by Lang Whitaker

Believe it or not, there was no grand conspiracy behind the cover image of SLAM 115. Yes, both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are smiling. Yes, that’s a little out of the ordinary for SLAM. For years, SLAM covers were posters of fury, usually simple images of your favorite NBA players looking like they had a thorn stuck in their paw.

And then the bandwagon got crowded. Suddenly SI did photo shoots with guys looking angry. ESPN started an entire magazine that just happened to look very similar to SLAM (only if SLAM was unreadable). The knock-offs and hangers-on became overwhelming.

So we weren’t purposely trying to do something different with this specific cover, but it is safe to say that we’ve been making an effort not to just do the regular old “scowl” on the cover.

And it appears someone noticed. Rick Telander wrote the amazing Heaven Is A Playground decades ago, and since then he’s worked for everyone, from SI to ESPN. Now he’s at the Chicago Sun-Times, and in his column last week, he tackled the new SLAM. Since that column is not online for some reason, we’re reproducing the SLAM portion of it here…

by Rick Telander
Chicago Sun-Times
1/13/08

I picked up my March copy of SLAM, the magazine for hardcore hoop-heads and dropped it like a scalding soup pan.

No! It could not be!

There on the cover, in their white Denver Nuggets unis, were Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson — smiling!

The smile is to the 15-year-old SLAM as the frown is to Hannah Montana. It is blasphemous, against all protocol.

I picked up the mag again and stared: There were all of Melo’s and AI’s pearly white teeth shining in two of the happiest faces you’ll ever see.

Holy chaos.

The sneer or glower is de rigueur at SLAM. Or was.

What had happened?

I called the editor-in-chief Ben Osborne in New York.

“Yeah, we’ve had smirks before,” he said. “But it’s the first real smile. And it’s a double.”

He paused for a moment, checking with an assistant.

“Well, we did have Shaq and Kobe on the cover after their first title, back in 1999 — no, 2000 — but that was an NBA photo. And the NBA traffics in smiling photos. This was the first shot by a SLAM-hired photographer.”

I remember seeing entire issues of SLAM and seeing no one on any page — other than the random ad — looking anything other than like a guy ready to pull your heart out through your mouth.

There’s a new high school hoops magazine SLAM is promoting, and it’s called PUNKS, and the current issue shows four prep ballers from across the United States, each glaring into the lens like he’s waiting to throw down and do mayhem.

The A.I.-Melo cover, then, is a grand detour, a departure signifying…what?

Could this mean — dare we dream it? — that thug culture is losing its youth marketing appeal?

“Um, I’m not totally sure I’m comfortable making that statement,” Osborne said. “But something is in play. This certainly is not a coincidence.”

“In the past, we were a little bit of a middle finger to the NBA, for their packaging. But times have changed. I mean, Carmelo and A.I. have come full circle. A lot of things have. People should not think of these two the way they did in the past. These guys are happy.”

Imagine. Young multimillionaire athletes with unreal talent playing the game they love — and happy.

Let this be a symbol, a start.

Let joy of the game once again mean just that.

Don’t stop, SLAM.

Thanks, Rick. We won’t.