Sports Illustrated’s selection of LeBron James as our 2016 Sportsperson of the Year has been met with some disagreement by readers who favored any of the other worthy candidates, such as a member of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs or Olympic stars Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps.
James’ credentials are obvious: The Cavaliers' do-everything forward delivered on his promise to bring the city of Cleveland its first major pro sports championship in over 50 years and reclaimed his throne as the best player in the country’s hottest sport. So, too, though is the fact that the choice won’t generate anywhere near as much debate either outside or, especially, inside SI than the one made 10 years ago, which remains a frequent topic of discussion at SI and perhaps the most controversial selection in the award's 63-year history.
In 2006, then-SI Group Editor Terry McDonell chose Dwyane Wade as Sportsman of the Year. It was certainly a defensible pick. Wade, then 24, had carried the Miami Heat to their first NBA title by averaging 34.7 points per game in the Finals against the Mavericks while at the same time being lauded as one of sports’ best ambassadors for his charity work and good-guy persona.
The consensus among staffers, however, and the expectation of many outside observers was that another athlete who combined exceptional skill and grace deserved to be SI’s pick that year: Roger Federer. The peerless Swiss tennis star had a season that some consider the best in that sport’s history, winning 92 of his 97 matches overall, 12 singles titles and three of the four Grand Slams (losing the final in the fourth, the French Open, to Rafael Nadal).
Then, as now, other staffers could offer opinions and the decision could be debated from multiple angles in meetings big and small, but the decision ultimately rests with the person running SI. For a decade worth of Sportsman picks, from 2002 to ’11, that person was McDonell, who had come to SI after having been the top editor at both Esquire and Rolling Stone, among other notable publications.
Today the final verdict on Sportsperson falls to Chris Stone, the Editorial Director of Sports Illustrated. In 2006 Stone was the magazine's NBA editor and says, "I did support the choice of Wade. You often become an advocate for the sport that you’re attached to. I fully expected Federer, actually, to be the Sportsperson and I offered Wade up as the suggestion at one point because he was the most obvious candidate within my beat at the time.”
Not everyone was so understanding. "I do remember it did come up in some meetings and when it became clear that we were leaning toward Wade over Federer it created a lot of internal awkwardness," says Stone.
One alleged staffer went so far as to write an anonymous post on the message board sportsjournalists.com under the name "Moger," ripping both the selection of Wade and the man who made it. McDonell knew nothing of that post at the time and says now of the criticism, "That tells me this person didn't know me or work with me."
McDonell also caught heat for the decision from the outside. He went on WFAN’s popular Mike and the Mad Dog radio show and parried with the hosts on the matter, partly over their suggestion that Federer was not chosen because he supposedly would not be able to attend SI’s party to honor the winner, held in mid-December. McDonell rejected that assertion then and today denies that he would have offered to give Federer the award if he would show up at the event. “That would have been insane,” he says. “I couldn’t allow myself to get in a position where I would say ‘You get it if you do this.’ I was very conscious of that.”
The irony is that Wade didn’t attend the ceremony either. A toothache that had sent him to the dentist four times in five days and caused him to have a tooth pulled prevented him from traveling to New York, so instead Stone went to Wade’s house in south Florida with a camera crew to present him the award and have the video shown at the event.
Another irony: Neither Wade nor Federer was the betting favorite to be picked as Sportsman. In mid-November, just weeks before the announcement, the betting website sportsbook.com listed Tiger Woods, who had won both the British Open and the PGA Championship and was already a two-time Sportsman of the Year pick, as the 5-2 favorite to win yet again. Federer was next at 5-1, followed by Wade (7-1) and the Miami Heat (7-1).
Wade didn't expect to win either, telling reporters after the announcement that he was "shocked," especially given the strong years by Woods and Federer. The tennis community was even more surprised. Andy Roddick, then a rival of Federer’s on tour, said on a radio show at the time, “I’ll tell you the answer nobody wants to hear: It’s that he’s not American. It’s an American publication. I promise you, if I won three Grand Slams I’d be considered a lot more. I think it’s based on selling magazines.”
That’s not completely wrong. McDonell recently acknowledged the financial pressures facing publications even then and said “if we could do one or the other on the newsstand and save a job” it would be a factor, though he added, “The idea that I ran that magazine in any way that was corrupt or corrupting I have to say that’s really bull----.”
SI senior writer S.L. Price, who wrote the Sportsman cover story on Wade in the Dec. 11, 2006 issue, says, "Terry is going to be considered the villain in this and that's wrong. He was trying to save jobs and make money. He wanted to sell magazines and create buzz and tennis did neither."
Price and his fellow SI tennis writer, Jon Wertheim, have heard plenty of disagreement about the pick. Wertheim, now a deputy managing editor at SI, said, “This has been a source of ribbing with Federer and his camp, but for Federer—being the mensch that he is—it’s never been the basis for declining an interview or anything like that. Also, I should point this out: Not once did he denigrate Dwyane Wade or question his bona fides.”
“At the time there were people really pissed off in tennis," says Price. "Everybody in tennis is pretty polite, but there was certainly outrage that Federer hadn’t gotten it. The tennis community took it as a slap at their sport. But it’s a niche sport that’s been attempting to break out and be a major sport ever since the tennis boom [of the 1970s]. That was an anomaly and it fooled many in the sport into thinking it could be as big as basketball or baseball."
“It’s not that I wasn’t a tennis fan or was overwhelmingly in favor of basketball,” says McDonell. “I thought, you know, maybe Federer would get it the next year, although it’s always dangerous to plan ahead.”
Federer did have another Sportsman-worthy year in ’07, again winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and losing the French Open finals to Rafael Nadal. But he missed out on SI’s honor again, which this time went to Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
That decision never comes up at SI's Manhattan headquarters, but the 2006 choice of Wade is still talked about in the halls. “The overwhelming sentiment was to go with Federer," remembers Stone. "I think it created some nastiness internally.”
“You know the other thing I remember from this?,” says Stone. “I think as the Finals MVP Toyota was a sponsor of it. And he won a truck for being the MVP of the Finals from Toyota, because I was at the clinching game where he received this. And when the camera crew and I got to his home [to present the award] a couple of hours early and we didn’t have much to do, I was wandering around the grounds and I looked out back and it was the truck. He had given it away. He had given it away to, I don’t know if it was the gardener or the maintenance crew, because the back was just filled with rakes and shovels. He put it to good use. Car still looked great.”
So does Wade, who has gone on to build a Hall of Fame career, making 12 All-Star teams and winning two more NBA titles, thanks in part to a certain former Miami teammate who is the only NBA player since then to be named Sportsperson of the Year. A tennis star did finally win the award, but it was Serena Williams, in 2015. The business pressures alluded to at the time of Wade’s selection were real. Just six weeks after the announcement of Wade as SOTY, Time Inc. announced company-wide layoffs that affected dozens of SI’s edit staffers.
McDonell left SI in 2012, the same year he was inducted into the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame, and recently wrote a book called The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers. Stone, who has been at SI for 24 years, says Wade-over-Federer remains “easily the most controversial [Sportsperson pick] and easily the one that generated the most ill will.”
There is at least one person who has never seemed to care: Roger Federer. “He’s a gentleman,” says Stone, who adds with a laugh, “He has people on his payroll to get mad at decisions like this.”