North Central News
Hoop dreams: Jim Owczarski ’02 covers the Milwaukee Bucks' historic NBA title run
Aug 30, 2021
You move over from covering the (Green Bay) Packers to the Bucks and in your first year on the beat, they win the NBA title. Were you the missing piece?
I mean, OF COURSE. I’ve been a bit fortunate since becoming a full-time beat writer in 2015 at the Cincinnati Enquirer. I’ve covered a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the Cincinnati Bengals’ best season in nearly 30 years, a Packers NFC championship run and now this. You can find great stories everywhere, but let’s be honest – when the teams are successful, everyone is happy, the readership is engaged, the fan base expands and everybody wins.
What was it like being along for that ride? Obviously as a journalist you’ve got to be sober-minded and objective, but can you not help but get swept up in all the excitement of having a front-row seat to a world championship?
This is an interesting question because THIS year, it was very easy to be dispassionate and disconnected because quite literally, we were. The year began in the pandemic. I had to travel in the early months because the Bucks were the only NBA team to not let their local media into the arena to cover games. And even then, Boston still had a curfew when I went there for the season opener. There were no fans in the arenas until the spring. So while, yes, the playoffs and the finals run had full capacity – we still couldn’t get into the locker room. I never actually “met” anyone this year. So while you do FEEL the electricity of the wins and losses of the games from the crowds in the playoffs, and we were fortunate enough to have in-person press conferences in the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals … there was still a manufactured distance. We still had to wear masks, even while vaccinated and COVID-19 tested every day. So it was definitely fun, but no doubt it wasn’t the same as covering a championship team in a normal year.
Speaking of front-row seats, as a reporter, particularly during COVID times, what type of access do you have? Are you in the locker room, on the road with the team, or are you doing this all remotely like so many other people these days?
I outlined a bit of this in the previous question, but we were not allowed any in-person access, ever. No practices, no shootarounds, no locker room, no passing by "Hellos." We were required to be vaccinated and COVID-19 tested every day in the final two rounds of the playoffs to be able to be in the same room as the coaches and players for press conferences, but we were not allowed to say hello to them to stop them in the hallways if we saw them. We had to be escorted to and from interview areas by NBA personnel. It was a small step forward from the NFL season in August, when I was also COVID-19 tested every day just to even enter our Lambeau Field office. No player or coach access then, too.
How do you keep up with a 24-hour news cycle, especially when there is so much pressure to break stories?
Actually, there is less pressure to break certain news. The NFL and NBA, specifically, have shifted toward teams and agents sending ALL their news to essentially two people (with some occasional third or fourth parties sprinkled in). Local reporters rarely break certain news items now, and that’s just the way those businesses went. No one knows why or how, but it just happened. Locally, our mission is to provide the context and the story behind the tweet (which is basically all those folks do). So yes, we have to stay on it – phone alerts are always on – but after that it’s about reporting it out and writing something for the fan base after that initial tweet is long since forgotten.
Let’s be honest, journalists/journalism sometimes gets a bad rap. How do you counter that and ensure that you are able to get what you need from key players and personnel?
It’s about who you are as a person. Yes, you hear a lot about “the media” but in reality that’s a broad catch-all for what isn’t actually journalism. Still, you do have to combat that and the only way to do that is to be authentic and honest, always. It doesn’t matter if an athlete is super famous or not – they’re a person who will find out real quickly what you’re about by the way you interact with them, but also with their teammates, staff, coaches, etc. And of course by how/what you write.
What’s your favorite part of the job? Least favorite part?
The favorite part is always the storytelling. Always has been, always will be. Within that, I really enjoy the writing process – taking chances (shout out to all my editors who let me) and pushing myself to be better than the last time I wrote.
The least favorite part is the day-to-day transactional stuff. It’s part of the job. It’s part of the business. Fans love it, but if I could get away from that it would be lovely!
As a beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel covering the hometown team, how do you view your job covering such a massive national/global sport?
It is easy to forget these sports are indeed global when you’re hunkered down doing the day-to-day. But we get reminders here and there, especially when Greek fans turn out for the Antetokounmpo (brothers) or you see players competing for their home countries in international competition. I’m not sure how far our stories reach being in English, but I do remember on the Packers beat we would get pings from all over the globe. I covered a Bengals game at Wembley Stadium (in London), and it was sold out with people wearing NFL jerseys from every team.
How much does social media play a role in your reporting, whether your own social media or that of the players and so many others involved in the sport?
Probably too much. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a Twitter culture of news breaking in these sports that’s pretty ridiculous. Twitter pays no one’s salary, but more power to the handful of folks who turned that hustle into some pretty decent paydays. On the athlete side, it depends. They are part of a generation whose whole lives have been online. They don’t think twice about it (well, many of them) so you kind of HAVE to keep an eye out for things they say or do that may be “newsworthy,” but I’m not a social media chaser. If anything I may try to bank some things for future story ideas or ice-breakers in the locker room as opposed to really reporting on a thing someone posts.
Any particular highlights that stand out from this past season covering the Bucks?
Oh man, there are literally too many to list here because despite the restrictions on access and being physically separated, we did some really good work covering the team at the Journal Sentinel. Probably my favorite stories were the ones looking back at the 1971 championship team and catching up with all of them, along with the more personal stories, like Jrue and Lauren Holiday pledging to donate money to local businesses in Milwaukee before his trade to the Bucks even became official; the three Antetokounmpo brothers sharing a court for the first time in Los Angeles; and of course, being in the building for Game 6 when a team won a championship. That could be a once-in-a-career type of moment that I definitely will savor.
The Bucks, Brewers and Packers have all had the better of their Chicago counterparts over the past several years. Are you fully on the Wisconsin bandwagon now or are you still a Chicago sports fan at heart?
Ha! I could care less what any of these teams do. As long as I’m able to tell the stories along the way, it doesn’t matter how good, bad or mediocre any of them are. Once I started covering the White Sox, Cubs and pro golf in 2003 and the NFL and NBA in Green Bay and Milwaukee in 2012 all of the fan stuff basically went away. I can enjoy the sports I don’t cover anymore and I’m happy for my family and friends that are happy when their teams do well – I don’t want to become overly cynical or jaded (I’ve seen that happen) – but I really don’t have the typical “rooting interest” if you will. I love sport and competition; I can appreciate greatness and effort and what it takes for these athletes to do what they’re doing, but unfortunately a big part of the job is being able to kind of throw up that wall. But I definitely have taken the time to take in what’s happening on the other side, and I really enjoy being able to capture it and put it out there for everyone to read.