Glory Days, the new book from L. Jon Wertheim, chronicles the summer of 1984, one of the most pivotal stretches in sports history.
There are certain periods of time when events of massive importance seem to all happen at once. According to longtime Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim, for the sports world, the summer of 1984 was one of those times. In the span of 90 days, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off in the NBA Finals for the first time, David Stern became the NBA’s new commissioner, and Michael Jordan led the United States to Olympic gold, and that’s only what happened in basketball! In Wertheim’s new book, Glory Days, he chronicles several other occasions from throughout the summer that “would set the course for sports for the next half century.”
Wertheim writes that these three months were “filled with signature events, sweeping social trends, and outsized personalities.” It is those events, trends, and personalities that he chronicles throughout Glory Days. Readers will get glimpses of the tremendously successful 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles which became “the most viewed event in television history,” along with that year’s NBA Draft which brought four future Hall of Famers into the league. Readers will also witness the karate craze that spawned in the wake of the success of The Karate Kid. They will encounter characters like Mike Tyson as he fails to make the Olympic team, Vince McMahon as he takes wrestling to new heights, and John McEnroe whose run of dominance on the tennis court peaked that summer.
Glory Days explains the summer of 1984 as the beginning of Michael Jordan’s legend
A third of the book’s 24 chapters are devoted to Michael Jordan who burst into even greater public consciousness after three terrific years at North Carolina. Throughout the book, we get a sense of Jordan before he conquered the world, Jordan as a young man with lots of ambition and talent but not yet different from his peers in any essential way. Readers will see him trying out for the Olympic squad, getting drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and dominating the world in Los Angeles before signing a pivotal deal with Nike that would forever change the way athletes are marketed. This focus on Jordan is understandable since he, in Wertheim’s words “redefined the model of the superstar athlete” but with so many books and movies already made about Jordan, it does at times feel unnecessary in spite of how vital his story is to Wertheim’s thesis.
More interesting, or at least more novel, are the other chapters that focus on stories that will be new to many readers. Even those who were not alive during the summer chronicled here will be aware of Michael Jordan and how he changed the sports world, but far fewer will remember the Chicago Cubs making the postseason for the first time in 39 years and the wild glory of the “Sandberg Game,” making that section feel much more vital by comparison.
Perhaps the best chapters are the ones where Wertheim hones in on things that happened that summer whose immediate impact may have not been evident. For example, there is a portrait of a not-yet-successful ESPN, when no one was quite sure how to make the fledgling network profitable right before ABC purchased it that spring, ensuring the channel’s survival. Of course, while that was a relatively momentous move for ESPN, no one could have predicted just how important it would go on to be as it grew into a multibillion-dollar entity and one of the most influential media companies in the world.
He also writes about the June 1984 Supreme Court ruling which allowed individual schools to create their own TV deals rather than being at the whims of the NCAA. It was a ruling that enabled college sports to earn more money than previously imagined and become “its own industry, increasingly divorced from the rest of the university.” At the time, ABC’s acquisition of ESPN and the Supreme Court’s decision may have looked important to a few parties already invested in the worlds of sports media or college athletics but hardly anyone could have imagined the full impact that these events would have in the coming decades. Highlighting such moments is where Glory Days shines the brightest.
One thing that could have improved this book, or at least given it a sense of greater depth, would have been a more thorough analysis of what it was that made the world of sports ripe for a transition into big business on such a large scale. Readers get the sense that several important things occurred during this brief period, but despite the book’s hopping from sport to sport, it can occasionally feel like its scope is too narrow. What were the broader cultural forces at work that enabled all this to occur? Why was the world of sports so ripe for transformation? Failing to address questions is a missed opportunity, though the able detailing of the events’ consequences helps make up for it.
Wertheim may not entirely succeed at showcasing that the summer of 1984 was “the summer that sports officially became entertainment,” but that has more to do with an overambitious thesis than the quality of the book itself. Glory Days is a fun, nostalgia-filled romp through a summer when many momentous changes occurred in the world of sports — some obvious and clear at the time, others that would not become evident for years to come. Anyone alive during that time will have a fun time reliving these moments while younger sports fans will surely learn much about how the games they love so much came to exist in their current form.