Sports journalist K.C. Johnson talks Bulls at Lit Fest

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Sports journalist K.C. Johnson talks Bulls at Lit Fest

K.C. Johnson speaking to NT students

K.C. Johnson speaking to NT students

K.C. Johnson speaking to NT students

K.C. Johnson speaking to NT students

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For the second year in a row, well-known Chicago Bulls journalist K.C. Johnson spoke at the New Trier Literary Festival. 

This year marked the 16th annual Lit Fest, where students in senior writing classes participate in workshops and listen to speakers.

An Evanston native, Johnson was the Bulls beat writer at the Chicago Tribune for 29 years before joining NBC Sports Chicago this fall. 

His talk encapsulated his journey from playing basketball at ETHS and Beloit College to becoming the Bulls Insider for NBC’s website and TV station. He gave students first-hand insight into the world of professional sports and journalism.

“My favorite part of journalism is you never know what will happen every day,” said Johnson. “The day [former Bulls point guard] Jay Williams crashed his motorcycle [resulting in a leg injury which nearly required amputation], I was out having dinner. Things can change so quickly, and that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Johnson also enjoys the opportunity to travel across the nation to NBA games, and around the globe to events such as the Olympics. He emphasized the importance of forming relationships in the sports journalism field, where connections can make or break a career.

“Journalism lets you meet people and relate to them through life experiences,” said Johnson. “[Bulls guard Tomáš Satoransky] is from the Czech Republic, and when I was in Europe I visited near there. So I could use that as a jumping off point when I first talked to him… when you have a good relationship with people you cover, you get information they won’t tell anybody else.”

Johnson elaborated on some of his most memorable experiences, like the time he went to White Hall, Alabama to write a story on Ben Wallace, who had just signed a $60 million deal with the Bulls in 2006. White Hall was in one of the poorest counties in the U.S. at the time, and Johnson expected to write a feel-good story on Wallace’s rise from being raised by a single mother with his 11 siblings to the NBA. He was surprised, though, when a portion of the town spoke of Wallace’s neglect after he made it out.

“I went in with the idea of a rags-to-riches story, but there was a very strong undercurrent that people were angry with him — he didn’t give back to the community enough. Ben tried to buy his family homes elsewhere, and they didn’t want to move,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s deep investment in that story led him to some unique encounters, such as the time he drank moonshine with a man who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and meeting Wallace’s near-identical brother while visiting his childhood home.

“You go where the story takes you,” said Johnson. “As a reporter you gotta trust your instincts. That comes with experience — your writing voice develops over time. Make sure you don’t have an agenda or bias, and be open to new information. I met Ben’s whole family before I met him, and he didn’t like me at first. He said, ‘you’re the guy who wrote that story,’ but now we have a really good relationship… it’s really fun to sit down with somebody and get information. I love putting research into developing good thoughts and ideas, which all goes back to writing and letting the interview go off to areas you would not expect.”

As for his parting thoughts, Johnson left the audience with career advice that extends beyond sports journalism.

“The biggest thing I learned was getting comfortable in my own skin. Early in my career I interviewed Michael Jordan, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m interviewing Michael Jordan!’ Over the years I’ve gotten comfortable with my voice by watching a lot of people interview on TV and putting a lot of work in to be prepared for interviews. I love interviewing and writing, which is a good combination for being a sportswriter.”

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