Magazine boosts us toward banality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Those of you who are not basketball fans, bear with me a second. You'll see the connection later.

The defending National Basketball Association champion Chicago Bulls are in a nip-and-tuck battle with the Utah Jazz in the waning moments of Sunday's game. They trade leads. Michael Jordan hits for two. Utah's Karl Malone does the same. The Bulls' Scottie Pippen hits a three-point shot. Utah's John Stockton hits a three to tie the game again.

The Bulls have the ball with seven seconds left. The ball is inbounded to Jordan. The Jazz -- duh, what were they thinking? -- refuse to double-team Jordan, who cans a jumper with one second left for the Bulls' victory.

It was a truly exquisite game between two superb teams. The Bulls won 69 of 82 games during the regular NBA season. The Jazz won 64 of 82. The Miami Heat won 61. Four other teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference won more than 50 games.

Years ago, teams winning 50 games usually won the conference. Winning 60 was considered truly extraordinary. Clearly, inspired by the Bulls, NBA teams in 1997 aspired to a new level of excellence, one that gave us Sunday's memorable game.

But that eminent jock magazine Sports Illustrated won't have it that way. Excellence is truly evil, a bad thingie to be shunned, if we are to believe SI's writers and editors.

"Are the Bulls so good they're bad for the NBA?" the cover story of a recent SI edition read. The story's writer argued that the Bulls being so good made for a dull NBA season. Other teams despaired of being able to beat them.

Thus, with one idiotic article, the nation's leading sports magazine did all it could to contribute to America's fast-growing Culture of Mediocrity. American students -- many of whom have already bought into the mediocrity with their belief that excellence in education is nerdy, and ignorance is cool -- have no passion for reading, it's been said.

In this case, that may be a good thing. They wouldn't have read this article that gives aid and comfort to their disdain for learning at a time when students in foreign countries are surging ahead of them in math, science and foreign languages.

But students and Sports Illustrated aren't the only culprits. The whole country, it seems, has developed a passion for the banal. Our most popular movies are a rehash of tired, worn-out plots we have seen before: shoot 'em up, blow 'em up, smash 'em up. Any gifted screenwriter who has the nerve to submit a creative or innovative movie script or teleplay to Hollywood moguls will likely see it rejected. (If the screenwriter is lucky, he or she may see his or her work rejected, only to appear on the screen a few years later. But at least then the screenwriter can sue.)

Let's take a look at what we read, shall we? Weekly tabloids that give us useless information about entertainment celebrities far outsell mainstream periodicals that give us information about a balanced budget, welfare reform, the Whitewater scandal and overseas crises. Terry McMillan's gawd-awful "Waiting to Exhale" outsells Diane McKinney-Whetstone's "Tumbling," although the latter book is in every demonstrable way superior.

There is no greater indicator of America's drift into foolishness than the popularity of Dennis Rodman's book "Bad as I Wannabe." Ironically, Rodman is a gifted basketball player, an integral part of the Bulls team that has established new standards of excellence in the NBA. But if there were truth in advertising, his book would have been subtitled "My Descent into Buffoonery and Weirdness." Rodman seems to want to be recognized for everything -- including his hair color, his cross-dressing, his naked hind-parts on the cover of his book -- but his basketball skills. Rodman's book is outselling excellent memoirs about Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson by Rachel and Sharon Robinson -- Jackie's widow and daughter, respectively. Anybody see anything wrong here?

Shock jock Howard Stern -- a tortured soul who confuses being disgusting with being funny -- is one of the most popular radio personalities in the country. Dennis Miller and Chris Rock, two gifted and intelligent comedians who could probably teach Stern a couple of dozen things about being both funny and erudite, have to ply their trade in weekly shows on cable's Home Box Office.

Could Mark Twain or Sinclair Lewis survive in today's America?

So Sports Illustrated's editors and writers aren't starting a trend so much as buying into one. But if they are indeed serious, here's what we should do. Write Sports Illustrated's editors and say that their excellent magazine is bad for sports journalism.

Then make a note that we'll either stop buying their magazine or cancel our subscriptions.

Pub Date: 6/04/97

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