Give or take, James Ham appears on TVs inside thousands of households about 40 to 50 times a year. As the Sacramento Kings Insider for NBC Sports California, he gets to do what he’s always loved doing.
Talk NBA hoops.
James knows how blessed he is to have his job. Most would-be reporters never make it this far. But thanks to a combination of hard work, lucky breaks, and family support, James has carved out a lasting career.
How he became a journalist, though, wasn’t by design. In fact, James never grew up dreaming about having the job he has. As one of two boys raised in a blue-collar home, his future was supposed to have limits.
“I didn’t ever think that anything like this was possible, because college wasn’t even something that was put on the table for us,” James said. “And anything that I did do, like going to college when I was coming out of high school, I was dabbling. I hadn’t really set my mind to who I wanted to be or what type of job I wanted.”
To become the journalist he is today, James did something different. His journey didn’t begin at a university with a rigorous journalism program. Nor did he start by earning his stripes at small-market newspapers or broadcast stations.
Instead, James took an unconventional path.
In this piece, you’ll learn how to become a sports journalist through James’ story. You’ll also discover the four critical concepts one must embrace to become a good journalist.
James grew up in Grass Valley, which is located an hour outside of Sacramento. His father was a construction worker, who grew up on a farm. Meanwhile, his mother was a homemaker. Her grandparents emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States before World War I.
James’s parents raised him and his older brother to have a strong work ethic. But education wasn’t much of a priority. So by junior high, James had surpassed both his parents in scholastic achievements. From that point on, he had to navigate his educational pursuits on his own.
“There was no talk of college,” James said of his youth in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “And there was no master plan for how we would better ourselves.”
When James graduated high school, he enrolled at nearby Sierra College. James didn’t last long, though. He dropped out after only a year.
Instead of pursuing school, James settled down young. He was only 24 years old when he married his wife, who is four years his junior. Along the way, they started a family. James and his wife had their first son in 2003, followed by a second boy born four years later.
At the start of their relationship, James committed to supporting his wife every step of the way. He moved with her to Berkeley, where she began her undergraduate studies. Then, they relocated back to the Sacramento area, while she completed undergrad and then law school at UC Davis.
While his wife studied full-time, James played the role of provider. With school set aside, James worked as a sales manager at a regional sporting goods store. James held this job for most of his twenties until his wife landed her first gig as an attorney in 2005.
“I just put all that on hold,” James said of choosing to sacrifice his personal aspirations and pursuits. “Whatever it was that I was gonna be just got put to the side.”
Back to School
As his wife began her law career, James decided to revisit a path he had left behind for almost a decade. In 2005, James returned to Sierra College to finish the rest of his General Education credits. After that, he transferred to UC Davis. There, he majored in history and minored in comparative literature.
“Going back to school was always a life goal,” James said. “But marrying [my wife], who is a fifth-generation female college graduate, and then having [my first son] while she was still in law school, gave me more incentive. I wanted to set an example for my son.”
When James went back to school, he essentially swapped responsibilities with his wife. As a full-time lawyer, his wife became the Ham household’s primary provider. Meanwhile, James tackled his undergraduate studies while serving as the primary caregiver to their kids.
“As the husband of an attorney who was in her first couple years at a law firm, they have ridiculous hours,” James said. “They’re working 80 to 100 hours a week. And with two young boys at home, I started to balance being a stay-at-home dad and my school.”
James graduated from Davis in 2008. Despite his family responsibilities, James earned his bachelor’s in under three years.
Searching For Community
Schoolwork and fatherhood consumed most of James’ time during the late 2000s. But like any normal person, James still needed an outlet to unwind. But finding a tribe with shared interests wasn’t very easy.
He was an outlier within his existing communities. As a father in his late twenties, there was a generational gap between James and his classmates at Davis. And as a stay-at-home dad, there was a gender divide he had to deal with, too.
“They were all super-friendly and we got along,” James said of the other stay-at-home parents he knew. “They all thought that I was cool, but it’s a bunch of ladies. And all of them go to coffee together, or they all go to one lady’s house and they chill. Well, the stay-at-home dad doesn’t get invited.
“It was a very lonely world,” he added.
Isolated, James did what any other person in his position would do. He turned to the internet to bide his time.
James stumbled upon Sactown Royalty while searching for somewhere to talk Kings hoops. He came to the right place. Since 2005, StR has been the online gathering ground for diehards of the team.
It didn’t take him very long to become one of the site’s most active members. At StR, James found what he needed: a tribe of people with the same shared interests. StR made life as an older college student and stay-at-home dad a little less lonely.
“I had no outlet,” James said of that period in his life. “That’s such a huge part of why I found blogging.”
Blogging Breeds Access
With his thoughtful analysis, James built a respected reputation within the StR community. His posts caught the attention of a fellow fan who planned to start his own NBA blog network. Would James have interest in running a site that focused on the Kings?
At first, James hesitated and passed on the opportunity. But after some encouragement from one of his best friends, he reconsidered. He launched his first blog, titled the Purple Panjandrum, in August 2010.
James spent the next few months building content for his new site. But to stand out among Kings fans, he knew he had to differentiate from StR. To do that, James set forth to make his site a trusted source of news and information.
“For years, I had honed who I was as a writer by arguing with people on the internet,” James said. “It’s kind of a weird way to break in, but I wanted to give those people more information.”
James was confident he could carve out a niche by taking this more journalistic route. As a small-market team, media coverage of the Kings at both a local and national level were sparse. Only the Sacramento Bee, KHTK, and ABC10 had dedicated, but limited, resources. It didn’t help that, to many, the Kings had become irrelevant after an eight-year playoff run.
At the same time, the NBA was undergoing a major shift in its coverage. Blogs like FreeDarko and TrueHoop had captured the attention of basketball fans everywhere. As a result, some NBA teams started giving access to a select number of vetted bloggers.
Inside ARCO Arena
James wondered if he could capitalize on this changing media landscape. Earlier that summer, he saw that the Kings started offering access to StR. So ahead of the team’s annual media day in 2010, he emailed its media relations staff, asking if he could attend.
His first two messages were met with radio silence. But on his third try, James finally got a response. The Kings executive director of media relations told James that the team had been following his work. They’d let him attend media day as long as he wasn’t coming to be a fan.
“When they allowed me to come to media day, I really had to rethink what I was doing because I didn’t know what it was like,” James said. “I didn’t know the rules of being in a media scrum, of being in a media box or media room. I didn’t know what all of those things entailed.”
Despite his lack of journalism training, James had little trouble navigating that day. He found that speaking to NBA players and coaches wasn’t as daunting as he had imagined. For James, the experience wasn’t much different from the interviews he conducted as a retail manager.
In both scenarios, the same rules applied: treat everyone with respect.
After media day, James continued to ask for access. The Kings welcomed him to cover training camp, as well as preseason. By the time the regular season arrived, James had built enough equity to gain access to the home opener.
“It was always with the understanding that nothing was for certain and there might be nights when I couldn’t get a credential,” James said of each time he requested access.
But by the end of the season, James had attended and been credentialed for all 41 home games.
Big Career Breakthroughs
Before the 2010-11 season, James scored his first big break as a fledgling journalist. Zach Harper, who these days writes for The Athletic, reached out to James via email. Zach told James he was leaving Sacramento after the season. Zach needed to groom someone to take over a Kings blog he had started in 2009.
This Kings blog, though, was unique in that it had the backing of ESPN. Cowbell Kingdom was part of the TrueHoop Network, a collection of the web’s best NBA blogs. Over the next several years, it became a breeding ground for the next generation of NBA media talent and minds.
“I’m flabbergasted by all of this, because I had no idea whether what I was doing was resonating with people or not,” James said.
James didn’t waste any time contemplating Zach’s offer. James joined Cowbell and infused it with his journalistic approach. As an added bonus, he later landed a consistent freelance gig, stringing for NBA.com.
For the next few seasons, James continued to hone his reporting at Cowbell and NBA.com. During that time, he covered an eventful stretch of Kings history. It included the team’s flirtations to move as well as the early career of star big man DeMarcus Cousins.
Almost Calling It Quits
Before the start of his fifth season, James found himself at a crossroads. He was doing what he loved, but not making much money doing it. The low pay coupled with the long hours started to take a toll on him and his family.
Aside from that, James also lost someone who helped him take Cowbell Kingdom to the next level.
I had joined the Cowbell Kingdom team at the end of the 2010-11 season. But by the conclusion of our third year covering the Kings together, I was on my way out. I had accepted an offer for a digital marketing job in Las Vegas. I continued to support James from a distance, but my departure left him with a hole to fill.
Luckily enough, he found the help he needed. As a result, he decided to give this accidental career in journalism at least another year.
Crossing into the Mainstream
At the end of his fifth season, James found the lifeline his career needed. NBC Sports California, which owns the Kings’ TV rights, was in search of a new Kings beat reporter.
James applied for the job a year before but didn’t land it due to his lack of television experience. He decided to give it another shot after spending part of his fifth season honing his skills on camera.
“I was able to network and get a cameraman who would sit in the stands with me after each game,” James said. “And I would do a postgame show.
“Whenever I had deficiencies, I worked to fix them, to do whatever I could to change that,” he added.
James managed to land the gig and hasn’t looked back since. He’s been with NBC Sports for four, going on five, seasons. Though it was unconventional, James couldn’t be happier about the road he traveled to get where he is today.
“I think I’ve taken what my parents taught me as a kid, which is to work hard and to do the job in front of you,” James said. “But then, I’ve been able to do it my way, put my own spin on it.”
How To Be a Good Sports Writer: Four Critical Concepts to Embrace
As James’s story showcases, there’s no set path to take for aspiring journalists. That’s because the internet has broken the business’ previous paradigm.
To become a journalist, it’s a must to have a grasp of basic skills like writing. But to thrive, you need intangibles that aren’t taught inside a classroom. Below are a few of the most important qualities to cultivate based on James’s experience.
As a student at UC Davis, James never took a single journalism course, nor did he write for the campus paper. All his skills were self-taught. Whatever shortcomings he had, James fixed them himself.
“You’ve gotta teach yourself at some point,” James said. “You can’t just sit there and be spoon-fed what it is that you need to do to get better. You have to go out and learn your own way.
“For me, I just never looked at anything as a major obstacle,” James added. “I just looked at it as another task I had to take on and learn.”
When James started blogging, he noticed that most full-time journalists held specific jobs. His colleagues were either newspaper columnists, beat writers, photographers, cameramen, or television personalities.
James, meanwhile, was a blogger with limited resources. So, to build his site with good content, he took it upon himself to learn how to do their jobs. Below are the core skills James has developed over the course of his journalism career:
- Video Production
- Web Development (for building his website)
“It’s a world that’s so quickly moving that you have to keep up,” James said of the journalism business today. “And if you don’t want to keep up, you gotta get out of the way.”
Set Aside Your Ego
Most aspiring journalists start their careers young. They’ll often land their first jobs fresh out of college, in their early twenties. James, meanwhile, was the opposite. By the time he started, he was in his mid-thirties. But James never saw his age as a limiting factor.
Many people in their thirties also start to become set in their ways. Their pride or ego often prevents them from seeking to learn anything new. But not James. He was willing to take help from anywhere he could find it.
This included from a 20-something-year-old recent college graduate.
As a writer, James was green when we first started working together. Thanks to his days in the StR community, he was strong at conveying his voice and personality. But what his writing needed was a bolstered sense of structure and form.
These were things he wanted to learn, and I was more than willing to help. I was young, but I already had a handful of years under my belt in news and sports media. James appreciated the knowledge I shared along with the edits to his work. He didn’t let the fact that I happened to be 11 years younger than him get in the way of his improvement.
“I’m comfortable in who and what I am,” James said. “And what I know and what I don’t.”
Investing in Relationships
Treat everyone with sincerity and respect.
This is how James operates every time he steps foot inside Golden 1 Center. From security guards to fellow media, James always aims to make others comfortable.
Relationships aren’t built overnight, especially with players, coaches, and front-office staff. Many people have a healthy skepticism of the media, and for good reason. In today’s content-rich world, some reporters will do whatever it takes to score a scoop.
“I always know a lot more than what I can write,” James said. “But I’m always respectful of the person I’m getting information from. And if they’re not comfortable with me putting that information out there, then I’m not going to.
“Sometimes that means the chase for the story ends there,” he added. “You leave it where it is. You walk away knowing it’s a good story and that it will get you pageviews, but Sacramento is a small media world and relationships take years to cultivate. You don’t throw that away for a short-term boost.”
Relationships can also go a long way in furthering one’s career. James has earned the respect of Kings lifers, like Jerry Reynolds, Grant Napear, and Gary Gerould. When the opportunity for the Kings Insider job opened in 2015, he had a slew of colleagues to recommend him.
Always Aim For Accuracy
Whether you like James’s coverage of the Kings or not, the one thing you can never question is his integrity. In his near decade around the team, James has tirelessly strived to report with fairness.
For fans, blockbuster trades and multi-million dollar signings are part of their entertainment. But for the players who go through these experiences, these moments are their lives. As a journalist, it’s important to acknowledge that your work can impact someone’s wellbeing.
“Don’t be wrong,” James said. “Be patient. You want to be first, you want to be someone who’s known as a newsbreaker. But at the same time, you’ve got to be right. That’s the key.”
Journalism is a competitive and demanding industry. The more breaking news bylines you have, the better your chances of advancing your career. But your personal aspirations should never come before your search for the truth.
“Fame is not worth your integrity,” James said.
Education Versus Experience
“Can I be a journalist without a journalism degree?”
It’s one of the most frequently asked questions about the business. If James’s story is any indication, the answer to that would be an unequivocal yes.
An undergraduate degree is useful. But a specialized one in media isn’t necessary to start your career. Journalism is an industry where many of your biggest lessons come on the job.
“[Think about] someone who’s never had a job, went straight to a four-year college, maybe straight to grad school, and now they graduate,” James said. “They’ve got this fancy degree and they don’t have any way to tell a story. They don’t have any way to build bonds and build relationships. You’re starting from a disadvantage.”
James credits his life experiences before becoming a journalist for enhancing his perspective. From starting a young family to working as a manager in sports retail, each stage in his journey served a purpose in his career. These experiences taught him how to see situations from alternate angles.
Fishing for Prospects: Is Sports Journalism a Good Career?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the numbers are bleak.
The journalism job outlook projects to experience a 10% decline over the next several years. Also, the median salary nationwide is only $43,490. If money is your primary motivation, the journalism business isn’t for you.
“This is something that you have to be doing because you have a passion for it,” James said. “I still have a passion for it. I’ve always told my wife that the moment I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m not going to do it because it is all-consuming at all times.”
To have a chance at a viable career, you must also be willing to work at a moment’s notice. A story can break at any time, and, as a result, a reporter needs to be ready to act.
Nowadays, James is rarely off the clock. This includes August and September, which are usually the quietest months of the NBA calendar. During the season, he writes upwards of 20 to 35 articles a week to go along with his responsibilities for TV and social media.
“Everyone thinks you have the coolest job in the world,” James said. “But what they don’t know is that I work 80 hours a week and kill myself to do it.”
In spite of its demanding nature, James loves his career as a journalist. Part of this is due to an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that keeps him motivated.
“This is the job that my brain was made for,” James said. “I’m a sports junkie, but I also want to know what’s happening right now. I want to know what happened yesterday leading up to this. I want to know why this happened. I want to know all of it.”
But the most important element that’s kept his career afloat is the support system he has. In the absence of this unique advantage, becoming a journalist would’ve been impossible.
“Without my wife, there’s no way I could have ever been able to do any of this,” James said. Whether it’s financially, whether it’s the long hours, the balancing of children, I’ve had the support and the love of somebody behind the scenes to allow me to chase a dream that I don’t think most people will ever get to do.
“I’m very thankful of what I get to do,” he continued. “I’m very respectful of the fact that millions of people would give up their right arm to do what I do. But at the same time, I was willing to work and extend and put everything on the line for a long time to get it done. Not everybody has that drive. But not everybody has the support to do something like that, and I think that makes all the difference.”
Updated September 20, 2020