The brilliant new book Cover Story by Alex Wong, tells the history of the NBA through its most iconic magazine covers at SLAM, Sports Illustrated and more.
Alex Wong has been one of the most creative NBA writers for years, continually coming up with features on topics that no one else would have thought of. His debut book, Cover Story, which explores two decades of basketball history by looking at a number of iconic magazine covers from 1984-2003, follows this trend.
Wong’s book arises from his own fascination with magazine covers growing up; in the introduction, he recalls many issues of publications like Sports Illustrated, SLAM, The Source, and ESPN The Magazine “piling up along the windowsill in our family home’s kitchen.” Looking at these covers, he hopes to “provide a snapshot of a golden age of publishing and a period of transformative growth for the sport of basketball.”
Cover Story is split into four sections. The first looks at Sports Illustrated, focusing on the magazine’s relationship with Michael Jordan, and the reciprocal relationship between Jordan and the publication with the popularity of Jordan and the Bulls helping the publication sell more issues while they helped burnish Jordan’s myth. While little new is learned about Michael Jordan and those Chicago teams — what else could there be to know at this point? — this is nevertheless an interesting way to explore their impact by focusing on specific images and moments, as well as the people behind them. It also allows readers to get a look at Sports Illustrated during one of its most successful periods, capturing an era of sports journalism that is unfortunately gone today.
Second, Wong explores the golden era of SLAM and the behind-the-scenes stories of many of the magazine’s most iconic covers. The section also functions as a history of the magazine, capturing what made it a unique voice whose influence still resonates today. It was a “casual voice” that attempted to capture the voice of those who loved the game themselves with no pretense of objectivity. Additionally, it was revolutionary as a “basketball magazine with a hip-hop voice.” The joy and impact of SLAM is conveyed and felt throughout this section. Fans will also delight in anecdotes about the shoots themselves, like how the infamous cover of the 1996 draft class came about in a 90-second shoot that fellow class member Todd Fuller found himself shunted away from.
The golden age of NBA magazine covers has long since passed
Next, Wong looks at the post-Jordan era as new magazines emerge, including several focused on women’s sports, as others look for the next Jordan to fill the vacuum he left behind. Finally, there is a postscript on the post-2003 years where he considers whether or not “magazine covers still matter anymore.” As to that last question, Wong considers LeBron’s 2014 return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and how the defining image of that moment was not the cover of that week’s Sports Illustrated where his essay, written with Lee Jenkins, first appeared in print. Rather, it was the essay’s online header photo. In fact, I had to look up what the magazine cover even looked like and I do not believe I had ever seen it before. This last section raises the question of where basketball iconography arises from and how it may flourish today.
Early in the book, Wong quotes longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jack MacCallum as saying “There was just a different way players dealt with the media… There was this implicit relationship of accepting each other. The players understood the role of the national media in helping to expand the popularity of the game.” Today, with players more able to speak directly to the fans through social media and a variety of other channels and mediums, the role the media plays has shrunk. Perhaps the images that will stay with today’s fans are not magazine covers or anything coming from a media company, but moments from the court itself, or images arising from the players themselves on social media.
Wong writes in the introduction that “the magazine covers selected for this book mattered. Most of them still matter today.” What can this be said about today? Where are the symbols and images that are shaping the imagination of fans today? What will persist and become icons of nostalgia in the way that many of those SLAM covers have been for people my age? What does it mean that many of the most notable and memorable magazine covers of recent years have been simple recreations of older ones? In a more decentralized era of basketball fandom, it may take time for answers to questions such as these to arise.
Cover Story is a thoroughly entertaining read that is sure to be a delightful trip down memory lane for basketball fans who came of age during the period this book covers. For those who do not remember these covers, it is regardless a unique way to look at two decades of basketball history that is illuminating in unexpected ways. It is a tremendously creative concept that is executed wonderfully and I cannot wait to see what Wong comes up with next.