When the networks revealed which broadcasters would be assigned to which NCAA tournament regional sites this week, Gus Johnson’s devotees scurried to their social-media outlets and borrowed a biscuit or two from their favorite announcer’s basket:
Gus + Jimmer Fredette = “PURE!!!” gushed Logan from Wyoming, via one of Johnson’s Facebook fan pages.
Rise & Fire, Young Man — You Just Got Jimmered! commented a poster known as AndresGotGame2.
To them, the pairing of CBS’s uber-exuberant play-by-play voice and BYU’s lock-and-load, high-scoring guard was seen as a match made in hyperbole heaven, all that March and college basketball were meant to mean.
The shot from the hand of a tournament star — backed by the sound of the excitable man at courtside, who sees much of himself in the kids whose games he loudly announces.
“You know what? I do think it’s me,” Johnson said.
This was Sunday night in Cleveland, two decades after he graduated from Howard and cut his teeth in Washington as an intern for Glenn Harris at WHUR radio (96.3 FM) and Steve Buckhantz at Fox 5. He stood behind one of CBS’s broadcast trucks as he and his partner, analyst Len Elmore, unwound with a smoke after calling that weekend’s regional action.
“That’s why I am so excited,” Johnson added. “Some people live vicariously through their kids; I live vicariously through great, young positive athletes in the prime of their lives. When they knock that shot down at the end, I see myself doing it. Kind of wild, right?”
But authentic is better. It means Gus is not beholden to hiking the inflection in his voice up just for ratings and effect, that he genuinely believes in “CASEY CALVARY!” — or some other obscure player from tournaments past who never made it at the next level — in the majesty of the moment.
It means Gus has substance to complement the style, something his late father, Augustus Cornelius Johnson Sr., whom Gus still calls “Daddy,” could relate with.
“Daddy came from the segregated South,” Gus says. “He didn’t go very far in school, and he used to shine shoes in front of [Louisville’s] Brown Hotel. One time he was shining a man’s shoes, he told me. When the man sat in the chair, he had kind of a glum look on his face. My dad was a kid; probably 12 or 13 years old.
“He said, ‘Hey, sir, you look like you’re having a bad day. I’m going to give you a great shine and make your day go along better.’ Daddy said the guy looked at him and just hauled off and slapped him in the face right there. The guy said, ‘Don’t speak to me ever again. Just shine my shoes.’ ”
At Howard University, where he played baseball, and before then at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he was a three-sport star, Gus says he was insulated from the world his father grew up in.
But the two collided when he got one of his first jobs after college, at a station in Huntsville, Ala.
The weatherman, he said, was in the middle of a gardening segment, going on about his vegetables being devoured by the birds. He then turned to the camera and asked Gus if he wouldn’t mind being the scarecrow. Gus reluctantly obliged.
A turning point in his life and career, he said, happened when he returned home and saw his father, who was visiting and watched the broadcast.
“He said, ‘Listen man, you come from a good family. You went to Howard. You got a good education. You don’t need this. You don’t need to let people talk to you a certain way and say certain things. . . . You never compromise your manhood for nobody.’ That was the moment for me.”
Gus was soon back in Washington as the weekend sports anchor at Fox 5 and, two years later, was hired by the Madison Square Garden network, where he called Knicks games and began a career ascent that has taken him everywhere but the Final Four.
He still credits Harris, the former sports director at WHUR 96.3 FM radio and now at Channel 8, and Buckhantz, the Wizards’ play-by-play man and former Fox 5 sports director, as early mentors that paved the way.
“Glenn actually fired me for one day for showing up late,” Gus recalled. “Oh, that hurt. I looked at him and starting crying right there, tears coming down. He kicked me out. I called him and begged him to let me have my job back.
“And Buck doesn’t know it, but I still got some of his boards [rosters with information written down about players next to the names].”
Harris said he may have fired Gus for a day, “but it was to teach him a lesson about being on time and caring about the job.”
Gus said his primary coach in the profession was the late Marty Glickman, the former Olympian turned announcer. “He said, ‘Son, keep this in mind. The game is in front of you, not on those notes you scribbled down. The game is reacting to what you see, not what you researched.’
“Plus,” Gus adds, “I’m so disorganized anyway. I ain’t gonna pretend I’m smarter than anyone.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, these guys that try to get analytical with sports, I think it’s ridiculous. It’s sports. It’s exciting. If you want to be analytical, go cover the White House and you can be as analytical as you want to. That’s not my style.
“To me, sport is about people. It’s not about the stats. It’s about people and how they manage to overcome adversity and how they handle that one moment in the game and what happens and how they react to it and how it makes you feel. This is a feel thing.”