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Departing Courier-Journal sportswriter C.L. Brown: ‘I never felt like I was on a sinking ship’

by Mark Coomes

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Tim Sullivan and C.L. Brown

He is gone now, the last story filed, and we are all diminished.

C.L. Brown – the man, the myth, the sartorial legend — toils for The Courier-Journal no more.

He landed a sweet new gig blogging about basketball for ESPN.com. So this past Saturday, after 13 years of illuminating the locals with his smooth sporting prose, Brown recorded for posterity his last University of Louisville athletic event and turned his well-dressed back on us forever.

Or until ESPN ships him back to cover the Cardinals again, playing in a new conference against the guys from Brown’s new beat, the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team.

Brown was born and raised in Winston-Salem and schooled in Chapel Hill. Naturally, people say he’s going home.

They are wrong.

He is leaving home.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Brown said. “I feel so comfortable here. I feel like Norm walking into the bar in ‘Cheers.’ ”

Point taken. Analogy refused.

Norm from Cheers is short, fat, pasty and dumpy. In other words, he looks like a typical sportswriter.

Brown does not. He is tall, dark and handsome. He’s always nattily attired. (Dude probably showers in an ascot and smoking jacket.)

He is 41 and looks 30.

browntwitterMost of the beat hacks on Planet Jock are wizened beyond their years on account of it’s a hard job. And they do some hard livin’. Those ruthless midnight deadlines. Those endless 12-ounce curls.

Brown is African-American. Times are changing, but the average press box is still whiter than a Klan meeting most nights.

Brown speaks in calm tones with measured words, and he flashes a ready smile. He is not belligerently opinionated. He’s not a world-weary cynic or a starry-eyed Pollyanna.

He is not your typical sportswriter, this C.L. Brown. He will be missed.

He will miss us, too.

Not you or me, perhaps, but Brown will definitely miss the folks and the food at Asahi, his favorite sushi spot, and the barflies at 60 West, his favorite place to hang.

He will miss the relative lack of traffic around here. He spent his formative journalistic years around Charlotte, N.C., a stealthily big-league town that’s home to major banks, two pro teams (the Panthers and Hornets) and His Airness, Michael Jordan, whose vast ego requires its own ZIP code.

“Charlotte either failed to plan correctly or was bombarded by population growth, because there’s a ton of sprawl and gridlock there,” Brown said. “The infrastructure and roads here are much better.”

Are we being damned by faint praise?

Nope. Brown genuinely loves Louisville but his unaffectedly cool persona won’t let him get all sentimental about it.

“I don’t really get too excited about too many things,” Brown said.

He wasn’t overly excited by Louisville at first. Big city immigrants rarely are.

Denny Crum, the Los Angeleno, moved here in 1971 and never dreamed he’d stay for life. I seriously doubt that Rick Pitino, archetypical New Yorker, thought in his Lexington days that the City of Little Brotherly Love would be the longest homesteading site of his adult life.

“It grew on me,” Brown said.

It always does. Like kudzu, I guess, but in a good way.

Louisville might not make the best first impression, but it makes a warm and lasting one.

“I came here from Charlotte, where it was growing and there was a feeling like you were part of something,” Brown said. “When I first moved here, I felt like Louisville had a lot of possibilities but there was an old Rust Belt feel to it. It just didn’t seem progressive to me.”

“Now,” he says, “it’s hard to leave.”

Louisville has changed for the bigger and better since Brown arrived in 2000. He mentions the new growth in the NuLu district and the construction of, and around, the KFC Yum! Center.

The city has changed socially as well.

“When I first moved here, I felt that in a lot of ways it was socially segregated – but not in a 1950s, staunchly separated, racial problems kind of way,” Brown said. “I don’t feel like that now.

“It’s generational. Kids today are more apt to have a diverse set of friends that do things together without even thinking about it. I don’t think that was the case when I first got here. The places I went back then, it was basically an all-black crowd. Or if I was with white friends, it would be an all-white crowd.

“The crowds are more diverse now. There’s more intermingling and it’s not a big deal. I’ve come to expect it.”

Brown was lucky. Shortly after his arrival, he fell in with a crew of fun young locals – a Louisville native and two U of L grads – who showed him the social ropes.

The fellas are gone now, two to Houston and one to Portland, Ore. The newcomer was the last to leave, and he was in no hurry to do so – personally or professionally.

“I felt like I had a great situation here,” Brown said. “I was always looking for the next great opportunity, but I felt like the next job would have to be pretty special to take me away. I never felt like I had to go out of my way to send out resumes and seek new jobs.”

There’s a perception that newspapers are in the process of capsizing and that every able body is looking to abandon ship. Brown said that’s not the case at The Courier-Journal.

Yes, the Courier has by force and by choice lost dozens of fine journalists during Brown’s tenure, but he said there’s no sense of panic or foreboding among those still toiling at 525 W. Broadway.

“I feel like I’m realistic about newspapers,” he said. “I feel like there will always be a need for them and they will still be around, but the business model will change. It’s transforming right now.

“In a lot of ways, they’ll continue to downsize in staff and in reach. But at the end of the day, they will survive.”

Brown admits to being a little rattled when the Courier’s owner, Gannett Co., instituted mandatory furloughs several years back. Everybody felt the pain of industry contraction then.

But he was not unnerved when the Courier lost three veteran sportswriters in one month last summer. The defections of columnists Rick Bozich and Eric Crawford and recruiting guru Jody Demling seemed like an ominous sign to outsiders, but Brown and his colleagues kept the faith.

“I was sad to see them go,” Brown said, “but I never felt like I was on a sinking ship, like it was just gloom and doom and we were falling apart. I knew we were going to make some good hires.”

Excellent hires, as it turned out.

Tim Sullivan, the new columnist, is an intelligent, eloquent scribe. Seasoned in big-league markets like San Diego and Cincinnati, his pieces reflect restraint and reason – rare traits in the big-mouthed, “hot take” culture of contemporary sportswriting.

Adam Himmelsbach, a general assignment reporter who also writes columns, is eager, able and versatile – a quick study with a fresh, engaging voice.

(Check out the exit interview Himmelsbach conducted with C.L. It’s a hoot.)

Filling Brown’s stylish shoes won’t be easy. He takes 13 years of institutional memory from a beat that, like all college beats, is a saga, not a story. U of L’s story is unusually urgent right now, with its football and men’s basketball teams embarking on two of the most promising seasons in school history.

As for Brown, he’ll go back to the future and cover his alma mater’s lordly hoops squad. He’ll be called to do some regional and national stories as well.

“I wanted to cover college basketball exclusively,” Brown said, “so I couldn’t be in any better situation.”

Such situations are rare at newspapers these days.

The big papers used to have sportswriters cover national and regional beats, but most of those jobs have been eliminated in recent years. Dick “Hoops” Weiss, one the last of the national college basketball writers, was laid off a few months ago by the New York Daily News.

“To do what I really wanted to do,” Brown said, “I figured I was eventually going to have to move from print to online.”

And so he has.

Farewell, St. Matthews. Hello, Chapel Hill.

With apologies to Dick Vitale, we send best wishes to our temporary homeboy, the Dapper Dandy.

Here’s to finding a new home that, though you dress like Stuart from “SportsCenter,” makes you feel Norm from “Cheers.”

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