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A CHAMP IS BORN

THE FRANCHISE
A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine
By Michael MacCambridge
Hyperion 434pp $24.95

Henry Luce would have had a hard time imagining a world in which a rookie basketball player looks down his nose at a $100 million-plus contract; a world in which cities put their populaces deeper in debt to build ever-more-elaborate sports temples; a world in which, on any weekend afternoon, you can sit in front of a colorful screen and choose from among a dozen different athletic spectacles to numb your mind.

As Michael MacCambridge writes in The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine: ''SI was born in an era when spectator sports were commonly viewed--despite all the suits and ties in the stands--as a blue-collar proposition (an early Time Inc. study of the market described sports fans as 'juveniles and ne'er-do-wells').''

Little wonder, then, that when Sports Illustrated was launched in 1954, the highbrows in the old Time & Life Building treated ''Harry's yacht,'' as the magazine was called, as if it were a fishing scow that had blundered into an America's Cup race. But Time Inc. founder Luce, who had gone against his closest advisers to start SI, saw the magazine through its shaky start and sometimes hysterical search for an identity.

Sports Illustrated finally found itself six years later, when Luce handed the book to a hard-boozing but brilliant editor named Andre Laguerre. The daring innovations introduced by Laguerre--such as color covers of events only a few days old--set the pace for newsweeklies of all types. But more important, Laguerre assembled a stable of writers such as Dan Jenkins, Budd Schulberg, and later, Frank Deford, whose lively--and sometimes just plain beautiful--prose changed the way people thought about sports.

MacCambridge recalls a 1963 piece by Gil Rogin, who had volunteered as a crewmember in a long-distance sailing race, that began: ''The ruts and tracks of life are made early, and mine never led to the sea, so I don't know what others lose and find there....''

Franchise is such an exhaustive look at the creation of one of America's preeminent magazines that you sometimes feel as though you're watching every mile of a seven-day bicycle race. But the characters--from Luce to Laguerre to the ink-stained wretches at grimy Texas dailies who were turned into SI stars--keep the pages turning. So does the background for the birth and early life of the magazine--the evolution of sports in America from its naive postwar days to its glitz-laden climb to become one of the dozen largest industries in the country.

Along the way, something was lost, both in the sporting world and at Sports Illustrated. The wholly original and entirely amusing taunting from the mouth of Muhammad Ali has become the scripted, stupid, prefight threat of a Mike Tyson. And SI now has brand extensions such as Sports Illustrated for Kids, cable channel CNN/SI, and the swimsuit-edition calendar.

As Deford says, perhaps too harshly, at the end of the book, ''...Laguerre was the father and we were all impressionable children and we were underdogs and it was all so new and exciting. And it can't ever be that way again, because now it is just a product.'' Henry Luce couldn't imagine that, either.

BY CIRO SCOTTI



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PHOTO: Cover, ``The Franchise''


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Updated Oct. 30, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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