In the early 1990s, it was a lot more common for milk crates full of stuff to just materialize in your garage after being extracted from someone else's garage. The original Big Box store was whatever came out of your community's spring-cleaning day. These were oftentimes filled to the gills with old magazines, their covers collecting dust and mildew, their inside pages yellowing. Sometimes there were salacious finds, the purloined adult content from a more curious mind. Sometimes it was more focused on another pleasure center: budding sports fandom.
The first issues of Sports Illustrated I can remember came into my life via one of these crates. We didn't have cable and there were precious few outlets to learn more about sports beyond one's local market. The national newspaper may as well have been in hieroglyphics.
So one day in the fall, a parent comes back from the mailbox with something in their left hand and an announcement in their right. Grandma has decided to get you a magazine subscription for your birthday because you're getting so much older now and the little kid stuff doesn't cut it anymore. Anyway, she knows you like sports so this is called Sports Illustrated Kids and it seems, on glossy paper, to be perfect for you.
And so the two work together, tugging on the mind and further entrenching a love for all things score-related and made-up. The flagship Sports Illustrated introduces a world of Faces in the Crowd and bouncing longform both introducing you to the Quebec Nordiques' goaltender and making you care about him. The photography is spellbinding and carries you into a world where there are cameras beyond the studio in the back of K-Mart. The promise of grown-up SI is to bring all the world to your fingertips for you to conquer or to enjoy the conquers of others.
It is rewarding and challenging for a kid. It still feels like work, even if it's rewarding.
Sports Illustrated Kids is there to pick up the slack. To reassure your budding mind that sports are supposed to be fun. That will be the underlying reason for the rest of times, often obscured and complicated and never as clear as when you're seven and in the on-deck circle when the last open base is filled. It also makes you realize reading is also ... supposed to be fun.
It may be one of the most brilliant and immediate allegories connecting life and baseball or basketball or football or even chess. And why not sneak it in poetically, deftly, and in a way that wants you needing more?
All of this to say that SI Kids was a seminal text. Buzz Beamer was incredible, a toned-down Bart Simpson in comic strip form. Every month a player or broadcaster would give you their worst day. There were trading cards and you could see Shaquille O'Neal's actual hand size while reading four cans of Pepsis would be required to fill up his shoes.
It remains the purest sports media joy I can remember. Those times up in a makeshift treehouse thinking about the Barry Sanders cover or captivated by the splashy art and kid-fluent prose. Its arrival in 1989 signaled a decade of readership whose most formative relationship with sports were built turning one page over at a time.
Here's the eerie thing. Its brilliance was not lost on me in real-time. I knew it was special. What I didn't know is how indelible it became to my life. If I close my eyes I can feel it and feel the feeling of excited checking the table of contests shortly after getting off the bus.
What I didn't know is I'd be chasing the ghost of that uncomplicated perfection. Perhaps it's best to just let the perfect memory remain that way.