experience in college basketball, followed by a washout in the NBA.

Brown then worked seven years at Xerox before embarking on his sportscaster career. Even then, he had a bumpy transition while absorbing these lessons:

• Take a free-agent attitude. Advice he received from Mike Trainer, an attorney and boxing manager: “It sounds to me that what you’re looking for is a guarantee in life. It doesn’t work that way; that’s not life.”

• Follow your instincts. Brown was working without a contract for ABC when he received a full-time offer from CBS. He wanted to bring the offer to his employer before accepting it, but his agent advised against it. Brown took the advice, and as soon as ABC got wind of his impending departure, it pulled him off the air.

“It didn’t feel like that was the right way to go about it, and I should have followed my instincts,” he says.

• Stay humble. Despite his bumpy starts, Brown’s hard work and fun attitude led him through an illustrious career as host of Fox NFL Sunday and The NFL Today on CBS and as a Super Bowl host commentator. As one colleague notes, “Athletes are blessed with talent...JB is blessed with likability.”

Brown laughs about a cameo appearance on The Simpsons that brought him down to earth:

“I’m Bart Simpson. Who are you?”

“I’m James Brown.”

“Oh, the Godfather of Soul! All right!” [sings] “I feeel goood.”

“No, not that James Brown.”

“Oh, the one that was the Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns? That Jim Brown?”

“No, not that one, either.”

“Oh, you’re the no-talent talking head on Sunday afternoon!”

— Adapted from James Brown: Role of a Lifetime, James Brown with Nathan Whitaker, Faith Words.

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