Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Books: The Super Sports Summer of '84 As Chronicled In "Glory Days" By L. Jon Wertheim


Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever

By L. Jon Wertheim

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, $27.00; available Tuesday, June 15th

There are times in history that feel like turning points, where things happen that you haven't seen before, and set the tone for the foreseeable future. The summer of 1984 was just that for sports, entertainment, and the United States overall. 

The country witnessed Wayne Gretzky win his first Stanley Cup, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson squared off in the NBA Finals for the first time, and the first truly modern, commercialized Olympics, held in Los Angeles, captivated the nation, with its chief organizer, Peter Ueberroth, named Time magazine's Man of the Year. 

That Olympics was where Michael Jordan transformed from a college basketball star into an Olympic hero, clad in his signature line of Nike shoes. It also was the summer he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. Martina Navratilova changed the face of women's sports as she reigned on the tennis court, while John McEnroe continued his dominance, as he won both the US Open and Wimbledon, and nearly won the French Open as well.

L. Jon Wertheim, the executive editor and senior writer of Sports Illustrated, writes, "Break down sports the way the NFL coaches screen film and you would single out the summer of 1984 as the pivotal moment, the equivalent of the game-changing play."

In addition to those major moments on the field, it was a big one for how sports was covered on television. ESPN, the "Worldwide Leader in Sports," was just starting to turn a profit and was acquired by ABC, setting it on a path toward growth. Their secret sauce was that it didn't have to pay cable companies for coverage, but could charge a "carriage fee" to be included among their offerings.

Cable television was also the key to the growth of the WWF, run by Vince McMahon. He understood cable could unify all of the regional promotions, and he could control them under what was then known as the WWF (it's now known as the WWE). McMahon's summer event in Madison Square Garden, The Brawl to End It All, was broadcast on MTV and featured Hulk Hogan, as well as singer Cindy Lauper, showing how sports and entertainment could mesh, and it was the forerunner of the WrestleMania franchise.

It also was a tremendous summer for entertainment, as each week brought a new release that would resonate for decades. The music anthems of the summer included Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," Michael Jackson's Victory album, and Prince's Purple Rain, and legendary movies that premiered include The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Natural, and Ghostbusters.

It also was the summer that a New York real-estate mogul named Donald Trump went from being a local celebrity to national celebrity through his ownership of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, and graced the cover of GQ magazine, which was a major status symbol of the era.

Wertheim writes of the meaning of that era in this excerpt: "History doesn't send out invitations in advance. Which is what makes this summer special. Unlike, say, the summers of 1968 or 1969 or 1972, all of which felt momentous in real time, the summer of 1984 unfolded at such a leisurely and summery pace, few Americans considered it remarkable. 

Like the vision of a carefree Michael Jordan ambling - alone - through the town square, only in retrospect was the moment so pivotal.

The broader theme was mirrored in the cultural theme of sports. The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 1984 didn't, in the moment anyway, seem especially transformative. But now, as time has galloped by, we can look back and appreciate those days as a critical pivot point.

With hindsight, it's easy to make the case that the summer of 1984 would set the course for sports for the next half century. Name a resonant issue in sports today and, odds are, it figured prominently in the summer of 1984. This was the summer that sports officially became entertainment. That the television lazy Susan better known as cable - and the rights fees it would pay to televise games - would forever change the balance sheets of teams and leagues. That a struggling all-sports network, ESPN, would be sold to ABC, putting it on firmer footing and the path to profitability. That the Olympics would turn a profit. That the WrestleMania franchise was, effectively, hatched. That Michael Jordan would become a professional basketball player and a professional pitchman.

That summer, a sleek, skilled, and mulleted young hockey player, Wane Gretzky, won the Stanley Cup for the first time, the final certification before fulfilling his nickname, the Great One. He was 23. A few weeks later, Magic Johnson (age 24) and Larry Bird (age 27) opposed each other in the NBA Finals for the first time. One could not have scripted a more compelling series, a drama with a seven-game arc, featuring two storied teams - one from each coast - led by a pair of rivals who would be bracketed together for their entire careers.

Rewatch those 1984 NBA Finals and you might notice a man with large glasses and a cterpillar of a mustache - 'I wanted to look older than I was!' - seated in the stands, watching delightedly. David Stern, five-foot-nine and then 41, had just been anointed as the NBA's fourth league commissioner and was overseeing his first championship.

Stern got the job for a variety of reasons, not least his clairvoyance, his knack for glimpsing where sports were headed. 'David,' Magic Johnson said in the eighties, 'has this unbelievable gift for seeing around the corner before anyone else.'

Magic was right. Stern was quick to see the opportunity presented by the growing media landscape, with the explosion of cable television, and to grasp how sports could benefit from selling rights to their games. Stern recognized that as people were recording their favorite TV shows and buying cassettes of movies to watch on their schedules, sports were immune from this. Unpredictable, unscripted, and unchoreographed, sports were best watched live, a feature that brought with it huge value. Stern also saw the world flattening and the ability to sell the NBA not only in Ojai but also in Shanghai, Dubai, and Mumbai - and everywhere in between.

One week after Bird and Magic met for the first time in the NBA Finals, Stern returned to New York and presided over the NBA Draft. Michael Jordan would be joining the workforce. So would a sui generis player, the charismatic and convex-shaped Charles Barkley. For good measure: that same summer in Ohio, a young woman, Gloria James, would learn that she was pregnant with her first child, a son. She would name him LeBron.

Yet even Stern, the visionary, had no idea at the time just how pivotal the summer of 1984 would become - to his sport and all of sports. It was like one of those sequences in a game or a match or a race that passes without much fanfare. Only later would its transformational importance - its role as a game-changer, we would later call it - become obvious."

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