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Since leaving CBS Sports in 2011 for Fox Sports, fan favorite college sports personality and broadcaster Gus Johnson hasn’t called a March Madness game. But his tone and tenor are a fixture within the college ecosystem, thanks to both the Big East and Big 10 games he continues to call and the iconic bellows from the box—you can find a dealer’s delight of them here—that have become indelibly associated with the big tournament’s soundtrack.
Johnson is currently enjoying his yearly break, but he caught up with GQ this week to talk candidly on a plethora of subjects: The lack of Black broadcasters currently calling pro and college games, his early career battles for the right to “sound Black” in the booth, and his mother’s obsession with Bryant Gumbel.
Gus Johnson: GQ Magazine! I feel like I’m George Jefferson!
GQ: Well, you recently received the Jake Wade Award from the College Sports Information Directors of America. It’s the only time a Black man has ever received that award, and the second time a Black person got the honor after Robin Roberts. It’s clear you’ve emerged in a lane of your own in terms of broadcast and college sports. What’s it like now to be cemented as one of the greats?
Johnson: Aw, man! I don’t see myself like that. I just love sports. I love sports broadcasting. I think it’s an honor and privilege to do what I do for a living. I’m blessed by God. I’m a faith-based man. In my little small way, my career has given me the opportunity to touch some people, because people are happy when they watch sports most of the time. I’m 53 years old, going on 54, but I still feel like I’m 21 even though it’s been 30 years since I started this journey. All I want to do is just work to make sure that I do His work.
In so many ways it feels like your voice has been anointed by God. I grew up listening to you and all of those iconic calls. How did you come to hone your voice into the sharp sword it is now?
It’s practice, man. It’s love of the profession, especially at the beginning. And then, fear [laughs]. When things got good, I wanted to stay. And I watched the greats do it, all the great announcers. Growing up as a kid: George Blaha and Ernie Harwell in Detroit. In college I found sportscasting watching Bob Costas and Al Michaels and Marv Albert. In a way, I tried to pretend I was them. As time went on, a guy like Bryant Gumbel was a huge example for me, even as a little kid. He looked like me. My mother pointed that out when I was very, very young. We followed his career from my whole childhood until she passed away. I think that he was just working at it, and had a love for it, and it had always been important to me.
I found sports broadcasting to be a sanctuary. Everything else could be going crazy in life, but when I sat down and called those games, studied for my games, it was an opportunity for me to go into my own world and find peace. I think that’s what’s allowed me to maintain a solid career, by working on my craft as much as I could.
You thought you were going to be a baseball player. You thought you would take over for Lou Whitaker.
So, how did you make that jump from a young boy dreaming of the infield to being comfortable in the big box above?
It was my mother, man. I’ve got to tell you: I think my mother silently, quietly, had a boyfriend on the side and it was Bryant Gumbel [laughs]. ‘Cuz I’ll tell ya what, man: in 1979, she sat me in front of the TV. Michigan State is playing Indiana State in the National Championship Game in Salt Lake City, Utah. I sat in front of the TV and when it came on, there was this face. This angel. Who looked like me, who was sharp, who was handsome, who had pearly white teeth and was so articulate and impeccably dressed and it was Bryant Gumbel. From that day on, my mother knew what she wanted me to be.
It was kinda spooky. Not even spooky, it was divine. It was Mother’s Wit. She saw Bryant and from that moment on she knew. She entered me into oratorical contests and all kinds of things and she would always turn him on [television]. He was on sports, back then. But then he was on the Today’s Show. We’re getting up early in the morning to go to school and she’s got him on. “Bryant did this today!” or “Bryant’s been doing that!” or “Bryant’s been talking to the President of Russia or the Ukraine!” It was all the time. All the time. From 12 years on and that moment in ‘79 when I saw it for the first time.
So I went to high school, Jesuit school, and everybody wanted to be doctors and lawyers and that’s what most of those kids aspired to be. And I thought I wanted to be something like that, but I didn’t have the aptitude for it. Every time I’d put my applications together for college, she would say, “okay baby, give me the essays and applications and I’ll put the check with it.” She would always check the box in there for communications. On every application. I’d be getting information on journalism schools and I had zero, zero, interest. I didn’t even understand what broadcasting was. I saw it on TV but I didn’t see it as something I would be getting into.
But then I got to Howard…
Yeahhh, The Mecca! You know how it is. It found me. I remembered all the things she had been talking about. I was a political science major, and I loved it. I did well but it wasn’t what I wanted to be. But, somehow it found me. Or, God made it find me. The rest is history.
And back then you were trying to mimic Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Brad Nessler, the greats! But, in some ways there’s that bug in the back of your head. When you’re a Black kid at a private school, or a Black kid going to college for the first time, or a Black person being in a white space for the first time, there’s an assumption that you need to sound whiter. An agent called you once and told you that you sounded too Black. How did you kind of take to those things? How did you tell them that you were Gus Johnson from the west side of Detroit? Why would you change?
They always….how can I say this the right way? Hm. They always want you to change, man. Because our sound was supposed to be a sound that wasn’t as refined. But, ironically, the timbers in a Black man’s voice are what makes him special. And I had to figure out how to access that. And, at the same time, improve and give the world a standard sound that they were familiar with. I had to go to a lot of voice and diction classes. I went to a guy by the name of Sam Chwat. He was one of the greatest voice and diction coaches in America. He lived right around the corner from me in New York City. Because they kept saying, “Hey, you sound too Black!” And I never understood that because I said to myself, “I sound too Black? Well I am Black.” Oh, okay. Maybe I need to sound how a white person sounds? I was still very young and it was very confusing.
So, I went to diction class and found out most African-Americans have roots in the South. So, there’s a southern drawl.
A lil’ twang to it.
Right. Instead of sayin’ it’s “saying,” or instead of “oh he lyin!’” it’s “oh he’s ly-ing.” Those words with “th’s.” instead of saying “Tha Bears!” it has to be “The Bears!!” You use your tongue to press firmly between your teeth. Those are the things I practiced. For years! And I remember Sam telling me that this was going to be confusing, but if I kept practicing the worksheets he gave me and practiced them out in the world all the time, it would be like anything else. Like, Kung-Fu is mastering something. I’ve studied martial arts. Kung-Fu is the mastering or study of something. You know what I’m saying?
That’s what I did. It was hard because, initially the first couple of years I overdid it. I still heard those words in my head: “You sound too Black….You sound too Black.” And I understood what they were talking about but I didn’t agree with it. Why can’t I sound like what I am? Why is that bad? But, I’m young and I’m trying to come up. I’m at a network and I had never heard that before. Then I heard white announcers, especially from the south, sound exactly like that. “Theee Iron is unkind!” My boy Tim Brando would say that. “Theeee Eye-urn is unkind!!” They don’t say he’s too Black. They say, “awwww he’s got that southern charm.” You see the bullshit in that?
Yeah, we know what that is. But it is that Blackness, that ineffable cool, which made so many of us feel at home when you were coming from our TV sets from the Big House in Ann Arbor or during March Madness any time of the year. It felt like one of our family members giving it to us straight. Did you ever see the flipside in any of that?
Oh yeahhh! Because I was your family member giving it to you straight! But I learned. What Sam Chwat gave me was an ability to speak two different languages. Okay, that’s what you want? You want the bit? The Standard? I’ll give it to ya. I got that in my pocket! But as I got confident with it, that’s where it changed. As years go on, I feel like I know French. I can give you that. I can give you that from the beginning. But, as I got older, I realized im’ma be me and do that. So I can flow in and out of it. Now all of a sudden, I have a sound that nobody has. That’s what people don’t get. Nobody has my sound. Because I can do them. But they can’t do me! Now, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. “You Sound Too Black.”
And that’s the truth. We heard it when you called Marquise Brown “Hollywood Brown.” We heard it any time you called March Madness early in the aughts. I think about the trickle down of all of those pieces of inequality and how it makes you uniquely equipped to tell a lot of stories in college sports revolving around the Black athlete. Has any of that been fine-tuned and changed in the last few years as more college players are speaking about race and racism?
Yeah, I mean, a Black man was murdered in front of our eyes in the street by a police officer. That could have been all of us, right? You know, I travel all over the country. You think I don’t get scared that I can get pulled over? It’s scary. It’s a scary thing.
I love the fact that the kids, the younger people, are being more socially active, are paying more attention, are searching for understanding, searching for knowledge to make things better and make things level. That’s been a wonderful thing to see. I love LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Colin Kaepernick, guys like that who make statements and put things out there, use their platforms to make the world a better place especially for Black people. As we understand with the history of our country, it ain’t been right. It ain’t been right! Don’t say to me, don’t say to us, that history is blah blah blah. No. What has been done to our people in this country in my opinion is some of the worst stuff that has been done to human beings in the history of this planet.
You go from the Kaepernick moment to now in the NCAA tournament where you have players on Twitter putting out hashtags saying #NotNCAAProperty. Or the NIL bills [which, if passed, would allow college athletes to earn endorsement income] of the last few years. Kids want to break the wheel, flip the system on its head and feel like they’re actually worth something more than free labor. Has that changed how you prepare for games, or how you approach this as a broadcaster from the George Floyd moment to now?
Everything’s happened so fast. Then with Covid-19, you’re not at the games, so you’re really not talking to people. The games in Indiana, Bloomington, and I’m calling it from Los Angeles in a studio. You don’t get the chance to talk to people, to talk to the kids, to coaches. Yeah, you get a good conversation on Zoom, but that’s not the same as being on the campus and in their facilities and stuff like that. I feel like the change, as I watch it, is coming. It has started. I like seeing some of the adjustments that’ve been made. People really understand it: corporations, leagues.
I’m hopeful this isn’t a flash in the pan, this will consistently be at the top of the list of what’s important and what matters in trying to level the playing field. That’s my hope.
You’ve talked in some ways about the consistent grieving we have to do when we are Black and how that goes into the broadcast booth, how we talk to our coaches, our athletes, how we live in our society. What do you want out of college athletics? If that ripple from 2016 is now a tidal wave in 2021, what is your hope for these athletes?
We want things to improve. Like I keep saying: we want the playing field to eventually be leveled. And sports is a huge vehicle in the world. Through television, the whole world is seeing it. You’ve got a chance to say something from time to time, not just say something but lead by example. Keep things at the front of your mind, at the front of the minds of decision makers. The sacrifices of Colin Kaepernick, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the list goes on and on.
I think that sports helps us. These are our leaders. Men and women that are college educated and trying to say something in today’s world, 2021 and beyond. Something’s got to stop. This has to stop! Indentured servitude, you’re getting a college education and that’s great, but it’s a very lucrative business in college sports. NIL seems like something that’s going to change this. I don’t know if that’s going to open some type of Pandora’s Box. Because as we know, when there’s good, there’s a Yin and Yang to everything. It’s good on paper, folks have a chance to make some money, but what does that usher in? Who does that usher in? There’s always a dark element when it comes to big money.
But in the middle of all of that, you have to have storytellers. Which leaves you. There ain’t too many Black faces around able to do that.
Here’s the secret: the play-by-play man in sports is the most powerful figure in athletics because he pushes the narrative. He has all the control. He is the quarterback, he or she. Yeah, you’ve got the other guy sitting next to you, the former player breaking it all down. But who tells the stories? That bothers me sometimes. You’ve got leagues like the NBA with at least 80 percent African-Americans and you have one Black person on the national broadcast teams. You don’t have any African-American men or women calling the games. My boy Mark Jones is Canadian. He’s the only one. Nobody else. And here’s the deal, if there were more Black folks in the booth, don’t you tell me that a Black person can’t associate with the great things these people are doing off the court and give it more gravitas with the social issues.
I was watching Turner during the All-Star game, right?
And it was like the whole thing was HBCU’s, HBCU’s and then Marv Albert is calling the game. Talking about HBCU’s! Like he was reading the shit for the first time! But, where were the Black folks? Where’s the Black play-by-play guy to tell me the story? They are the storytellers, the narrative pushers and they don’t have many of us. That’s why my sound is so different. My sound is different because I’m one of them! I’m one of us! It’s me!
And that, if I do have a pet peeve, there aren’t enough of us. Especially for sports like football and basketball where the majority of the athletes out there are African-Americans. I think that needs to change. We need to have more of a diverse group of storytellers out there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on GQ