Former ESPN reporter discusses two of her books and celebrity interviews
By Sophia Stefanowski
Dana O’Neil, senior writer for The Athletic and former reporter for ESPN, has written three books and interviewed one of the world’s greatest stars, Michael Jordan, though it wasn’t an easy feat.
At the time, Michael Jordan was playing minor league baseball in Florida, and O’Neil was encouraged to go to the second game of the series by her public relations director. “I did, and when he came off the field during batting practice, I asked him if he would talk to me,” said O’Neil. She figured he would say no, but “instead he said yes, and I had to scramble.” She didn’t even have a tape recorder with her because she never thought he’d agree, so “I had to take really good notes,” she stated.
O’Neil, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Penn State University, didn’t always know that journalism was the right path for her. She enrolled freshman year as a business major but said she did not do very well. Her RA, whose name is Jennifer, mentioned to O’Neil that she was a part of the Daily Collegian, the student-produced news outlet for Penn State University. O’Neil, who wanted to be involved on campus, signed up to take the Daily Collegian exam.
The exam, which was a series of 10-20 sentences that had to be formed into a 300-word story, ended with a section that prompted her to pick an area of interest. She landed on sports, and a few short months after, she changed her major to journalism. O’Neil stated, “I tripped into it, but if I think about it logically, my mom was an English teacher, and I always loved to write.”
A class O’Neil enjoyed taking in college was ethics, because she liked how they argued. However, the most influential class she took was a 400-level print journalism class. The professor was a former sportswriter and was good at helping them understand what made a good story. “But,” O’Neil said, “the best thing I did was get on the college paper for four years.”
The Daily Collegian provided her with opportunities to travel, attend games, conduct interviews and more. This experience aided in her career, as she took what she learned in college and carried it with her.
After working a few writing positions at different jobs, she landed a position at ESPN. She stayed for eight years. “My greatest achievement,” O’Neil said, “is not from awards, but gaining respect and trust in the world of writing.” This accomplishment was solidified when she “got laid off by ESPN, and over 100 head coaches reached out to me and said that they missed my work.”
O’Neil, who hails from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, enjoys taking her two dogs for walks, going to the shore, reading, puzzles and working out when she has spare time. She doesn’t travel when she has time off because she already travels frequently for work. Overall, O’Neil enjoys spending time with her family. In the summer of 2020, she dedicated most of her time to writing her book, The Big East.
The biggest obstacles that came with writing her books were avoiding mistakes. She explained, “I wanted to make sure I reflected the history of the league accurately.” Also, staying on task and keeping organized were important.
When she found herself getting distracted while writing, she would walk away from her computer, then come back to it. But usually, she said, “Once I get started, I’m okay, but I will fix the lead, like, 1,000 times.” She mentioned the importance of the lead in an article when she stated, “The lead is the most important thing, to get people to read the story, to hook people in and really say what you want to say.”
Though she found it tough at times, she liked her book when it was done and is proud of it.
The Big East took close to a year to complete, while her first book on Villanova basketball, titled Long Shots, only took her a couple months. O’Neil stated, “I had to get it done fast while the championship was still fresh.” She also wanted to write a book about the experience before someone else did.
Along with writing a book came conducting interviews. O’Neil enjoys running interviews, as she said, “I love talking to people and I am fascinated by people.” She has interviewed Michael Jordan, Matthew McConaughey, Donte DiVincenzo and more. She stated, “I was very nervous, but then you just discover they are people.” O’Neil tries to make her interviews conversational, not confrontational.
“The biggest tip for an aspiring writer is to write,” O’Neil said. “The only way to be a good writer is to write. If you don’t get your feet into it, you just won’t know.” She also mentioned the importance of reading other people’s articles as a way to improve one’s own writing.
The second tip O’Neil gave was to not get hung up on where a job is located. “Get a job and do a job very well, that will lead to the next thing,” she said. “Don’t forget that the most important assets that you have are your eyes and your ears,” O’Neil said. “Describe the scene and the overall experience in your writing, because most people aren’t going to be sitting courtside at the game.”