Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I love the 80s

Last week, Bill Simmons asked "What marquee event from the '80s has you less excited this week: The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the Winter Olympics or the Slam Dunk Contest?" Well, I think you know where I stand on the Winter Olympics, and as far as I am concerned, the swimsuit issue peaked with the 25th anniversary issue in 1989. Nothing against Tyra Banks or Heidi Klum, but something about the explosion of digital technology and media coverage that turned this from a magazine into a worldwide cultural phenomenon has reduced, not increased, its appeal. I remember watching one of the early "Making of ..." videos and seeing way too much footage of the photographers and the woman who must have been the special editor of the swimsuit issue. It was bad enough to hear her grating voiceover describing how important it was to select a girl with just the right blend of beauty and athleticism to grace the SI cover, but then the camera cut away from Rebecca Romijn prancing in the surf to give the editor some camera time, and let's just say that her face matched the voice. Or Vendela's slow motion emergence from the hottub would be abruptly interrupted by a photographer screaming at his assistant for a new camera with the proper f stop settings. And I just don't need to see another model wrapped in a robe complaining about how cold or early it is because she has to spend one hour out of her week not getting every single whim catered to like some kind of Westminster Kennel Club Champion.

My favorite swimsuit issue story took place a few years ago when I was working at Johns Hopkins University. A former Hopkins baseball player named Jeff Labrecque wrote
a very funny feature for the alumni magazine about how he and a friend had crashed the swimsuit issue launch party. Finding himself face-to-face with Petra Nemcova, a model from the Czech Republic, he was suddenly extremely grateful to the Hopkins baseball coach for taking the team to Prague during his sophomore year. The article is a fun short read, but the best part came the next month when an outraged alumnus wrote to express his disappointment with the editors for printing such filth and asked that they cancel his subscription. I don't know about you, but when the alumni magazine comes, first I look to see if I or anyone I know is mentioned in the "Class Notes" section, and then I fall asleep a third of the way into an article about Egyptology, laser-infused microbe replication, or the stunning influence of Romantic Poetry on the Gutenberg printing press.

So what's behind door number three? That's right, the NBA All-Star Game. In contrast to the Super Bowl, I actually enjoyed the hype and extraneous coverage of the events around the actual game. The Slam Dunk Contest can easily become boring and monotonous, not because the dunks aren't feats of amazing athletic skill (they are), but because they lack any transcendent drama or creativity, but this year's finalists turned in performances that place them in the gallery of memorable images from years past. Like Dr. J stepping off his foul-line take-off point, Spud Webb showing a phenomenal vertical leap, Dee Brown guaranteeing an endorsment contract by inflating his Reebok Pumps before every dunk, Cedric Ceballos wearing a blindfold, Vince Carter hanging on the rim by the crook of his elbow after a vicious slam, or last year's winner Josh Smith donning a Dominique Wilkins throwback jersey, this year Nate Robinson and Andre Iguodala gave us a reason to watch and then tune into SportsCenter to see the recap.

Iguodala's alley oop from behind the backboard showed creativity, hang-time and flexibility as he ducked under the backboard and the hoop to throw down a reverse two-hander. He was rewarded with perfect score from the judges and loud apreciation from the crowd and NBA players in attendance. But the 5-9 Robinson was irresistible, forcing a tiebreaker by bringing out 1986 champion Webb (in a throwback jersey of course) and jumping over him en route to the rim. Give it to Iguodala on technical merit but Robinson on dramatic interpretation. The tiebreaker lacked drama as Robinson missed at least a dozen attempts before completing his final dunk, but the judges panel (Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, Elvin Hayes, Rudy Tomjanovich and Kenny Smith) clearly appreciated his earlier nod to history and the overwhelming support of the crowd.

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