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ESPN The Mag proves “Anything Is Possible” with year-end cover shoot

The shoot for this cover took place Sunday, Dec. 11 in Cleveland. (Mark Williams and Sara Hirakawa for ESPN)
The cover shoot took place Sunday, Dec. 11 in Cleveland.
(Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa for ESPN)

In an effort to summarize a mad, mad year in sports, ESPN The Magazine has conceived the “Anything Is Possible” issue celebrating champions overcoming major obstacles – including the Chicago Cubs finally chasing away the “Curse of the Goat.”

The issue, on newsstands this Friday, features three standout athletes of 2016 on the cover: Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, recently retired Cubs catcher David Ross and Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith.

Assembling these stars and hiring two goats, two wardrobe stylists, two groomers, one set designer and a DJ for the early December cover shoot at “The 9” hotel in soon-to-be snow-covered Cleveland tested the issue’s premise that anything is possible.

For instance, “David was coming from Los Angeles – the redeye before the shoot – as he was committed to doing something there,” deputy photo editor Nancy Weisman said. “I was worried about him getting into snowy Cleveland but alas he arrived. . . landing around 4:45 a.m.”

Front Row spoke with ESPN The Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Alison Overholt, senior deputy editor Neely Lohmann, senior writer Stacey Pressman and Weisman about the year-end issue.

Overholt: This was a crazy year. Unbelievable – and unbelievably cool – things happened on the field of competition, and these three athletes starred in three of the best storylines from the year. Almost as unbelievable was that we could get them together in the middle of a snowstorm in Cleveland to actually shoot this cover. And what resulted was this joyful, gorgeous and completely authentic celebratory image that says everything we want to say about The Magazine issue it covers. I can tell you this for sure: I can’t wait to put that one on my wall. And I can’t wait for what we’ll create next.

Pressman [as she reports in “Behind The Pages” in the Dec. 23 The Mag]: It’s never easy getting three athletes from different sports together for a photo shoot. J.R. Smith is in-season with the Cavs, and Simone Biles was visiting family, so we were two-thirds of the way there. But getting a Cub to return to Cleveland? That seemed impossible.

Luckily, David Ross decided he’d venture back into the one city whose heart he broke and where he isn’t exactly a fan favorite. Upon his arrival, Ross went completely unnoticed. Or so he thought. At a local diner, when Ross tried to pay for a coffee, the manager told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. When people see you today, I don’t think they’re going to be so nice.’

Lohmann: End-of-year covers are always challenging, because there’s this pressure to find a singular way to sum up the entire year. To be honest, we were kind of at a loss. As we discussed the concept of “Anything’s Possible,” we kept coming back to this idea of capturing a crazy, ‘What are the odds?’ type scene that included a motley crew of champs. . . so we assumed we’d have to use an illustration.

The fact that Stacey was able to get J.R., David and Simone together in Cleveland and navigate their schedules is first and foremost a testament to Stacey’s superhuman coordinating skills, but also proves that in 2016, anything really can happen.

Weisman: There is always a story behind the photo people see. When I got the word on Monday that I needed to pull this grand New Year’s Eve type shot together for Sunday, in Cleveland, I had a moment of panic and then I just went into what I call “Bionic Photo Editor mode.” I was very lucky to have secured the crew I did. Everyone that worked on this shoot was a super hero – and the athletes (and goats) – seemed to genuinely enjoy the “party” we created. It was nothing short of a holiday miracle.

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