The story of the founding of SLAM, advised by those that have been there

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This is an excerpt from Cover story: The NBA and modern basketball as told on the most iconic magazine covers, which tells the story of the iconic sports magazine covers that specifically focused on the years 1984-2003. It was reprinted with permission from Triumph Books. Order your copy now.

It took Sports Illustrated over a decade to come up with a blueprint for their magazine.

SLAM took a problem.

The magazine would change over time. Her voice would evolve. The magazine cover looks drastically different today. But flip through a recent issue of SLAM and it still reads pretty much the same from cover to cover as the very first edition, which came out nearly 30 years ago.

The first edition of SLAM contained brief cultural stories about Pearl Jam's near-decision to be named after the guardian of the Atlanta Hawks, Mookie Blaylock, and the growing popularity of basketball in Japan. There's a dunk of the month. There's a one-sided feature on high school Steve Wojciechowski, along with profiles from college point guard Jason Kidd, perennial NBA all-star Charles Barkley, and New York playground legend Joe Hammond. There are full-page photo spreads of the latest sneaker releases and a six-page photo essay on playground hoopers across the country, including a cameo by 16-year-old Paul Pierce.

That's what SLAM is still today: a magazine that celebrates the sport of basketball. A casual voice. An all-encompassing approach to cover high school, college, and the professional game. A magazine that highlights sneakers and sportswear. A personality-oriented publication. A magazine that is not bound by the current news cycle.

Right from the start, founder and publisher Dennis Page created a blueprint of what a modern basketball publication could look like.

“We were passionate,” he said. “The magazine felt like playing in the playground. That's how people spoke. "

Page was at the Paramount Theater in Madison Square Garden, where the Source Awards were taking place in 1994, when record label manager and friend Alan Grunblatt came up with the idea of ​​a magazine that would fuse basketball and hip-hop. In the evening he went home and made a table of contents.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he studied radio and film at Boston University and got his first full-time job as an ad salesman for the alternative weekly newspaper Boston Phoenix. Page loved magazines. He dreamed of running his own one day. The goal has always been Rolling Stone. Page was working for another rock'n'roll magazine, Circus, in 1980 when Stanley Harris called. Harris was the founder of Harris Publications, a New York-based publisher that started out with a portfolio of special interest magazines in 1977. They had puzzle books and monthly magazines on topics ranging from gardening to guns. Page was offered a job to run a new guitar magazine. It was a chance to run a magazine, even if it wasn't Rolling Stone.

"I didn't know anything about playing the guitar," said Page. “But I was good at advertising and publishing. So I said yes. "

He became editor of Guitar World, which appeared on newsstands in 1980 and became the number one guitar magazine. The success of the publication earned him a lot of goodwill from Harris. Page kept looking for the next idea. He convinced Harris to start another magazine in 1987. It was called New York Talk.

"We launched it during a huge snowstorm and couldn't get the issue to the kiosks," recalled Page. "It was an omen of failure."

The magazine borrowed from the concepts of the Village Voice and East Village Eye and covered the local news as well as the New York film, television and music scenes. The kiosk was all about taking a successful idea that you liked and improving it yourself. Many of these publications failed, including New York Talk, which collapsed after three years.

Page's new magazine idea, inspired by his conversation with Grunblatt, was more in line with his interests. He fell in love with basketball in sixth grade watching a high school student named Lew Alcindor, became a high school and college hoops junkie, watched streetball legends in New York playgrounds, and joined the NBA craze throughout the era of Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and Magical Johnson.

But he couldn't find the table of contents.

"I started out by building a hip-hop magazine about basketball," explained Page.

He had the two components in the wrong order.

Another lightbulb moment struck.

It would be a basketball magazine with a hip-hop voice, not the other way around.

It would look like vibe.

It would read like The Source.

He introduced the idea to Harris, who asked him to get it at the kiosks right away.

Page needed an editor in chief. He called Village Voice editor Tom Curtis, who said no, but recommended Time Inc. writer Cory Johnson, a St. Joseph, Michigan native who studied journalism at NYU and wrote for a number of magazines, including Sports Illustrated , People and TIME.

"Tom told me that this guy who does Guitar World was going to start a new basketball magazine and asked if I had any ideas," Johnson recalled. “I said, 'Abso-fuckng-lute-ly, I've got ideas.' I was just learning how to make magazines. I did that all day. "

A meeting was scheduled at a French bistro restaurant called Raoul & # 39; s in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. Johnson sat down and presented his vision to Page. Growing up he read a lot of Marvel comics and loved the way comic book writer Stan Lee engaged the readers behind each of them. Responding to fan letters, Lee sent no-prizes – an empty envelope that became a joke with readers – to anyone who wrote to him about continuity errors or typos. Johnson wanted the magazine to involve its readers in the letter area first.

“I came up with a pretty thoughtful plan,” he recalls. “Up front would be short features like the Intelligencer section of New York Magazine. There are one-sided profiles like Interview magazine. The feature area would be in the style of Vanity Fair. The sections on the back would be devoted to the angles around the business of the tires. I wanted the last page of the magazine to be a dunk of the month.

“I wanted it to feel like surfer magazine. I loved this magazine so much that I taught myself to surf. Her ideal was: surfing wasn't about the celebrities at the top of the pyramid who did it, it was about the everyday experience of the sport. I always thought Sports Illustrated had this pyramid when it came to basketball where they didn't love the game but loved the game's heroes instead. Your editors thought it was all about the stars, not the game itself. I wanted to turn that approach on its head. I wanted the magazine to cover the experience we all had playing basketball. Sports Illustrated was only about Michael Jordan. I wanted us to do basketball. "

There was one last thing they had to find out together.

A name for the magazine.

The two threw out every basketball-related term they could think of.

Crossover.

Dribble.

Jam.

Neither of them felt right.

You eventually landed on SLAM.

Johnson was hired and hired as the magazine's editor-in-chief. "I would check out a murder story for People and get a call from Dennis," Johnson said. “I got into a cab, raced downtown to approve a layout, and then raced back. It was like moving in with my new girlfriend without telling my existing girlfriend. "

The page has been tossed to accommodate ads in the magazine. Today he credits The Source and Vibe for making his job easier back then. Page didn't have to explain what hip-hop was to advertisers. Guitar World's art director Susan Conley designed the magazine layout. Johnson shared stories with people he knew in the industry including basketball writer and New York street ball historian Vincent Mallozzi, people reporter Nancy Jo Sales, and Vibe editor Bonz Malone. He has also written a few stories himself and ascribed them to invented names in the imprint. "I wanted to make it look like a real magazine because just a few other people and I were working on it," said Johnson. “Russell Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief in the legal notice, that's me. Russell was my best friend in the church. Shoemaker was my godfather's last name. I just put their names together. "

Page shudders at some of the stories today, particularly a SLAM NBA All-White Team feature in which the magazine interviews white players from across the league and nominated Chris Mullin, Dan Majerle, Detlef Schrempf, Tom Gugliotta, John Stockton and Rony Seikaly Has. Scott Hastings, a White Power striker from Independence, Kansas who played 11 seasons in the NBA, nominated Karl Malone who failed to make the team. "The guy drives a diesel and raises cattle," he explained. "It doesn't get any whiter than that."

Business journalist Andy Serwer flew to Charlotte, North Carolina and wrote the cover story on Larry Johnson. The Hornets striker was one of the league's most exciting up-and-coming stars. Johnson was first named overall by Charlotte in 1991 and won Rookie of the Year after averaging 19.2 points and 11.0 rebounds in his first season. He played an over-the-rim game and was a product of a UNLV team that had a hip-hop aesthetic. Johnson was a signature sneaker athlete at Converse, starring a gray wig and floral dress as Grandma, an older female alter-ego, in a number of popular commercials. It fit the profile of what SLAM envisioned as their ideal cover story.

The first issue was finally ready for the kiosk.

The cover featured a photo of Johnson blown in the air in Charlotte's famous white and teal shirt. The basketball in his right hand sat just above the magazine's logo. Above the logo was the slogan of THE IN YOUR FACE BASKETBALL MAGAZINE. The caption read LARRY JOHNSON, LIVIN ’LARGE! Cover lines filled the rest of the cover, including BARKLEY: KING WITHOUT A CROWN; Killer blocks! SHAQ, ROBINSON, SORRY, OLAJUWON & MORE; JASON KIDD’S KRAZY MAD MOVES; KENTUCKY'S BLUE Madness; SLAMBOYANT SNEAKS; and SLAMADAMONTH! Each caption was a way to get a potential reader to pick up the magazine.

Page waited to see if anyone was interested in his new project.

"That was the business back then," he explained. “There was no internet, no Instagram or Facebook. The kiosk was the real test of whether there was a community interested in your idea. We would have three problems to test if there was an audience. If it were sold we would keep it going. If not, then we wouldn't. "

There were some concerns about starting a basketball magazine immediately after Jordan's retirement, but they were allayed when Harris brought some excellent news. Kiosk sales were strong enough for SLAM to continue. A second issue appeared on newsstands in October 1994 with Seattle Supersonics striker Shawn Kemp on the cover. Johnson was replaced by Tony Gervino in the masthead three months later when Shaquille O'Neal appeared on the cover of the third issue of the magazine. He had accepted a job offer to become Vibe Senior Editor.

"We sold more copies of our first issue than they did," said Johnson. “You spent about $ 15 million to get it to market. We spent $ 100,000. I was called into their office and they asked me, “How did you do that?” I explained how the magazine works and what our editorial focus was. They asked me if I would be interested in becoming a senior editor. I figured that at some point I would have a chance at the role of editor-in-chief, so I took the plunge. "

Even today he is proud to have left his successors with an editorial draft.

"The magazine certainly looked better in the years after I left," said Johnson. “But the fact that it is still largely the same ideas that I brought to the table makes me extremely happy and tells me that I have done a lot of things right. I didn't get it right because I was a genius. I got it right because something was wrong with the way magazines cover sports. "

***

WHEN YOU SCAN THE FIRST THREE EDITIONS OF SLAM Today you will find that the covers are not from original photoshoots. The photos of the early covers were licensed by the NBA. "None of the players would pose for us," said Page. “We had to buy existing photographs at the very beginning.” SLAM had the vision of one day following the example of Rolling Stone. Founder and editor Jann Wenner was a 21-year-old dropout from UC Berkeley who couldn't get anyone to take their music writing seriously when he scraped $ 7,500 from family and friends and the San Francisco Chronicle writer Ralph J. Gleason in 1967 convinced to help him he put together a new magazine. In the same year, the first issue of Rolling Stone appeared on newsstands, with John Lennon of The Beatles on the cover. The magazine debuted at the height of the hippie movement and became the definitive counterculture magazine of its era, introducing a new generation of artists to the world including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In his first column, Wenner described Rolling Stone as "a publication not only about music, but also about the things and attitudes that music encompasses". The magazine drew writers from obscure places and turned them into voices that shape culture. Your photographers have captured formative images of a whole generation of rock stars. The portrait photography of the magazine's cover pictures sets the standard for any other publication. To be selected for the Rolling Stone cover was the greatest honor for any music artist.

"Jann broke the mold of alternative magazine publishing," said Page. “In my opinion, they changed print publishing. The way Rolling Stone photographed their covers provided the vision for every magazine that came after them. Nobody has shot at athletes like this before and we wanted to be the first. We'd be lucky if we could do a cover that is a tenth as good as Rolling Stone. "

When SLAM released its first edition, Rolling Stone was no longer a cultural force at the newsstand. Once bursting with creative energy, the magazine grew into a $ 250 million conglomerate in the 1980s and lost the qualities that made it up. The Rolling Stone cover increasingly became the landing place for established celebrities and was no longer the birthplace for new stars. One writer who joined the magazine in 1993 compared his new job to showing up for the party just in time to see a cigarette soaring in the last cocktail of the evening.

SLAM's goal was to become the modern day basketball version of Rolling Stone, embodying the same rebellious streak that spawned rock ’n’ roll magazine three decades earlier.

But they had to find their voice first.

Cover story: The NBA and modern basketball as told on the most iconic magazine covers reprinted with permission from Triumph Books. All rights reserved.

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