Thursday, December 3, 2009

Remember when Kip Keino was SI's Sportsman of the Year?

Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year issue came out this week, with Derek Jeter's handsome face gracing the cover. Jeter helped the Yankees to another World Series title and in the process broke Lou Gehrig's mark as the team's all-time hits leader. A few hundred more hits, a couple more titles, and he'll pass through Monument Park and ascend straight to sainthood.

Just like every year, SI received criticism for its choice. Jeter's not even the best player on his team, but giving the Sportsman of the Year Award to steroid user and tabloid fodder Alex Rodriguez would sort of go against the spirit of the award. And, more importantly for the moralists, what would the children think? I've also seen people ridicule Jeter's triumph as a way for "Sports Illustrated to sell magazines," an outdated notion about the media that people still use to belittle newspapers and magazines, as if Hearst and Pulitzer were still battling to sell papers by creating jingoistic fever in support of the Spanish-American War. "REMEMBER THE MAINE!" Good for selling papers. "REMEMBER THE CAPTAIN!" Not quite as exciting.

Some candidates enjoyed more dominating years - Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Jimmie Johnson, to name three - but the Sportsman of the Year award has always been about more than on-the-field dominance. It goes to "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement," which, like MVP awards in every sport, can be interpreted in countless ways.

Before Tom Verducci's story on Jeter, the magazine notes, "It is not so much what he accomplished at 35 - a fifth World Series ring capping a historic season, to be sure - as how he arrived at his iconic place. Being the ultimate team player and a role model synonymous with winning has brought him still another title."

So give it to Jeter. It's not like SI hasn't had more controversial picks in the past.

A list of all the Sportsman of the Year reveals a who's who of sporting legends, along with several who in the hell choices. It is fascinating to see how the award evolved as the sporting world changed.

How lucky did the magazine get with its first choice in 1954? Roger Bannister won that award for running the first sub-four-minute mile. It's one of the most famous accomplishments in sports history. People still know Roger Bannister's name, 55 years later. Name four famous distance runners today. I give up, too. Perfect timing for a young magazine handing out its first Sportsman of the Year honor.

Today track and field athletes usually only make the news if they're exposed for injecting massive amounts of steroids, or if they turn in inhuman performances such as Usain Bolt. But even Bolt's brilliance couldn't earn him the award. He was born in the wrong decade. Bobby Joe Morrow won in 1956 for winning a pair of Olympic golds, while Rafer Johnson won in 1958 for setting the decathlon world record. Oh for the days when the decathlon was one of the better known events in the world.

How about Jerry Lucas winning in 1961 for being the Final Four MVP? Certainly Lucas was a legendary college basketball player, a three-time All-American, one of the best players in Big Ten history and a national champion. But 1961...great athlete...historic season...

I don't know if Roger Maris deserves to be in the baseball hall of fame. There are decent arguments for both sides. But a guy who broke the most famous mark in sports and did it while going through unprecedented scrutiny and pressure, and did it in New York, how does he not win the award? Maris appears to have had perhaps the greatest case to be Sportsman of the Year of anyone who ever won it, yet somehow he got beaten out by a college basketball player, at a time when college hoops wasn't close to being as popular as it is now. So much for New York bias. Did Babe Ruth have a nephew on the photo staff? Someone needs to write a letter to the editor, even if it is 48 years after the fact.

Boxing has plummeted off the sporting map in this country in the last decade - ever since Mike Tyson started making headlines only for his cannibalism and not his fighting - but the Sportsman of the Year award has long-shunned the sport. Sugar Ray Leonard is the last boxer to win, back in 1981. Two speed-skaters, Bonnie Blair and Johann Olav Koss, have won it since a boxer. Speed-skaters!

Some were obvious slam dunk choices, though maybe that's a misguided assumption to make about the award considering the 1961 choice.

1980: U.S. Olympic hockey team. If the magazine wanted to be contrarian or controversial, I suppose they could have gone with Magic Johnson after his 42-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 of the Finals. But to not pick the Miracle on Ice team would have been unpatriotic, if not downright treasonous in some corners.

2008: Michael Phelps. Obvious, eight gold medals. Or was it? Because in 1972, seven gold medals weren't enough for the mustachioed Mark Spitz, who lost out to Billie Jean King and John Wooden.

Ali only won once - in 1974, the year he upset George Foreman - the same number of times as jockey Steve Cauthen, the 1977 winner.

While numerous legends have been honored, a surprising number of them never won. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two guys whose obituaries will carry the line "helped save the NBA" in the first paragraph, were both shut out. Bird's best chance came in 1986, when he won his third straight MVP and third championship. Instead, Joe Paterno got it.

In the story honoring Paterno, Rick Reilly wrote, "No, this is one for the 'stayers' of the world, one of those Irving G. Thalberg 'lifetime achievement' awards. This is for the guy who keeps churning out good stuff, always kicks in when the birthday hat comes around and never punches out before seven." Who would have guessed Paterno and his glasses would still be running around the Penn State sideline 23 years after he received a lifetime achievement award?

Magic's best chance probably came in 1987, his breakthrough individual season when he won MVP and led the Lakers to their fourth title of the decade. But while Bird got bested by a coaching legend, Magic got beat out by one of the oddest Sportsman of the Year choices.

They called it "Athletes who care," which sounds like the first three words to a United Way ad, complete with sappy instrumental music. Bob Bourne, Judi Brown King, Kip Keino, Dale Murphy, Chip Rives, Patty Sheehan, Rory Sparrow and Reggie Williams (the football player, not the former Georgetown Hoya) all shared the honor. It's hard to mock the choices, as the athletes helped handicapped children, abused children, and orphans. Then again, athletes do those things every year, sometimes receiving publicity for the work, often not. Why was 1987 suddenly the year of charity for SI?

In 1984, Edwin Moses and everyone's favorite tiny gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, shared the trophy. Moses, an Olympic hurdling star, and Retton, America's princess/sweetheart/golden girl, certainly had memorable Olympics. But those Games also included Carl Lewis, who matched Jesse Owens by winning four gold medals. Sure, the Russians weren't there because of a boycott, but Moses and Mary Lou didn't face the dreaded Communists either. Lewis, probably the greatest track and field athlete ever, never won Sportsman of the Year. But track and fielders Judi Brown King and Kip Keino - two who cared - did. Lewis is probably still bitter.

Tiger Woods is a two-time winner, the only person twice honored as an individual (Curt Schilling won along with Randy Johnson in 2001 and as part of the Red Sox in '04). Not sure Tiger's winning another one. He could win all four majors next year, save a handicapped orphan from a house fire, come up with a fail-safe vaccine for swine flu, and land a plane in the Hudson River and it wouldn't be good enough in the post-car-accidentgate world.

The fact Federer's never won is a bit odd, since he is perhaps the most dominant athlete of his generation, even more than Tiger. But it is tennis, and in recent years SI's mostly stuck to the major sports and anyone with a racquet doesn't get consideration. David Robinson and Tim Duncan shared it in 2003, the Red Sox got it in 2004, followed by yet another New Englander, Tom Brady. Dwyane Wade won in 2006, with Phelps breaking through the big-sport bubble in 2008. 2007? Brett Favre, who, like Paterno in 1986, sort of won it as a lifetime achievement award. His renaissance that year gave the magazine a reason to give it to him, though they couldn't know that he'd make his best case for the award two years later.

Coaches rarely win. Dean Smith was the last, in 1997 (sorry, Coach K). Before that Don Shula won in 1993.

Perhaps marketing did play a role in Jeter's selection. But even if it did, it doesn't mean the award is sullied or spoiled. There have been shadier reasons for giving the award to someone.

In Michael MacCambridge's outstanding Sports Illustrated bio, The Franchise, he recites the strange case of the 1983 Sportswoman of the Year. Runner Mary Decker, who'd become best known in the 1984 Olympics for tripping after getting tangled up with the barefooted Zola Budd, captured the award, raising eyebrows within the magazine. Decker had a decent season, but Martina Navratilova was the most dominant female athlete that year, and other track and field stars like Lewis and Moses also had better years. But SI's editor wasn't obsessed with those people.

MacCambridge writes, "The Decker announcement was greeted with nods and winks within SI, where [editor Gil] Rogin's infatuation (some called it an obsession) with Decker was the source of more than a few jokes. It had long been clear to most of the staff that Rogin was 'entranced by watching her run, watching her move,' as Kenny Moore put it... 'Everybody laughed behind his back,' said Deford. 'He'll do anything to get into her pants.'"

So that helps explain Decker's choice.

Now, someone explain Jerry Lucas.

Here are some of the better Sportsman of the Year stories from over the years.

Gary Smith's classic, famous story on Tiger Woods in 1996
. Thousands of people are now psychoanalyzing Woods through this piece.

Another Gary Smith offering, this one on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1985.

The Roger Bannister story, although it's more a recap than a profile.

Jerry Lucas.

Michael Jordan in 1991.

The legendary Frank Deford writes about the legendary Jack Nicklaus in 1978.

And, finally, Mary Decker.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

You are right about Tiger. He could probably even come up with a cure for cancer or AIDS and he would not get the award. And I think they felt sorry for Jeter -as if winning the World Series and making 20 mil a year isn't enough - since he can never even win the league MVP award. Sort of a consolation prize if you will.