Thinking of some of the previous accomplishments which have landed athletes and teams on covers of Sports Illustrated (SI) magazines, you have Bryce Harper as a high school baseball phenom in 2009, Serena Williams winning her first Grand Slam at 17 years old in 1999 and the construction of the illustrious “Dream Team” USA Olympics squad in 1991. For March 2021, Sports Illustrated chose to feature a college basketball program chasing the first NCAA Championship for a West Coast team in 24 years.
Released to the public nationwide on Feb. 18, the latest edition of SI features Gonzaga’s ascendant men’s basketball program on the cover, to go along with a 10-page feature story written by SI journalist Greg Bishop that journeys through the program’s rise from conference title contender to national championship favorite.
Not a new story being told about GU by any means, but one that the publication feels like it covered more holistically and with more detail than most previous stories about the Zags’ climb.
“Gonzaga has the kind of program continuity that makes you think of places like Duke or even Villanova with what Jay Wright has been able to do,” said co-Editor-in-Chief of SI, Stephen Cannella. “That’s the reason I think there’s a lot of staying power [at GU], and why Coach Few has a lot of staying power there.”
The March edition of Sports Illustrated (SI) Magazine won’t even be the first occasion where GU men’s basketball has seen time on the sports publication’s esteemed cover. Over the past 22 years, GU has had a member of its program featured in some prominent manner on SI’s cover six times between getting on various regional covers, March Madness previews and the signature monthly editions that the publication is revered for.
Never before however, has more than a single GU team player been at the forefront of one of these covers. That changed as this latest cover features four GU starters —Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi — all decked out in the team’s newest navy blue away threads, with head coach Mark Few square in the middle.
Initially, SI photographers were trying to get an action shot to use on the cover. After a few games however, it became clear that they couldn’t get a cover worthy shot while photographers were held off the floor this season due to COVID-19 restrictions, so the editors scrambled to get a portrait photo shoot set up with Few and the four players.
“We talked about should it just be [Few] by himself, should it just be Kispert by himself?” Cannella said. “Then we really thought that these four players who are the core of this year’s team have a chance to really be something special surrounding coaches who have really built the program that symbolizes everything we thought GU and the story should be about.”
While the team at SI didn’t manage to get an action shot that represented GU the way they wanted for the cover, they were able to get action shots both of this year’s team and teams from as early as when John Stockton played for the article inside. Cannella said that the ability to not just get a wide array of photos, but the ability to talk to sources spanning different eras in the program’s history, from current players like Suggs to prestigious figures like Matt Santangelo, helped immensely in portraying GU’s systemic development for the article.
Bishop used his multitude of sources to outline GU’s rise in stature, and does so by breaking the process up into three phases starting with the 1998-99 team that made a Cinderella run. The one figure that Bishop keeps prominent in all three of these periods is Few, who Bishop traces the journey of all the way from being the new head coaching hire who the university’s president at the time didn’t even fully know, to the basketball maestro that Bishop quotes GU legend Adam Morrison as saying is even better now than he was during Morrison’s time in the program.
Bishop had been working on this story since early 2020, when SI originally thought that it would run a feature piece on GU and even spotlight the team on the cover last March, before it began to look like that season could be in jeopardy. Cannella said that the editing staff once again settled on having GU be the face of this year’s March edition in late January, bar any extremely significant narrative arising out of the Super Bowl, which Cannella and his team eventually didn’t find happening.
One challenge in writing a piece focused around a team that has already received so much national attention is that the facts of this story could already be common knowledge to much of the sports world by the time of its release. For instance, almost all of GU’s even most casual of fans have heard by now that Suggs was a highly touted football recruit in high school, but Bishop uses this common nugget of information to speak to a wider narrative about how GU has come far enough in becoming a prominent powerhouse where it can now draw multisport recruits.
“What we’re always trying to do at SI is tell you a story that you either didn’t know you needed, or a new spin on a story that you thought you knew,” Cannella said. “In this case, rather than focus on any one player and their unique background, Greg took a bigger picture view of painting a sketch of the evolution of this program.”
Even while GU has soaked up most of the spotlight surrounding this college basketball season, there doesn’t seem to be any Zag fatigue by consumers. Cannella said that SI’s online marketplace sold out of its original stock of copies in two weeks which doesn’t often happen, and that now the edition has sold five times more copies than the average monthly volume.
You can still look for this month’s edition of Sports Illustrated on newsstands around Spokane, as well as access Greg Bishop’s article about the program online with a subscription to the publication.