5 Questions with...Tribune's K.C. Johnson

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5 Questions with...Tribune's K.C. Johnson

By Jeff Nuich
CSN Chicago Senior Director of CommunicationsCSNChicago.com Contributor

April 14, 2010

Want to know more about your favorite Chicago media celebrities? CSNChicago.com has your fix as we put the citys most popular personalities on the spot with everyones favorite weekly local celeb feature entitled 5 Questions with...

Every Wednesday exclusively on CSNChicago.com, its our turn to grill the local media and other local VIPs with five random sports and non-sports related questions that will definitely be of interest to old and new fans alike.

This weekone of the most respected and trusted NBA beat writers in the countryhes the man on the Chicago Bulls beat for the Chicago Tribune who definitely wont have much time off this summer as the Bulls are poised to sign a big-time free agent this off-seasonhere are 5 Questions withK.C. JOHNSON!

BIO: K.C. Johnson grew up in Evanston, IL, played Division III basketball at Beloit (Wis.) College and joined the Chicago Tribune in 1990. He recovered from the career-threatening embarrassment of having the IHSA girls state badminton runner-up break down sobbing in a sweaty hug during her post-match interview before he started covering the Bulls' championship runs for the Tribune's fledgling Internet site in 1996. (As an aside, Johnson thinks this World Wide Web thing might stick.) From there, he became the Blackhawks' beat writer for two seasons in 1998 and returned to the Bulls' beat in 2000. He has remained there save for trying the Bears' beat in 2005, mostly as a fruitless exercise to block out the Tim Floyd years.

If Johnson isn't following the Bulls, he's either reading a book, drinking a beer, attending a concert or spending time with his wife, Elizabeth, and two young sons, Henry and Charlie, on the city's North Side.

1) CSNChicago.com: K.C., this has been quite an eventful Bulls season so far as they currently hold on to the eighth-seed as we speak. In your opinion, give us three positives about this team that youve witnessed this season and three negatives that you consider to be big concerns going forward?

Johnson: Three positives: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Three negatives: Poor shooting, coaching uncertainty and the fear of 2000.

I found it laughable when people were talking about Rose's sophomore slump earlier this season. He was hurt all of training camp with an ankle injury, so he spent November regaining his conditioning and explosiveness. He spent December distributing the ball, thinking Ben Gordon still played on the team. And then he woke up in January and said, "Nobody on this team can score! Guess I have to!" and he started dominating. That's how good this kid is offensively. He can provide what the game needs. Add a star scorer to his talents and look out. Defensively, he must improve. But we should all consider ourselves privileged that we get to watch this humble and genuine player grow.

In a professional sports world where accountability often is scarce, Noah looked inward to become stronger, better conditioned and a better teammate. You have to give the guy a ton of credit. His rookie season was that wheels-off 2007-08 season when Scott Skiles got fired and everything was askew. And Joakim struggled both on the court and off it with the media. Now, he's a double-double machine, only cares about winning and is a delight to deal with on all subjects. Bravo to him. Or as the French might say, "Oui, oui." (Might the French say that? I have no idea. I made that up.)

Raise your hand if you thought Taj was going to have this much impact. Not you, Gar Forman. Whether the Bulls sign a free-agent power forward or not, I'd take Taj on my team any day. He helps defensively almost to a fault, blocks out consistently, talks on defense, sticks the open jumper and is so fundamentally sound, it almost makes me rethink my assessment of Tim Floyd as a coach. Almost. (Just kidding. Tim is a great college coach, and Phil Jackson couldn't have won with the Bulls teams he had.) Taj looks to be a 10-year pro to me.

Ben Gordon's departure has screamed the need for the Bulls to add a perimeter shooter all season. The most recent glaring example is Scott Skiles' Bucks team packing the lane and daring the Bulls to beat him any way, including DRose's penetration. And it worked. To maximize Rose's ability---and he can still get to the rim without a shooter; it's just more difficult---you need spread-the-floor shooters.

John Paxson hit a home run with the hiring of Skiles. And he must get the next coaching hire right when Vinny Del Negro's up-and-down tenure ends. Obviously, the Bulls will be seeking somebody with experience. Management also always stresses defense. It just can't be one of these control freak coaches who would shackle Rose with play calls all the time.

I moved from the Blackhawks' beat to the Bulls' beat just as the ink was drying on the free-agent contracts of Ron Mercer and Brad Miller, Part 1. Yikes. I still have fond memories of Mercer dribbling the entire shot clock down before hoisting an off-balance and errant jumper from the top of the key. Simply put, the Bulls can't strike out that badly in free agency again. You're already hearing small spinjustifications like, "Well, even if we don't land LeBron or DWade, we'll have flexibility moving forward. That's not good. DRose deserves to play with a star. The Bulls need to get one---somehow.

2) CSNChicago.com: As soon as the NBA Finals are over, the sports world will be buzzing about where this years unbelievable crop of big-time free agents will be playing next season. Out of these following players: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer, who do you personally think would be the best fit on next years roster and, a follow-up question, who do you think theyll actually end up signing?

Johnson: LeBron is the best fit for any team because he's the game's most dominant player period. In fact, I made the point---which is certainly debatable---during one of my recent "Ask K.C. Johnson" weekly mailbags, that James is the only acquisition who immediately makes you a title contender next season. I don't even think adding Wade does. But then, as my wife likes to remind me, I'm wrong a lot. All that said, like most people, I don't see James or Wade leaving. So of the remaining free agents, I think Joe Johnson is the best fit and also the player the Bulls have the best chance of landing. Sure, there are slight concerns that he'd be 34 when his five-year contract ends. But he plays a style where that doesn't concern me and he's that stretch-the-floor shooter who can command a double-team to pair well with Rose. He doesn't win the Bulls a title, but he's a good piece to add at a time you have to spend the money you have.

3) CSNChicago.com: Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro has certainly had an eventful couple of seasons in Chicago, but always seems to have the respect of his players, the Bulls front office and, for the most part, the fans. However, from on-going media reports, there always seems to be gray cloud looming regarding his future with the team. Plain and simple, do you see him returning to the sidelines next season?

Johnson: He might return to the sidelines next season, but it won't be as Bulls coach. The Tribune reported during all the breathless national speculation in December that Del Negro would finish this season but not be brought back for his third and final season. We stand behind that reporting. And I think you're overstating the respect Del Negro has garnered. Players like Vinny for the most part but they're as aware as anyone that he's never coached at any level before. And players know the game better than anyone, so they see way more and know way more than fans. They've seen some of Vinny's in-game struggles much more intimately than fans have. That said, Vinny has done a lot of what management asked. He's kept an upbeat, consistent demeanor, helped young players develop and made progress through some growing pains as coach. That still won't be enough to keep his job, and I see him broadcasting somewhere next season and perhaps getting another shot as a coach down the road.

4) CSNChicago.com: Lets say youre at home on an off-night and there are only two options to watch on TV: an old rerun of The White Shadow or Will Ferrells Semi-Prowhat do you end up watching?
Johnson: Ouch, I was afraid you were going to expose me. My wife and I are prehistoric and never watch TV. In fact, we struggled with the big analog to digital conversion and finally had to replace our rabbit-ear, get-up-to-change-the-channel model from 1989. And my wife works for a cable network, so go figure. I get teased all the time from colleagues about my inability to watch sports---that's right, I'm a sportswriter without cable TV---but I find all the free time allows me to read more, talk to more people, stay up on the NBA that way. I'll occasionally put Letterman on or something like that, but as mentioned in the bio, our two young boys keep us quite busy and then whatever down time I have is spent reading or listening to music. I did love "The White Shadow" immensely when growing up, and my high school team was just as diverse.

5) CSNChicago.com: Finish this sentence: If I werent a sports writer, Id probably be working as a ______

Johnson: Bartender? This is a tough one because I've known I wanted to be a sportswriter since I interviewed high school teammate Everette Stephens---of Purdue and brief NBA fame---in 1984 for The Evanstonian school paper. So I've never once thought of another career, and I feel fortunate to work for such a great media company like the Tribune. I suppose I might have pursued media relations or becoming a college professor since the former is kind of the other side of what I do and the latter always intrigued me since I enjoy academia. But sportswriting always has been my dream job, and I still get excited doing it 20 years into my career.

BONUS QUESTIONCSNChicago.com: Anything you want to plug K.C.? Tell us, CSNChicago.com readers want to hear about it.
Johnson: I can't tell you how much fun the "Ask K.C. Johnson" weekly mailbag is and the humorous give-and-take that readers provide. People forget that back in 1996 when the Tribune started it, which was one of the first reader mailbags on the Internet. It's fun to maintain that following over all these nutty Bulls seasons. And I look forward to a fun summer of coverage---a new coach, free agency, Pip's Hall of Fame induction and DRose's possible trip to Turkey with the U.S. national team. Who said basketball is a winter sports beat?

Johnson LINKS:

Chicago TribuneK.C. Johnson mailbag

K.C. Johnson on Twitter

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

WASHINGTON – Cubs president Theo Epstein watched the Washington Nationals run wild on his iPad on Tuesday while visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. As Epstein did some work in his hotel room later that night, he got a text message from general manager Jed Hoyer alerting him to Miguel Montero’s explosive comments.  

Epstein’s management style is to not overreact or worry about the next day’s headlines. He generally believes in second chances, tries to keep an open mind and looks at the problem from every angle, occasionally to the point of paralysis by analysis.

But Epstein said it took “probably 10 seconds” before he realized the Cubs needed to designate Montero for assignment after the veteran catcher pointed the finger at Jake Arrieta – a Cy Young Award-winning, All-Star pitcher – for Washington’s seven stolen bases.    

“It screamed out as something that we should do,” Epstein said.     

As Montero’s rant caught fire on Twitter, Epstein called Hoyer and spoke to Montero on the phone, but he wanted to sleep on it and consult with some players before making Wednesday’s final decision, which could cost approximately $7 million. Epstein could not envision this as a team-building moment after Montero’s mea culpa and clearing the air with Arrieta.

“That was not my read on it, knowing the dynamics, present and past,” Epstein said. “This was not something that we would benefit from – trying to pursue a path of putting it all back together again.”

The Cubs pursued Aroldis Chapman after the New York Yankees closer began last season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs cautiously didn’t judge or unconditionally support Addison Russell after a third-party abuse accusation on social media triggered an MLB investigation this month. The Cubs tolerated Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer, allowing him to chill out at home in New Jersey.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

But Montero doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball. Montero isn’t an All-Star shortstop. Montero isn’t being preserved for one hypothetical pinch-hit at-bat in the playoffs. The Cubs are hovering around .500 now – no longer the World Series favorite – and all those variables become part of the calculus.   

“I just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team,” Epstein said. “This was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and that we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it, because we do hold our players to a higher standard than that.

“In our role as the front office, we can’t always be in the clubhouse and push the right buttons to help everyone come together as a team. But we certainly are in a position – when we see something that could fracture the group – to try to fix the situation and remove that issue.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now. He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept. And we felt we had to act on it.”

There is a chicken-or-the-egg mystery to clubhouse cohesion. But Montero probably would have had a longer fuse – and the bosses would have had a longer leash – if the Cubs were 24 games above .500 the way they were at this time last year. Montero could also get away with a lot more when he was a two-time All-Star for the Arizona Diamondbacks and playing in a sleepy market. 

“Had we been in a spot where this group had already formed its identity and was clicking on all cylinders,” Epstein said, “and had already overcome adversity together and come together completely as a team and we’re rolling in those respects, maybe it could have been handled differently by the group without sort of action from above.

“But I think you have to factor in where the team is and what the team needs and how close we are to reaching our ideal and how close we are to living up to all the values that we have as an organization.”

The Cubs Way isn’t exactly making it up as they go along. But there are always double standards and rationalizations in a bottom-line business. It sounds like Epstein did his due diligence without giving it a second thought: Montero wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. 

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction,” Epstein said, “or underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values that we try to embody as a group.

“This was one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.”

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

The Bears believe Leonard Floyd will make the leap from being a promising rookie to a breakout second-year player, the kind who can be a centerpiece of a defense as soon as this fall.  

The Bears in 2016 totaled 37 sacks —12th in the NFL — despite dealing with a rash of injuries and not having a standout player in terms of getting to the quarterback. Willie Young led the team with 7 1/2 sacks, which tied him for 31st in the league last year, while Floyd and Akiem Hicks each had seven. 

Sixteen players recorded double-digit sacks last year. That’s not the end-all benchmark for Floyd in 2017, but for a former top-10 pick with elite skills and, as his coaches and teammate said, the right mentality, it’s not out of the question. 

“With most players, you go from your freshman year to sophomore or rookie to second year, … it slows down, they understand it, they're not thinking, they're reacting,” coach John Fox said. “And so I'd expect that and I've seen that already even in the off-season.”

Floyd, earlier this month, talked about how much more comfortable he feels after a full year of practicing and playing at the NFL level. 

“Everything was just fast when I got here last year,” Floyd said. “This year’s it’s way slower and I feel like I’m doing pretty good this year.”

There are two issues with Floyd that won’t go away until he proves they’re not problems in the regular season, though: His weight and his concussions. 

The weight issue is one Floyd has heard for a while, joking with reporters during veteran minicamp that he was surprised it wasn’t the first thing he was asked during his session with the media. He said he “definitely gained some weight” without revealing how much he’s put on, only saying he feels like he’s in much better shape now than he was as a rookie.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year,” Floyd said. 

The concessions are a far more serious — and scary — issue given it took Floyd two months to fully recover from the second concussion he suffered in 2016. 

The Bears believe Floyd’s concussion issues are correctable, though, given they were the product of poor tackling form made worse by collisions with Hicks. The crown of Floyd’s helmet was too low, so he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with tackling dummies and sled machines in an effort to fix that issue. 

The hope is that Floyd can stay healthy and marry his skills with a better knowledge of the game to put together a breakout year in 2017. His teammates sounded confident during the offseason program that everything was falling into place for the former ninth overall pick. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Hicks said. “Great energy, fast, athletic, he’s everything you want in an outside linebacker, right? Nonstop motor — I can give you all the cliche terms, but I just feel like as far as the defensive line or an outside linebacker, another year under his belt is only going to make him better.”

Added linebacker Jerrell Freeman: “That guy is going to be good for a while.”