Friday, February 12, 2021

(As reported in The Spokesman-Review by Justin Reed)

The pinnacle of sports media real estate – the Sports Illustrated magazine cover.

World-famous athletes have graced the color-splashed magazine, ranging from Michael Jordan and LeBron James to Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali. And all-time dynasties like the Chicago Bulls, the New England Patriots and New York Yankees.

Athletes and teams who have seen their mugs plastered on those pages have usually done something remarkable, uplifting or just flat-out special.

That athlete or team had done enough to be preserved among other noteworthy sports icons – forever.

So, when Sports Illustrated released its upcoming cover story with four Gonzaga Bulldogs and their head coach Mark Few as the cover stars, their inclusion sparked excitement throughout Zag Nation.

“Oh, man, it’s great to see those guys, they deserve it,” former Bulldog Rob Sacre said. “They’re well-deserved to be on the cover, all their hard work, and all coach Few’s hard work has paid off. I think they’re a great representation of the program 

and school and the community.”

The cover features Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and coach Few standing in a zigzag pattern underneath the title, “The Program,” while looking forward and being doused in light.

These Zags are no stranger to the bright lights.

“I think when it comes to the spotlight, I think it’s just part of the process of being No. 1 in the country,” Sacre said. “Those guys have obviously put in the time and effort. They’ve worked hard toward being No. 1 and lasting so long at the top that I think everyone recognizes greatness.”

And this isn’t the Zags’ first experience in the SI spotlight. Including this cover, the Bulldogs have been predominately featured on at least nine covers, some of which were regional March Madness previews.

That includes (in chronological order) Adam Morrison, Morrison again, Austin Daye, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski.

It is a special honor that does not go unnoticed by the university.

“We’ve had some guys on the cover, which is great, but this one is special, because it’s a team thing, it’s the program, (which) is the title of it,” athletic director Mike Roth said. “It’s the program, it’s not an individual. It’s the program.

“In this COVID year, with all the different things going on and here, we’ve been lucky enough to be sitting in that No. 1 spot for the whole season at this point. Which, that hasn’t happened in a while, where one team sits up there from the start and into the middle of February or close to the middle of February. It’s pretty special.”

But what if the SI cover belies something sinister? While that may seem silly to even ask – since a magazine is just a collection of paper pages – superstitions are alive and well in sports and they will forever be intertwined.

In this case, what about the oft-called Sports Illustrated cover jinx, a superstition grounded in almost 70 years of history?

The jinx theory began with the first issue of SI, dated Aug. 16, 1954. Milwaukee Braves’ Eddie Mathews found himself on the cover while the team was on a nine-game winning streak. They lost their next game, on Aug. 17, and Mathews broke his hand after a pitch struck it at the plate.

Over the following 67 years, SI has continued to find itself – and its covers – at the forefront of sports jinxing accusations.

On Jan. 21, 2002, in a special edition, SI self-reported its jinxing. SI even went without a sports cover, instead featuring a black cat on the cover.

From SI: “Of the 2,456 covers SI had run, 913 featured a person who, or team that, suffered some verifiable misfortune that conformed to our definition – a Jinx rate of 37.2%. The majority of those instances (52.7%) were bad losses or lousy performances by a team, followed by declines in individual performance (44.6%), bad loss or lousy performance by an individual (25.2%), postseason failure (13.4%), injury or death (11.8%) and blunder or bad play (4.6%).”

Now, SI isn’t the only cover jinx or curse that warps fans’ perception of what should be considered the highest honor of success.

EA Sports, which produces the Madden and FIFA video games, has been at the center of this contested debate . Throughout this century, the cover stars of those games have generally faltered in some way the following season. Not all – but enough to make a PR headache for EA.

That debate produces similar results – doom follows cover athletes – at least in popular media.

But Sacre doesn’t believe such hogwash. Before Thursday, he had never heard of the SI cover jinx.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “You know, I don’t think of it as a curse. It’s part of being on top. Sometimes, pressure breaks pipes, or it makes diamonds. And that’s what it’s all about.

“And we can’t obviously let the cover of a magazine influence how we think. So, for me, I think that they deserve the credit they get, and just don’t let it get to your head.”

The Bulldogs have found some not-so-good success after covers. Jinx or just confirmation bias?

First, Adam Morrison was the first Bulldog to make the cover while at GU. He shared it with JJ Redick. The Zags lost three weeks later in heartbreaking fashion to UCLA in the Sweet 16. Redick and Duke also lost in the Sweet 16 as a one seed.

After the Bulldogs fell, SI released regional Sweet 16 covers four days later with Morrison on it solo.

Next, Austin Daye was found on an NCAA Tournament regional cover before the 2009 March Madness began. It was released on March 25, two days after the Zags dispatched Western Kentucky and four days after toppling Akron.

SI decided to use Pargo in its Sweet 16 preview, but the fourth-seeded Zags were promptly blown out by North Carolina 98-77.

The next Zag was Bouldin, who appeared on the March Madness cover in March 2010.

The eighth-seeded Bulldogs beat ninth-seeded Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before getting stifled by No. 1-seeded Syracuse.

Bouldin had a particularly rough night against the Orange, going 3 for 13 from the floor for only eight points. He missed all six of his 3-pointers.

In 2013, the Zags earned a one seed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. They were set up for a deep run.

SI took Olynyk’s photo in Spokane surrounded by the Bulldog Club on March 7, 2013. The story and cover were released on March 25, but the Bulldogs had already been upset in the second round by Wichita State on March 23.

It wasn’t until 2015, when Kyle Wiltjer was on the cover, that the Zags dismissed any possible jinx.

The magazine was released on March 2, and the Bulldogs rattled off six straight wins to reach the Elite Eight. The second- seeded Zags eventually fell to top-seeded Duke 66-52.

And for good measure, Karnowski did his best to shake the jinx as well.

He made the NCAA Tournament preview cover on March 20, 2017. GU won its next three games to make its first Final Four and National Championship appearances. The Zags fell 71-65 to the Tar Heels in the final.

The other GU connection came in 2011 after Jimmer Fredette’s BYU Cougars knocked off the Bulldogs in the second round of the tournament. Jimmer-mania reached a furor, which led him to SI’s cover before BYU’s next game against Florida. Fredette made only 11 of 29 shots in a losing effort.

John Stockton became the first former Zag to make the cover in 1998 as a member of the Utah Jazz. The Jazz had just taken down the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the NBA Finals, where they lost the series 4-2. The next season was strike-shortened and Stockton recorded his worst statistical seasons of his career outside of his first three (non-starter) seasons.

But SI remains.

Roth said he started receiving SI as a kid about 50 years ago, and the murmurs of the jinx have floated around his ears since he started reading the magazine.

“I think (the jinx) definitely has lost its steam over the years,” Roth said. “And especially when you just look at some of the most popular covers, or the people that have been on the most. The person or the individual or team has been on the most is, I think, is Michael Jordan and (the Lakers).

“I think the Jinx is a thing of the past.”

Longtime season ticket holder Matt Hildahl doesn’t care if the jinx exists (he’d lean toward no jinx existing). The Bulldogs are on a mission, in his eyes.

“If anyone can work their way through a jinx, they can,” he said. “Or if anyone can disprove that theory, or whatever you want to call it, that the Jinx is real, I think they can.”

For now, Bulldog fans can find solace in the fact that national media has done everything in its power to talk GU basketball. Once a Cinderella story (“Think again,” the new cover cautions readers), GU now owns morning air waves and evenings on ESPN.

“It’s about time,” Hildahl said. “It’s just that it feels like it’s overdue recognition. But I love the headline, because it really is all about the program. You work hard, you earn your spot. And you do it our way. And we’ll teach you how to play basketball, the Gonzaga way, which is a lot of fun.”