“How’s the baby?”
That was the gist of the weekly phone calls I received from Jim Brown in 1999 as our firstborn child spent more than a month in the neonatal intensive care unit at a Woodbridge, Virginia, hospital. Jasmine Bell came five weeks early, weighing all of 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
No, the world hasn’t been the same since.
Brown, the legendary Hall of Famer, wanted updates on Jazzy’s progress, which included incremental weight gain and increasing stretches of, well, being woke. Brown served up much encouragement to the new daddy, and generally offered up a compassionate ear. He heard all about my routine that instantly included much time in the NICU, but especially the overnight visits at 3 a.m., when the amazing nurses would wake the baby up, give her a bath and watch me try to connect by reading Dr. Seuss as she lay in the incubator.
Of course, after hearing that Brown died peacefully at his home in Hollywood, California, on Thursday, my mind raced back to the first weeks of Jasmine’s life, when he demonstrated so much compassion to me during a period when I had no clue of what to expect and how to handle the sudden crisis.
Say what you want about Brown. He was a complex man who, like all of us, had his flaws. Brown was also a man with a huge heart, as many have expressed in the wake of his death. For the macho image he presented as arguably the greatest player in NFL history and then as an action figure on the big screen and as a social activist, Brown surely had a softer, sensitive side, too.
‘I DO WHAT I WANT TO DO’Jim Brown was a Hollywood legend, an activist and highly flawed
JIM BROWN DAZZLED ON THE FOOTBALL FIELDHere are best moments of career.
I know because I experienced it as a bond was developed through fatherhood.
Brown called me in 2001, too. Like out of the blue. He wanted the phone number for Richard Williams, the father of the tennis stars. This was right after Serena Williams was unfairly subjected to tacky jeering from the crowd at Indian Wells, after Richard pulled Venus Williams out of a semifinal match against her sister. He wanted to express support for Richard Williams.
As I explained to Brown, I didn’t know Richard Williams.
That meant nothing to Brown.
“But I know you can get that for me if you want to,” he responded.
Sure enough, it took one phone call. Our esteemed tennis writer, Doug Smith, gave me the number to pass along to Brown.
So, why was Brown calling after Jasmine was born?
We were in the process at USA TODAY of interviewing the greatest living athletes of the 20th century for a series that would run as Y2K approached. I was assigned to interview Brown.
It must have been early April when, anticipating the arrival of the baby, I declared to my wife (and to my editor) that I’d make just two more trips before shutting it down and waiting on Jasmine. First, I’d go to Miami to see Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino and write about their new working relationship with the Dolphins. Then, the next week I’d go to California to interview Brown.
At least that was my plan. It was all set up.
Then came God’s plan. While I was at the Dolphins headquarters, complications came that required our remarkable obstetrician, Zerline Chambers, to deliver Jasmine prematurely. I got back from Miami and to the hospital … like 30 minutes after the birth. Talk about missing a deadline.
Of course, I expected that Brown would understand when I called to postpone the interview.
What I didn’t expect was that he’d stay in touch, checking on Jasmine for weeks.
It was mid-June when I began traveling again, with the first trip to interview Brown at his home in Hollywood Hills. But just imagine how shocked I was as I watched Game 1 of the NBA Finals from my room at a hotel room near LAX Airport, hearing something like this during a TV newsbreak: “Jim Brown arrested in a domestic violence incident. Details after the game.”
Oh, my. A few minutes later, one of Brown’s assistants called and told me that Jim wanted me to know that the interview scheduled for the next day was still on.
Brown had been arrested, and released, after a June 15 incident at his home that began with an argument with his wife, Monique. Brown was charged with making terroristic threats and vandalism after he took a shovel and smashed the headlights on Monique’s car. While he was acquitted of the more serious charge after Monique recanted testimony during the trial, he was convicted of the misdemeanor charge and served three months of a six-month jail sentence after refusing counseling.
The morning of our interview, Jim and Monique met me in the driveway of their home, in serious damage control after his arrest. Suddenly, there was another story to write in addition to the piece for the series on the greatest living athletes of the 20th Century, as Jim and Monique seemed eager to share their version of the events that added another chapter to his series of domestic violence incidents.
I wound up spending about eight hours at their house that day, discussing a wide range of topics. Jim and Monique could not have been better hosts.
Jim also told me that whenever I was in Los Angeles, I was always welcomed at his home. What a cool gesture. I took him up on the offer in 2015, when I made a side trip to LA after LeBron James performed the gesture of bowing to Brown before Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Cleveland, as Brown sat courtside next to Eddie DeBartolo. So, before heading back to Oakland for Game 5, I caught up with Brown for a couple hours before he headed out to the golf course.
Of course, just about every time I saw Brown over the span of 20 years – at Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies, at the Browns headquarters or at a game, at Super Bowl week events or the like – he’d take me back and ask about my daughter.