The Jinx Doesn't Like Hubris
The Jinx, if it exists, can read—and arch an eyebrow. The more unequivocal, braggadocious or brimming with superlative a cover image or billing is, the lower that subject seems likely to be laid. Look at three recent covers. If we hadn't called the Tennessee Titans THE NFL'S BEST TEAM late last season, would they have suffered a loss to the Baltimore Ravens the next week? If we hadn't billed the Los Angeles Lakers as unstoppable last season and featured a photo of a snarling Shaquille O'Neal, would the Philadelphia 76ers have stopped them two days after the issue hit the stands, ruining their perfect postseason, if not their title run? Perhaps, verily, IT CAN BE DONE—"it" being hitting .400 for a season—but not by the Colorado Rockies' Todd Helton in 2000, not after his cover, which marked the beginning of a 25-point plunge in his average over the following month.
So, of course, when we told the world in 1995 that Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. PLAYS THE GAME BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE, he booted two routine grounders in a game that week. The St. Louis Cardinals' Curt Flood, BASEBALL'S BEST CENTER-FIELDER ('68), would go 0 for 14 with an error before missing five games with an injury immediately after the issue appeared. LSU cornerback Tommy Casanova, the BEST PLAYER IN THE NATION ('71), would miss five games after pulling his hamstring in the season opener. Oregon State point guard Gary Payton, another BEST PLAYER IN THE NATION ('90), would score five points in a game that week, 22 below his average, to end a streak of 50 games in which he had scored in double figures. Ivan Ivankov of Belarus, who appeared on the cover of our 2000 Olympic preview in gold paint, might have been THE WORLD'S BEST GYMNAST, but he wasn't good enough to win a medal of any hue.
The billing needn't tempt fate explicitly; a mere image, with no inflammatory words, can apparently goad the Jinx too. A baretorsoed Danny Fortson and preseason No. 1 Cincinnati lost to unranked crosstown rival Xavier in the first game after their 1996 preseason college basketball cover appeared, and a showy Deion Sanders of the Atlanta Falcons, festooned with chains and jewelry ('89), was flagged for two illegal hits and let Jerry Rice loose for a touchdown during a 45-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that week. In '97 Jerome Bettis was on the cover shirtless; in his next game he fumbled on his very first carry in a Pittsburgh loss.
The Jinx Takes Names...
Is the cover of SI a sort of voodoo doll? Larry Bird might be forgiven for thinking so—he was jinxed as a college player at Indiana State, as a pro player with the Celtics and as coach of the Pacers. Bird made the cover in 1979, then lost to Michigan State in the NCAA final. After appearing on the cover in '83, Bird and the Celtics were swept in a playoff series by the Milwaukee Bucks. In '97 he was on the cover as the new coach of the Pacers; they lost their first game and stumbled to a 2-5 start.
In Bird's case the Jinx was judicious, doling out one whammy per decade. In the case of Patrick Ewing the Jinx seemed, during the early 1990s, to single him out. In '93 Ewing's New York Knicks were bounced from the playoffs immediately after their center appeared on SI's cover. A year later the same thing happened. At least he'd been warned: In '82 Ewing was on the cover as the dominant player for top-seeded Georgetown; the following week the Hoyas lost in the NCAA final to North Carolina.
The Jinx keeps an eye on the TRANSACTIONS agate. After appearing on the cover as a Boston College Eagle in 1983, Doug Flutie threw three interceptions in his next game, a 27-17 loss to West Virginia. In '85 an SI cover asked, CAN THIS MAN SAVE THE USFL? Obviously not—Flutie had more interceptions than touchdowns that season, and broke his collarbone. The USFL folded at the end of the season. Thirteen years later, after appearing as a Buffalo Bill, Flutie had his worst game in the NFL, going 12 for 30, 154 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 34-12 loss to the Jets.
For Nebraska fans, that Crouch cover was d�j� voodoo. In 1972 the Cornhuskers, national champions two years running, supplied three players and coach Bob Devaney for the cover of our preview issue, as we heralded the team's preseason No. 1 ranking and drive for THREE STRAIGHT—and thereby assured its 20-17 loss to unranked UCLA in the first game of the season. Six years later, when running back Rick Berns graced our cover after a defeat of No. 1 Oklahoma, Husker Nation looked forward to a meeting with Penn State for the national championship, a hope dashed when Nebraska lost its next game, 35-31 to Missouri. After his '84 appearance, running back Jeff Smith missed his next game due to an ankle injury, and the top-ranked Cornhuskers lost to Syracuse. A dozen years later, right after running back Ahman Green was on the cover, he knocked the ball through his own end zone, resulting in a safety, during a 19-0 loss to Arizona State, a team that Nebraska, winner of 26 previous games, had beaten 77-28 a year earlier.