Sports Illustrated continues to lose its identity

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A smattering of sports media thoughts while daydreaming of a sports channel dedicated to showing the 1985-86 Celtics season in its entirety …

Sports Illustrated was one of the legacy sports media brands — if not the brand —for generations. But it has endured a brutal bloodletting of staff in recent years, and it officially ceased all pretense of attempting to save its reputation last November when its new ownership, the execrable The Maven, cut the magazine down to 17 annual issues — one per month, plus five special editions. That came a month after half of its editorial staff was laid off. It felt like the end.

It wasn’t. Staffers that remained continued to pump out quality work, even as The Maven disingenuously attempted to maximize the remainder of Sports Illustrated’s reputation into convincing readers that it intended to be more than a soulless click-chasing content farm in the long run.

Anyone who fell for that guise presumably saw the harsh light this past week when ownership, citing declining revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic, laid off several more employees, including writers Chris Ballard and Jack Dickey, and editor Sarah Kwak. The pandemic almost certainly expedited the cuts, but shedding talent to save a buck is what the Mavenized version of Sports Illustrated was always going to be best known for.

It’s a very strange time to have some personal news, but today was my last day at Sports Illustrated. I’m beyond grateful for my coworkers — past and present — who have become my best friends, and for the many stories I was lucky enough to tell

— thewilderthings (@TheWilderThings) April 3, 2020

The loss of Ballard in particular was telling. His ability to merge elegant writing and rigorous reporting, as former colleague Tim Layden put it on Twitter, “has been as good as any writer who worked for SI, going back as far as you like.”

I recommend checking out his author’s page on SI.com — a simple Google search for his name and Sports Illustrated will get you there — and digging into profiles on NBA burnout Robert Swift, late 49ers receiver Dwight Clark as he battled ALS, and former 76ers “The Process” mastermind Sam Hinkie, just for starters.

Ballard was always a beacon of what SI was at its best. His departure is a reminder of what its ugly ownership intends for it to be going forward.

Brutal hit

The Boston Herald sports department was always a rival, of course, the feisty tabloid duking it out with the Globe’s more serious broadsheet. But as you’ve probably noticed when reporters from the two papers appear on sports radio or television shows together, the rivalry often takes its form as a respectful friendship.

Those bonds of many late nights at the arenas and on the road have only grown as the newspaper industry has dealt with the relentless crises of changing reader habits, shriveled advertising revenue, and assorted financial issues.

When the news broke Thursday that the Herald newsroom had taken another brutal hit in layoffs, it was easy to sympathize from this side of the street. A two-newspaper town is good for everyone. Vibrant, competitive sports sections are part of Boston’s fabric.

After Thursday’s bloodletting, which included the dismissal of promising Bruins reporter Marisa Ingemi, the Herald’s sports department is down to just 10 staffers, all reporters. Sports editor Justin Pelletier was also let go. Sad times for a rival, and a rivalry.

Right calls

Steve Buckley of The Athletic this past week put together a ranking of the 20 best calls in Boston sports history.

Can’t have a beef with the top three — Johnny Most’s “Havlicek stole the ball!”, Al Michaels’s “Intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler!”, and Dan Kelly’s “Bobby Orr, behind the net to Sanderson, to Orr …”

But Joe Castiglione’s call of the final out of the 2004 World Series was way overranked at No. 4. It was good, but Joe Buck’s call on the Fox broadcast (“Back to Foulke. Red Sox fans have longed to hear it: The Boston Red Sox are world champions!”) was much better. Castiglione’s call wasn’t any more special or energetic than his call of other can-you-believe it moments along the way.

NBC Sports Boston has done a nice job with its vintage Celtics telecasts, adding the element of Brian Scalabrine conducting a video conversation with someone involved in the game during breaks in play. Danny Ainge was funny and insightful on the recent broadcast of Michael Jordan’s 63-point game against the eventual champion Celtics in 1986. Bill Walton popped up Friday night to talk about the Celtics’ championship-clinching win over the Rockets, and it’s always a delight to hear him talk about the joy he had playing for that team … A couple of retro programming highlights for the coming week. ESPN will salute classic victories in the Masters. The final round of Jack Nicklaus’s legendary come-from-behind win in 1986 will air Wednesday at 3 p.m. The final round of Tiger Woods’s first Masters win in 1997 will air in prime time (7:30 p.m.) on Thursday. The final round of his win in 2005 will be broadcast Friday at 6 p.m. … NFL RedZone will replay every Sunday program from the 2019 season in chronological order for 17 straight days starting Monday. The shows will air at 8 a.m., 3 p.m., and 10 p.m.