Blacks in sports broadcasting: Exposure can increase numbers


Gus Johnson joined CBS Sports in 1995 as a play-by-play announcer. During the network’s recent college basketball coverage, he was the only Black among the nine play-by-play announcers.

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“I am a real blessed and fortunate person to have [been] able to ascend to this level, and be one of the few African American play-by-play men in our country,” notes Johnson.

A Howard University graduate with a political science degree, Johnson, a Detroit native, was a weekend anchor at a Washington, D.C., television station and hosted a Black college sports show on ESPN. He also did a one-year stint as the Minnesota Timberwolves play-by-play man in the mid-1990s before joining the Madison Square Garden Network (MSGN), one of the nation’s largest local sports channels.

He was a studio host for the New York Yankees, Rangers and Knicks, eventually becoming the NBA team’s radio voice, and also calling New York Liberty WNBA games. Johnson also has done boxing play-by-play for ESPN and Showtime, and Canadian Football League games for ESPN2.

His CBS announcing duties have included college football, track and field, bobsled and luge at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, and the NFL.

“I’ve worked at almost every level, from T-ball to Little League football, basketball and baseball, all the way up to the professional levels of the National Football League and the NBA, and here in college basketball,” Johnson points out. “I am really happy that I can represent people of color, showing the entire world that there is nothing out of the realm of possibility.”

However, his on-air enthusiasm and distinctive style have become so recognizable that Johnson has quickly become the “voice” of both the Knicks and men’s college hoops. “I am a huge basketball fan and have been my entire life. I can’t say that to have the chance to be the voice of the New York Knicks is a dream come true, because I never even thought about it or even expected it.

“To be one of the recognizable voices in college basketball is the same thing. It is because I have a lot of great people around me in my life to mentor me and nurture me, to keep focus and keep me positive about understanding that there are no limitations to what one can do.”

Johnson and longtime analyst Len Elmore worked together during CBS’ recent NCAA tournament coverage, including all six first- and second-round games played at the Metrodome in March. They were the network’s only Black broadcast team, a rare sight in sports broadcasting.

Elmore returned to CBS Sports in 2003; he also was an analyst from 1989-92. Prior to that, he was a college basketball analyst at ESPN for 12 years and also for ABC Sports and Raycom/Jefferson Pilot. A 1974 Maryland graduate, where he was a three-time all-conference player and an All-American, Elmore later was named among the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top 50 players of all time. He was also a 1987 Harvard Law School graduate.

“It is a great opportunity, and I’m thankful to CBS to have the chance to work with Gus,” says Elmore. “We make a pretty good team: He’s the excitable one and I try to stay relatively [even] keel, even though there are times that the game will bring it out of me.”

“It’s a joy watching these young fellows do what they do, and do it so well,” notes statistician Harry Robinson, who has worked with both men. “They are articulate and smart. I am proud of the young brothers.”

Both men recognize that there still is a need for more Blacks in sports broadcasting.

“In terms of having other people get into it, I just think it is exposure,” says Johnson. “It’s the colleges and universities making an effort to establish programs that highlight broadcasting [and] sportscasting. But I do see a lot of African American [former] players in all sports, getting out of sports and turning to broadcasting. I think the numbers will continue to grow.”

Adds Elmore, “I think the biggest thing is for young people who have a desire to get into the business, especially former athletes, is to be prepared.”

Being a broadcaster is not hard, compared to his father’s workload, says Johnson. “My father worked 35-40 years, 16-hour shifts on a regular basis as a laborer, sometimes seven days a week, for small amounts of money to support his family,” he concludes. “This is a privilege to be able to have this kind of opportunity to work at this profession. It is not a right, especially when you consider what is going on in our country in terms of people losing their jobs and their homes.”

Next: What about Black women in sports broadcasting?
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record

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