by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17
Four weeks ago tomorrow, I was a guest lecturer in Jeff Pearlman’s Journalism Class at Manhattanville College. If you follow modern sportswriters at all, you should know who Jeff is. Besides doing lots of stuff for SLAM back in the day (through his former roommate, Russ Bengtson!), Jeff has written a bunch of best-selling sports books and freelanced for the likes of SI, ESPN The Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and many other big-time outlets.
After I gave Jeff’s students my usual spiel about it never being too early to commit to journalism as a career and recapped my own ascent from being in their shoes as a college journalism student to E-I-C of my favorite magazine, I opened the discussion up to questions. After some standard queries from the students about which players are easiest or hardest to talk to and a few about the feature-writing process, Jeff interjected with a question he was curious about. “Obviously you guys have to put guys like LeBron James on the cover a couple of times a year because he is such a great player and because he sells magazines,” Jeff began. “But how do you keep those cover or story ideas fresh when you’re doing it for the 20th time?”
“Funny you should ask,” I began my reply, “because we’re having that exact discussion right now…”
And sure enough, when I left the Manhattanville campus and came to work, my big responsibility that day—as it is almost every day that we are working on the next issue and don’t have a cover locked in yet—was to figure out what we were going to do for the cover of SLAM 159, which would hit newsstands in mid-May.
Our issue that drops in mid-May is a challenge every year because we need to either pick a player we think will go deep in the Playoffs before the Playoffs have even started, or do a more “timeless” cover. Examples of going the timely/Playoff route can be found in Dirk/Shaq on 109 (worst SLAM jinx ever as both guys lost in the first round), the Celtics on 119, Kobe v LeBron on 129 (which backfired a bit when LeBron’s Cavs lost to the Magic), while examples of the more timeless, looking-ahead covers include putting high school players on 99 and 149 and as well as MJ the new owner on 139.
The debate for this new issue was very clear to me. If we went the timely/Playoff route, I felt the cover should be LeBron. I was confident in mid-April that LeBron and the Heat would make the Finals (I’m still pretty confident, despite the Chris Bosh injury and last night’s loss), and I felt that his success—or lack thereof—would be the story of the postseason. Some of you may be sick of him. Some of you may find the Spurs or Thunder more interesting. Some of you may think Kobe is always the best Playoff story as long as he’s playing. But when you have been on magazine covers since your junior year of high school and have put together one of the greatest strings of regular seasons in basketball history during the same stretch of time that you have failed to win a single title, you are always going to be the biggest story. That’s just how it is.
And if we went the timeless/look ahead route, I felt the cover should be…Jabari Parker. It’s our annual All-American issue, and we’d shot him and the rest of our team between April 12-14 (we’ll unveil all our All-Americans on the site Friday). Despite being a junior, Jabari made our first team, and we got a nice photo shoot with him. My boss and I talked about putting Jabari on the cover and we were tempted, but we just didn’t feel we had quite the story to make him a cover…at least not one that would sell many copies. One of our Chicago-based writers did help us come up with a Jabari-related idea that could work as a cover in our opinion, but there was no way that idea was getting done in time. So we decided to table the idea of Jabari on our cover and revisit it in the future.
That meant LeBron was getting the cover. And after much discussion and consideration, we figured the coolest way for us to do LeBron at this point was to take things back to when we first covered him as a sophomore in high school. We called up our man Atiba Jefferson and he sent us outtakes from when he and writer/editor Ryan Jones went to Akron in the Spring of 2001 to hang with LeBron for his first national magazine feature (alas, though we felt like that feature made SLAM the first place he got major national exposure, the folks at SI famously put him on their cover a couple of months before we did).
Even as we settled on using a classic LeBron photo for this cover, I couldn’t get Jabari out of my mind. We had new pics of him, after all, and in many ways, he’s the “next LeBron.” So I chose a cool shot we got of Jabari and spent my whole editor’s letter writing about him. Not sure how much y’all know of him yet, but as I explain in my letter, even without LeBron’s otherworldly athleticism or sense of showmanship, the 6-8 Jabari’s skill-size combo and unselfishness as a passer, as well as his earning Gatorade National Player of the Year honors and being the first small forward we named All-American as a junior since you-know-who make the similarities pretty striking. Jabari’s bio is also incredibly interesting in its own right. His father, Sonny, was a first-round pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1976 and played six years in the League. His mother, Lola, is a devout Mormon, which Jabari has become as well. And as many of you hoops diehards should already know, his high school program is one of the most storied in the land, where the likes of Benji Wilson (RIP), Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Bobby Simmons and a fella by the name of Derrick Rose all played ball. With Jabari leading the way, Simeon has won three straight Illinois State 4A titles.
Anyway, we closed the issue on May 4, knocked on wood that the Heat would last a few rounds to avoid any further “SLAM jinx” talk, and got started on SLAM 160. We also picked today as the day we’d unveil the cover of 159. And then what happens? SI puts out their new issue this morning and Jabari Parker is on the cover! I’m not mad (really). I’m impressed. And a little jealous that an outlet that isn’t 25 percent as dedicated to hoops as we are has given Jabari a cover before we did. But most of all, I’m just blown away by the coincidence of the timing.
If anything, though, all this talk of the next LeBron confirms our decision to put the original LeBron on our cover this month. And what did we do for a LeBron story? You’ll have to buy the issue—which also features great shots of all the All-Americans, a sick Ron Harper Old School feature by the aforementioned Mr. Bengtson, a timely Andrew Bynum feature by Jake Appleman and much, much more—to find out. It’s out in NY today and should be everywhere in the country within the next week.