It was a disappointment James Brown won’t forget. But it was what the famed CBS sportscaster described Feb. 18 during The University of Southern Mississippi’s 20th annual Armstrong-Branch Lecture as a seminal moment that helped him regain his focus.
Brown, a graduate of Harvard University where he was captain of the varsity basketball squad and recipient of All-Ivy League honors, had been cut from the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. As one used to achieving most goals he set in front of him, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
He confessed that once he made it on the Harvard basketball team, he didn’t maintain the commitment to achievement he had previously as a high school All-American, despite his collegiate athletic honors. He worked hard the summer after he graduated to make up for lost time and get ready for pro camp. But in the end, it wasn’t enough to secure a spot on the Hawks’ roster.
“Complacency set in. I rested on my laurels,” Brown said to Southern Miss alumnus and former television anchor Mitch Williams, who interviewed him. “I didn’t work as hard to stay on top as I did to get on top. I couldn’t make up in four months what I didn’t do in four years. The blame rested squarely on me.”
Brown “cried like a baby” from the rejection. “I vowed from then on that I would not let another opportunity pass me by,” he said. “I would not allow that to happen again.”
To look at Brown’s accomplishments since, it appears he’s kept that vow. But he gives the credit for his success in the corporate world, as a network anchor, minister and motivational speaker to his parents and their relentless emphasis on education.
“Success in the game of life is predicated on academic excellence,” Brown said.
Brown then listed seven tenets for success, what he described as “secular” truths while comparing them to their biblical example, including good communication skills; dressing for success; promptness; a thirst for knowledge; strong interpersonal relationship skills; an ability to deal with adversity; and application of God’s word.
He urged his audience, particularly the students, to grow not only intellectually but spiritually because there are two kinds of success – “worldly and Godly.”
“Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘To educate in mind and not in morals is to create a menace to society,’” Brown said.
Meredith Moody, a freshman forensic science major from Lucedale, said Brown’s message was “amazing.”
“It’s clear he tries to live his life by example. He’s not one of these people that says one thing and does another,” she said.
The lecture’s namesakes - Gwendolyn Armstrong and Raylawni Branch, the first African-American students to enroll at Southern Miss – were in attendance, and praised Brown for his message.
“He was very much on point, that all of our efforts should be focused on excellence,” Armstrong said.
"It was really important for our young people to hear, especially after what we've just been through," Branch said, referring to the the Feb. 10 tornado that struck the Pine Belt and Southern Miss Hattiesburg campus.