Bryan Burwell brought a different perspective to big sports stories
Writer, TV commentator and mentor died two years ago this week
It took perspective to see the Detroit Pistons the way Bryan Burwell did in the late 1980s. The Bad Boys hip-checked the small of Larry Bird’s back, clotheslined Michael Jordan’s esophagus and tormented NBA commissioner David Stern with their bullying style of play.
The world hated the Pistons and the Pistons hated the world. The Bad Boys enthusiastically played the role of goons. Burwell, though, demanded that they explain themselves in a more nuanced and accurate narrative.
“You know how players have their go-to moves? We had our go-to answers,” says Isiah Thomas now, remembering Burwell trudging into the home locker room in Auburn Hills, Michigan, nearly 30 years ago and listening to their homogenized, rehearsed words before cornering them in private.
“He was journalistic enough to ask something more insightful,” Thomas continued, “but he was also street enough to say, ‘Come on, man, you know that’s BS. Give me the real answer.’ He wasn’t trying to make a career off us; Burwell got us …
“Man, I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
He died on Dec. 4, 2014 — two years ago this week – after a swift fight with melanoma. Fiercely private about his illness, he kept his diagnosis from almost everyone but immediate family and a few friends. Told his condition was terminal in late September 2014, he died in less than 10 weeks.
He was 59. Beyond his wife of 30 years, Dawnn, and his daughter Victoria, he is survived by the press box.
Burwell was, quite simply, one of the seminal contributors to black sports journalism. He worked at eight newspapers, from New York’s Newsday to the Detroit News to USA Today to his final 12 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while pioneering the balancing act of sports writer and multimedia personality.
Blessed with a distinctive baritone, he perfectly enunciated Every. Single. Word, while holding gigs at Real Sports, Inside The NFL, on TNT as a sideline reporter and The Sporting News. He couldn’t sing, but that broadcast baritone made him the Barry White of sports writing.
“He had this way of talking, this very slow, deliberate and detailed way of saying things,” remembered J.A. Adande, a Burwell protégé who became good friends with his colleague while a columnist at the Los Angeles Times and later ESPN. “But it was never condescending. It was like they tell you in broadcasting: Explain like you’re feeding a baby. Bryan fed the baby.”
Burwell approached issues of race and class head-on and mentored an entire generation of young journalists, many of whom needed to see someone who looked liked them rise to the pinnacle of their profession.
He reached it in 1992, when USA Today plucked him from Detroit to be its top sports columnist. At the time, before the internet, before ESPN launched a website, newspapers still were king. Burwell’s voice resonated loudest and farthest. USA Today had more than 2 million Monday-through-Friday subscribers and readers across the globe. He held the job for five years.
“My husband was quite ambitious,” Dawnn Burwell said. “He wanted it bad. As a matter of fact, when he proposed to me, he said, ‘I’m going to be somebody. I’m going to be famous.’ Nobody had ever stepped to me like that.”
A voice we needed to hear
“Anytime you saw a face of color then, it felt like a voice in the wilderness,” recalled Bryant Gumbel. “Bryan Burwell was simply one of those voices we needed to hear — a face we needed to see — in an era when there weren’t many African-Americans with jobs in this industry, much less platforms.”
Part of a high-profile group of black writers who helped desegregate American sports media rooms in the late 1970s and ’80s, Burwell, Ralph Wiley, William Rhoden, Roy Johnson and Michael Wilbon knocked down the doors that Stephen A. Smith, Stuart Scott, Michael Smith and others walked through to prominence.
“I came up in the golden age of black sportswriters,” Burwell told Michael Tillery in 2007 for his Starting Five blog. “… My concern is that we need to keep that level of sophisticated thinking, writing and seeing issues. We need to keep that going. We need another generation of brothas with those insights …
“The best thing we can do is have people tell us, ‘Man, I never thought of that. I never looked at it that way.’ That’s what I want the next generation of black sportswriters to be churning out.”
Burwell lived for the big event — the Bad Boys vs. Jordan’s Bulls, Tyson vs. Holyfield in Vegas, the Olympics. But he could also paint the scene when great athletes appeared at lesser venues, such as in the summer of 1996 when he transported readers to the world’s most famous playground:
“Across the river, way uptown, the streets of Harlem still are buzzing. … By 6:30 p.m., the outdoor courts on 155th and Lennox Avenue were jammed with folks salivating for a rare hoop occurrence. They were on rooftops. They dangled over fences, stood on trash cans, perched on taller shoulders and squeezed into every nook and cranny of hot summer asphalt. Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were going to hook up in the same backcourt on the hallowed grounds of the famed Holcombe Rucker Park.”
His social conscience made him go from the Super Bowl in Pasadena, California, in 1992 to South Central Los Angeles post-Rodney King.
“Eight months ago, I walked these streets as the city burned … I witnessed the confusion, the anger, the violence … I saw my vision constantly blurred as I tried to distinguish between the victims and perpetrators, the innocents and the predators … Eight months later, the fires have died, the rubble cleared away … But as I listen closely to the voices in the street, I wonder … has anything changed?”
If the moment required, Burwell could also be extremely personal. In 1998, he recounted picking up his daughter Victoria, then 9, and her friend from a dance rehearsal in a just-purchased Ford Expedition (the vanity plate read “SPTSPGE”) before getting pulled over.
“My daughter is crying,” he wrote of that night in Fairfax, Virginia, when one officer was soon joined by another four squad cars to essentially write a speeding ticket while threatening to arrest him. “She thinks we are going to jail. I am seething inside, because this is happening for no reason.
“And I ask the officer again as he glares the flashlight in my face: ‘Officer, what’s the problem?’
“Badge number 128 does not answer. Instead, he tells me to get out of my car and come to the back of the vehicle.”
Burwell filed a complaint, but no disciplinary action was taken against the officer after an internal investigation.
DeWayne Wickham, now the dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University, recalls Burwell “as a race man who never shied away from taking on a cause of racial justice.” Wickham recounted an incident from 1977 when he was agitating for greater racial diversity at The Baltimore Sun.
Burwell “was still on probation when I organized a petition drive to pressure the paper’s publisher, Donald Patterson, to push the papers’ top editors to hire a black columnist, editorial writer, foreign and national reporters. There were no blacks in any of these positions.
“I asked every black staffer, except Bryan, to sign the petition. I excluded Bryan because he could have been dismissed without cause during his probationary period. This upset Bryan. One day he came to my desk and he demanded to know: ‘Where’s the petition? Let me worry about my job. I want to sign the petition.’ ”
Dawnn Burwell lamented that her husband, worn down from the cancer, never dissected the racial cauldron in his own backyard two summers ago. “He wanted to write about Ferguson. We watched some of it while it was happening. I remember him telling me, ‘I could do that. Oh, man, I could do that.’ ”
Going to her left
Bryan Ellis Burwell was born on Aug. 4, 1955, to Harold and Olivia Burwell, a middle-class Northeast Washington family who moved to Lanham, Maryland, during Burwell’s formative years. His father had served in Germany during World War II, and for 22 years worked as a homicide and robbery detective in the District. Harold’s first wife, Jane, died 11 days after giving birth to Burwell’s older sister, Carol Ann.
Olivia was Jane Burwell’s best friend and had promised to look after the little girl and her father once she was gone. Within months, their friendship turned into marriage and two more children. They were married for 50 years and today lie buried next to one another in Arlington National Cemetery.
In his final year at Duvall Senior High School, Burwell and Jeff Lasley, one of his best friends, went up to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. By chance they ran into the Virginia State College track and field team in a fast-food restaurant on the turnpike. “Now, it’s April, we both thought we were big-time athletes, but we had no place to go yet for college,” Lasley remembered. “So, Bryan says, ‘Let’s go up to the Virginia State coach and blow his mind.’ ”
The coach happened to have a couple of applications in his car, and by the next fall Virginia State had a new triple- and long-jumper — and a budding sports writer.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch gave Burwell an internship between his junior and senior years at Virginia State, kick-starting a rapid ascent in the business — to The Baltimore Sun, the old Washington Star, Newsday and the Daily News in New York and, finally, Detroit, to his first columnist job.
The Bad Boys and the Fab Five in Motown. Ben Johnson’s syringes in Seoul. Cathy Freeman’s kick in Sydney. Burwell was one of the first national columnists to call for Bob Knight’s job as the legendary coach imploded at Indiana. He got Jordan to confess to concocting a story about LaBradford Smith disrespecting him in college, saying he had made up the story to give him ammunition going forward. It became part of the Michael Jordan canon, how he invented enemies for motivation.
“He was never home,” Dawnn Burwell said. “I would ask him why he thought he had to be gone all the time. He told me, ‘Dawnn, you can’t be a writer or a columnist and not go there. You have to talk to the people you’re writing about. I can’t just sit home on the couch.’
“He gave us a great life, but we knew the deal.”
The two had met at a National Association of Black Journalists get-together. She worked as an NBC radio producer. She teased Burwell that so many “Brians” flirted with her at the convention, she was unsure which one would show up at her door the night she agreed to have dinner with him.
Within weeks, Burwell told Lasley, that he was serious about this new woman. “We had a code where we equated women we went out with with basketball skills,” Lasley said. “Some rebounded well, some were great scorers. But the demarcation line was if a woman ever went to her left.”
The second time Lasley spoke to Burwell about Dawnn, “He smiled and said, ‘Not only can she go to her left, but she sticks the mid-range jumper, too.’ ”
Back to newspapers
Burwell delivered for all his employers. He also lavishly spent their money.
By the early 1990s, the Gannett Corp.’s 1982 gamble on USA Today finally began to show annual profits in the millions. Beyond a six-figure salary befitting one of the nation’s most prominent columnists, Burwell took advantage when he left Detroit, signing a deal in which he guaranteed himself annual trips to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, the Olympics abroad and an unusual vacation package of between eight and nine weeks a year. He lived large on the road and knew of all the perks.
“His expenses were kind of on the high side,” Dawnn admitted.
Other than his penchant for stretching the budget, his professional flaws were few. G.E. Branch, an editor of Burwell’s at USA Today, revealed the most glaring one:
“Bryan couldn’t spell to save his life,” Branch recalled, laughing. “He really could compose and craft. And the beauty of his column was that he always gave you context. But the man couldn’t spell.”
Laid off in the late 1990s, Burwell found refuge in television for a while — including a stint on HBO’s Inside the NFL and Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
In 2002, Burwell signed on at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reflecting on returning to newspapers, he wrote, “I left the sports writing business and became a full-time, pampered, TV talking head. But even as the voice got deeper, the suits got fancier, the expense account just a little heftier, and the hotels and plane tickets went five-star and first-class, deep down inside, I was still just another ink-stained wretch looking for a free meal and another game to cover.”
Burwell revealed a paternal side in his writings and relationships the last decade of his life, educating and enlightening some of the young knuckleheads he covered and mentored.
“We are now confronted with the first generation of kids raising kids who are now adults raising kids of their own,” Burwell lamented in the 2007 Starting Five interview. “It’s a symptom we can’t ignore. I feel different about this group. Our folks were around. I always knew that my mother or father would smack me upside the head.”
Burwell recognized he could go beyond the box score in his column and speak to a generation in need of guidance.
“He had no problem peeling that first layer off the onion,” said his friend Mike Claiborne, a St. Louis radio personality. “There are things he did behind the scenes no one still knows about.”
That included being a great teammate. Bernie Miklasz, a Post-Dispatch columnist for three decades, acknowledged that “all columnists at the same paper have a professional rivalry, whether they want to admit or not,” and Burwell and Micklasz had their rows.
“But through everything this is the kind of guy he really was,” Miklasz said, divulging one memorable night at a Cardinals playoff game in 2011.
Miklasz had always been money on deadline, filing on time to his colleagues awaiting copy in the office. But he fell into a funk that year, “almost like Steve Sax or Chuck Knoblauch double-clutching before they threw the ball,” he recalled. “I started to choke on deadline. It was bizarre. I began to file later and later. Editors knew about it. Bryan knew.”
Moments from his filing time that night, he asked Burwell if he had finished yet. “I’m just about done. How about you?”
“I’m struggling. I’m going to be about 10 minutes late,” Miklasz replied.
So Burwell got up from his laptop. Wandered casually around the press room. Spoke to friends. Sat down, slowly read his column through and waited so that he could file his story at the exact time that Miklasz turned his in.
“If they are going to be pissed at you, they might as well be pissed off at both us,” Burwell told him. “What are they going to do, put out a paper with a Cardinals playoff game without either columnist?”
Miklasz grows emotional talking about it even now. “He could have hung me out, scored points for himself. But all he wanted to do was take the edge off and make me feel better about it.”
Rare and aggressive
At the end of September 2014, Burwell began to complain of stomach pain. Two rounds of testing later, an oncologist delivered the news: Stage 4 melanoma.
“Very rare and very aggressive,” Dawnn Burwell remembered the doctor saying. “We got out of there and got into the car and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Dawnn, I’m going to die.’ ”
Burwell’s weight began dropping rapidly and he had less and less energy. He struggled to stay lucid at football games in September and October.
Dawnn Burwell began the process of saying goodbye to the man who once promised her he would be famous.
“He’d say all the time, ‘Did I keep my word? Did I keep my word?’ ”
Dec. 4, 2014, came suddenly. Burwell had rebounded for two straight days. Then he stopped eating. The doctor told his wife that his liver was shutting down, that it was just a matter of time.
“ ‘I love you,’ ” were his last words, she said, through sobs. “I said, ‘Please don’t go.’ And then I said, ‘I love you, too, Bryan.’ He took two big breaths and he was gone.”