James Ebron was a better friend to me than I was to him, if I’m honest.
I know he read those words — James loved The Undefeated, after all — and smiled that bright smile of his and in the same breath chastised me for talkin’ crazy.
But that’s my truth, and if you were truly his friend, you feel me.
It should have been the other way around — if no other reason that, over the course of his four-plus decades in advertising, sales and media, James had forgotten more about the space than we collectively know.
But I should have leaned on him more. Should have asked more questions. Picked his brain more … should have given him more flowers while he was here to water, and smell, them.
Damn. Just damn.
But if you knew James, he wouldn’t have any of this should’ve-would’ve-could’ve talk. He didn’t believe in the natural order of things that way — he didn’t think he was owed more calls, didn’t see friendship as a competition or believe that his extensive CV afforded him the privilege of the chase.
Real talk, James was just a real friend — the OG kind who would drop everything to be there for you (all while keeping his own private life private).
“As an African American woman in media who’d reached a certain level, James understood the challenges we faced in a white- and male-dominated industry, and he just played that gatekeeper-protector role for us,” a former ESPN colleague of James told me. “James was a big brother that way — always, always looking out.”
When word circulated throughout ESPN in early January that James had suddenly succumbed to multiple myeloma on Dec. 10, it was a combination gut punch to his village: that a friend and former colleague was gone, and that we collectively had no idea.
“I’ll be honest with you,” James’ wife Hanna explained. “It happened so fast and nobody knew until last minute. It all happened in two months — we found out that he had cancer, he went through chemo and he didn’t make it.”
Born in Collinsville, Illinois (but Brooklyn, New York, through and through), James, the oldest of seven siblings and “girl dad” to three daughters, had a reputation in the family as the caregiver.
“He always cared,” explained Hanna, mother to daughters Sophia, 17, and Dasha, 11. “He never complained about anything. He always took his time. His wisdom was just as incredible. His family and brothers and sisters, they all look up to him. It’s an honor that I was able to experience amazing love and an amazing person in my life that changed my life forever.”
James worked at ESPN as a senior director of multicultural business development for a decade (until 2018). When The Undefeated launched in 2016, James was giddy with excitement and optimism. “Finally,” he told me in one of our many after-work phone calls, “here’s an opportunity for ESPN to prioritize Black people — not only as a storytelling portal but from an audience and advertising perspective.”
James, who was a youthful-looking 66, wasn’t just talking. He’d spent a lifetime marketing to African Americans, earning his stripes at BET, where after six years with the company, by 1989, he had risen to vice president of network sales.
Almost daily, James would call and applaud many of us at The Undefeated for our approach to stories; he’d also dare us to go into spaces ESPN historically hadn’t, making the argument that general market advertisers needed to see it.
James ardently believed that a successful Undefeated would propel the company’s other African American platforms (the Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge and Cricket Celebration Bowl) to not only new heights, but respectability.
“James was passionate about what he did — at both BET and ESPN,” explained Curtis Symonds, James’ colleague at BET for 14 of the 17 years he was there. “Whatever he would tie himself to, man, he would give you 110. He was nonstop, and he was very competitive, and very smart. He knew the advertising business. I take my hat off to him. And one of the things that I thought he did a great job of in the many years that I knew him, is that he built some great relationships with folks across the board.”
It’s starting to make sense now, the relationship that we had – it was the only one James would allow. One where he was out in front, leading the way, providing guidance.
Gabrielle, 25, James’ daughter with his first wife, Betty Ming Liu, remembers her dad as a complex man with a big heart. “My father taught me what it means to be unapologetic and to take a seat at the table,” she said. “He knew how to really enjoy life — how to pick good wine, to not sweat the small stuff and to laugh until it hurts. I wish we could’ve had more time together.”
Added Hanna: “I want [people] to remember his smile, his presence, his wisdom and his amazing energy,” she said. “I have known people to open up for him – like, as soon as you meet him, they would talk about their personal life. That’s how he was – he just had this warm energy that impacted people. And he cared.”
Rest well, brother.