If each issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED were a game, Ken Cooper would be our official scorer. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Cooper has subscribed since the Feb. 21, 1983, issue, and he keeps 1,545 issues in his basement in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Yes, that is an exact number. Cooper is rather fond of exact numbers.
Cooper, 42, has compiled a database of SIs, and if the database should accidentally get deleted, Cooper keeps a pretty reliable backup in his brain. He can tell you that from our first issue in 1954 through last week, 5,973 different people have appeared on the cover, a number that includes regional covers and commemorative issues—and opposing players, coaches or referees who happened to be in the frame. (Spectators in the background are not included.) He can tell you that while SI celebrated Michael Jordan's record 50th cover last year, Jordan has actually appeared in the picture on three other covers when somebody else was the subject. And he can tell you that while SI has produced 51 Swimsuit editions, we have also put 64 shirtless men on our cover.
Cooper can close his eyes and see the chilling cover of the June 30, 1986, issue: DEATH OF A DREAM, featuring Maryland basketball star Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose two days after he was drafted by the Celtics. But he also has less significant cover moments in instant recall. He knows, for example, that former pitcher Mark Langston appeared on the cover of SI just once—"December 1989, small box in the upper right-hand corner."
He can tell you that in the past 31 years of SI's NHL previews, we have put 12 NFL players, eight baseball players and only four hockey players on the cover. Alas, he could not tell me how many angry letters we will receive from hockey fans who read that stat.
Cooper's interest in the magazine initially stemmed from curiosity about the accuracy of our predictions. He has now analyzed our various preseason forecasts for the past 30 years—some of his data informs the facts and figures in this issue's SI Regrets package (page 89)—and says, "As it turns out, they weren't that bad." If that doesn't make you renew your subscription, what will?
You may read all this and think, What an interesting man. If I see him, I'm running away. Go ahead, but Cooper will catch you. He has run a sub-five-minute mile for 28 straight years and ran the 2002 Chicago Marathon in 2:27.10, narrowly missing a spot in the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials. And he can tell you precisely how he has become such an accomplished runner: From the moment he tried out for his high school track team as a freshman until our conversation last week, Cooper had run 62,016 miles, more than twice the circumference of the Earth.
"Oh, I have a sickness," Cooper says, but he doesn't, really. He is, like most of the athletes who grace these pages, an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. He is a proud husband and father to three girls and president of a firm that helps companies tell their stories to investors and other stakeholders. It is not surprising, then, that he can tell you ours. As he says, "My career is taking large amounts of information and simplifying it."
Cooper gives himself six days to read the magazine, and on the seventh day, he rests or reads the rest, depending on how busy he has been. Cooper reads SI for the same reason you probably do: "The passion of competition." It's why he is a "cover-to-cover guy" who enjoys reading about both the NCAA tournament (his favorite event) and NASCAR (his least favorite sport).
I would write more, but I have to finish this column and send it to my editor, at which point a fact-checker will call Cooper. That is the circle of life, magazine-style: We check his facts and print them, then he opens the magazine and catalogs ours. After that, he will have a 1,546th SI for his basement. I suspect this issue will survive for many years in many readers' basements. For a magazine, that's the best kind of Hall of Fame.
"I have a sickness," Cooper says, but he doesn't, really. He is, like most of the athletes who grace these pages, an ordinary person doing something extraordinary.
How many copies of SI have you saved?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED