Centuries from now, when historians look back on our sports-addled society in the way that we now regard ancient Rome—with wonder, alarm and pity—they will scarcely believe what they read in these pages. Thus we shall confirm it for them: A society in which the median annual income was $39,657 so esteemed a 21-year-old bouncer of basketballs that he earned 335 times that figure. When a writer from this magazine entered the marble-foyered mansion of that young man, Magic forward Tracy McGrady, he found the athlete tended to by two housekeepers, a personal assistant and a personal chef. His uncle stood on the billiard-table lawn supervising a staff of gardeners.
The professional basketballer purchased his estate, for $6.6 million, from the widow of a professional golfer. That golfer, Payne Stewart, had installed a laser-equipped, motion-detecting urinal in his individual master bath, so that he would not have to flush his own toilet.
All these marvels were available to the professional athlete for one simple reason: When it came to ball games of nearly every description, we could not look away. For a record of this society's obsession, historians need check no further than the yellowed pages of this magazine. This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse: As many copies of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED are sold in little more than a month (13.2 million) as To Kill a Mockingbird has sold since its publication in 1960. While we are grateful for your business—and commend you for your good taste—the statistic remains faintly unsettling, no?
Perhaps not. For some reason, the numbers don't seem to stagger us now. But one day they will. Consider: The vast "multitudes" who followed Christ in Matthew 15:30 ("And great multitudes came unto him ... ") numbered 4,000. The multitudes that attended last Friday night's Lakers game at Staples Center numbered 18,997. So: The "flock" that was fed the loaves and fishes was a fraction of that which saw Derek Fisher loaf.
Of course, as the earth's population grows—a billion new people join us every 13 years—our notion of what constitutes a throng escalates apace. But that can hardly explain this: The 150,000 souls who greeted Charles Lindbergh upon his landing at Le Bourget airfield outside Paris would be insufficient to fill the 165,000 permanent seats at Daytona International Speedway, which is packed every summer for the Pepsi 400.
Is that not remarkable? Forget about great spectacles like the Super Bowl. We are talking about a typical American weekend: In Week 12 the NFL drew 1,011,224 fans to its stadiums. (That collective population would constitute the 10th largest city in the U.S.—greater than Detroit, and slightly less than Dallas.) That same weekend college football programs ranked in the AP Top 20 attracted 811,012 paying spectators. (That is greater than the number of Americans killed in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.) Still they are but a small fraction of Americans who watched sports that ordinary weekend.
Some 304,298 people attended NBA games that Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Likewise, 397,496 fans turned out for games of the National Hockey League (a figure greater than the populations of 26 of the Earth's 191 independent nations). Thus, in a 72-hour span, big-time football, basketball and hockey attracted 2,524,030 men, women and children to various colosseums in North America. That is more Americans than visited France in all of 1997, despite the way-paving efforts of the Spirit of St. Louis, which may explain why the late Flyer Pelle Lindbergh is more familiar to you than the late flier Charles Lindbergh.
Because this is what civilization prizes right now, in numbers too large to count, which is why I have excluded from the figure above the attendances at NASCAR, golf, tennis, youth, high school and college competitions of that weekend, and the tens of millions of Americans who watched sports on television. We will never know what the latent power of those sports fans might have wrought. The great Egyptian pyramid of King Khufu required 100,000 men to build. Three Saturdays ago, 110,803 people attended the Michigan-Penn State football game.
They drank lots of beer.