"There is no path or recipe to greatness," we wrote in our debut issue. "We simply know it when we see it." Yeah, about that: We indeed saw a lot of greats coming the past two decades, from LeBron and Serena to Chloe Kim and Baker Mayfield. Scored a few notable firsts while we were at it, like making Ninja the first gamer on a national magazine cover. (We'll say it: Kind of genius!) But regrets, we have a few of those too. Kaz Matsui: Really? Ryan Leaf: Seriously? Quadtrine Hill: Like, who? Here's the thing, though: Even when we were whiffing wildly, we were having wild fun doing it. We hope you had fun along with us. So join us as we take one last ride through our 21-year history, one big swing at a time.
Appeared on the most covers (8) in the first decade of The Mag (three in '98, two in '99, two in '01, one in '08)
HIT: In 1997, Tiger claimed his first Green Jacket. A year later, all we could talk about was whether he'd claim another. Now, 22 years later, we're still asking the same damn question. Have we truly not advanced as a species?!
MISS: "In 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Peyton Manning, will be ... in Canton." Yes, we actually wrote that!
First coach on the cover
Jackson remembers: "It must have been one of my favorite photographers that talked me into this shot. Yes, I meditate, but really, a photo shoot?"
HIT: Post-MJ, The Mag hyped Tim as the NBA's next star. We = smart! Five titles, 15 All-Defensive Teams later, he's the top power forward of all time.
Gabrielle Reece and Mike O'Malley
First woman and first actor on the cover
Reece remembers: "I got a lot of calls on that one. It was all my guy friends calling. 'I saw you!' I knew what magazine they saw me on. They're not looking at Harper's Bazaar."
O'Malley remembers: "Being on the cover was awesome. I put it in a frame to hang up. Right now it's in the garage. No offense. I don't have that big of an office."
First collegiate athlete on the cover
Brand remembers: "I remember doing pushups to try to get my muscles to pop out. I was 18 or 19 and it was said I still had baby fat."
First race car driver on the cover
Gordon remembers: "They definitely had a vision for this cover. And it was a vision that took a lot of effort on their part before it convinced me!"
HIT: Few trades resonated like the Saints shipping eight picks for Williams. The union fizzled three years later, but Ricky ... sizzled: 10,009 career yards and 66 TDs.
HIT: We wrote that KG "speaks only when spoken to." OK, so we sure got that wrong. But his skill set changed the NBA forever.
Fastest person on the cover
Greene remembers: "There was no petting. I was told not to make any sudden moves. Just be there, get the shots and then get out."
First music group on the cover
Tallest person on the cover
HIT: How much court has Venus crushed since her first Mag feature? Five singles majors and 10 doubles trophies alongside sister Serena.
HIT: By 2001, Dirk -- 14-time All-Star and surefire Hall of Famer -- was a poster child for why NBA teams needed bigger scouting departments.
HIT: "Who knows what Brady will do for an encore," we wrote after Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe. Well, we come from the future! And we know! Six rings, 70,514 passing yards, 517 TDs.
HIT: Boy, did we get this one right! We put Serena on our cover after she won her third major, and all she's done since is win another 20. The leader in prize money ($90M) and Open-era majors, no woman athlete has graced our cover more. G-O-A-T.
HIT: Back in 2002, Johnson just wanted to keep up with his mentor, Jeff Gordon. Then he passed him: seven championships and 83 wins. Boom, confetti!
HIT: Even though you could watch him as a high schooler on PPV, LeBron surpassed all the hype we could hurl his way: 4 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, 9 Finals appearances, 3 NBA titles. Still, we ask ... whither the headband?
Michelle Wie and Diana Taurasi
Youngest athlete (Wie, 13) and first women's hoops star (Taurasi) on the cover
Taurasi remembers: "I have one framed in my house. It's one of those iconic things where 20 years from now it'll be cool to be on that cover with those three women."
HIT: A gift from God? We stand by it. Sixteen years later, the three-time MVP is the sixth man to amass 500 homers and 3,000 hits.
MISS: We named him "one of the top five shortstops on the planet." Twenty-three errors in '04 later, he was moved to second.
HIT: In Melo's rookie year, we paired him with Jay-Z. Clever! One made music. The other, buckets.
Most decorated male Olympian on the cover
Phelps remembers: "As a kid who dreamt of winning a gold medal or being on the cover of a magazine, to see it actually come true, it's just such a neat thing to look back on and appreciate now."
HIT: We boarded the Fitz train early, while there were still seats. Now he's third in catches-and rising.
From the story: "I told him, 'You've got hands like Jerry Rice.' Larry said, 'What? I got better hands than Jerry Rice.'" -- Then-Pitt DB Reggie Carter
First (and only) solo animal on the cover
MISS: OK, so Milicic compared himself to a young KG in our feature. While it's not the best comp, Darko did win a ring in 2004.
HIT: After the first of his nine Mag covers, the point guard would be an All-American his sophomore year at Wake Forest. Now he's naked in our last issue. Circle of life, people!
HIT: Named Next as an OU frosh, AP has made seven Pro Bowls and won the 2012 MVP after rushing for 2,097 yards.
First x games athlete on the cover
Hoffman remembers: "I don't think any of us in action sports thought we would be on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. So everyone who saw it was like, 'What the hell?'"
Stewie and Peter, "Family Guy"
First cartoon on the cover
First woman race car driver on the cover
HIT: This one took a while. We watched the Caps lose in the playoffs year after year. But fear not! They won their first Cup in '18, and a joyous Ovi imbibed ... for weeks.
John John Florence
HIT: Who knew this Oahu native would, less than 13 years after this story, become one of the world's best Pipe surfers, with back-to-back world titles. Oh right, we knew! So braggy!
From the story" "He was a freak show. The best ever for his age." --Petey Johnson, then-surf team manager
HIT: "Think T-Mac with midterms," we wrote of the "6-foot-9 jumping-jack." Astonishingly, that undersold KD. The only NBA players in history to match Durant's career stat line of 27/7/4? Elgin Baylor, LeBron and Wilt.
From the story: "Kevin is the best recruit we have ever had." --Then-Longhorns coach Rick Barnes
MISS: An impulse buy, we said, off a stunning Sugar Bowl. But his absurd physical tools lasted all of three NFL seasons in a career born of a holdout.
First MMA fighter on the cover
Liddell remembers: "It was a big sign for our sport of how far we'd come and where we were heading."
MISS: We were hatin' just a bit in 2007 with this headline. And, of course, Fed showed us, winning the 2009 French to complete the grand slam.
MISS: Not one, not two ... but 15 titles. That's what Oden said he wanted. But with injuries ravaging his career, he appeared in all of 105 NBA games.
From the story: "I wish I could say who is going to have the better career, me or Kevin Durant."
HIT: We knew he'd be good -- the skinny guard shot 41 percent from 3 at Davidson. But two MVPs and three titles good? Not sure anyone saw that!
MISS: Joba allowed just one earned run in 19 games his first season. He was a sensation. But after those midges on the mound in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS, he was never the same.
HIT: We tabbed the UCLA big as a future '08 rook to watch. And since '08-09? Love is one of three players with 10,000 points and 7,000 boards.
Jerrod Fields and Anthony Burruto
First amputees on the cover
From the story: "If we can adjust rules of sports to the time, why not for prosthetics? Create a panel of scientists and athletes, able-bodied and disabled, and ask them to determine what's fair." --Writer Eric Adelson
HIT: An unsanctioned street fighter before his runs in boxing and MMA, Slice was a marginal talent. But in star power? Few could touch him.
HIT: Thus began Rodgers' reign as the best QB in the world: best passer rating in history, 338 TDs and just 80 INTs. Damn you, Brett Favre!
HIT: We called 2009 the Year of Lionel Messi a full six months before his first of five Ballon d'Or trophies. Who are we, Nostradamus?
HIT: The Nadal we met was resistant to change. He'd dominated on clay, winning four straight French Opens. Since then: 14 majors, pan-surface. See, change is good!
From the story: "It's important to understand this is only a game. I am lucky: My job is one of my hobbies."
HIT: The golden shoes, 9.69 euphoric seconds. It had been one year since Bolt's Beijing takeover. By the end of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Bolt bid farewell to the Games, hanging up eight golds, world records in three distances and 11 world titles.
First (and only) poker player on the cover
HIT: Griffin's rookie billing? Deliverer of cover-your-head dunks. And though he hurt his knee and missed the 2009-10 season, he became the 2010-11 rookie of the year and a six-time All-Star. Now he even shoots!
MISS: Hill's (brief) football career led to ... a boxing career? We were excited! The results? Less so: just five wins.
HIT: In which we profiled a polarizing young point guard who would go on to rewrite record books and become a polarizing less young point guard.
HIT: We learned that the draft's presumed top pick wanted to play football, but it was too dangerous for his mom's liking. Five All-Star Games later, it looks like --natch! -- Mom knew best.
HIT: Griner, a revelation on the court and off, still dominates nine years later, with a title, six All-Star appearances and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
HIT: His first Mag mention came alongside brothers Dan and Chris in a quiz that asked who knew their mom the best. Gronk may have three Super Bowl rings now, but he finished second on this test. Robbie, call your mom!
MISS: He comped to Steve Young. He was floated as a top pick. Odds were good! Until they weren't. Locker retired at 26 with a 9-14 record.
HIT: Djoker fixed his serve and won three grand slams in a season, capping it by chatting with icon John McEnroe in our Interview Issue.
HIT: When we anointed Cam the obvious choice for Next, we called his talent "transcendent"-like a superhero?-following the most successful rookie season ever for a QB, with 35 total TDs in 2011. To date, the 2015 MVP is the only QB in history with 150 passing and 50 rushing TDs. And Superman? He only just turned 30.
From the story: "I know I have the talent to change this game, and I don't see no ceiling."
HIT: Rousey, after posing in the Body Issue, spent years dispatching UFC foes in nary a minute. We loved it! Her fall, though, was sudden -- like a kick in the face.
HIT: After we marveled over Megatron's "Magic Hands," he used them to set the NFL's all-time record for receiving yards in a season: 1,964.
The Green Bay Packers
MISS: Using AccuScore, we projected the Pack would go 16-0. They went 11-5 ... and AccuScore said we misused their metrics. Clearly!
HIT: The Millville Meteor was a mere 21 but mature beyond his years, amassing WAR faster than anyone else in the modern era. He's, um, stayed good.
HIT: We called the Sixth Man of the Year the key to OKC's future. Harden said: "The loyalty here is second to none." Isn't it ironic, don't you think?
HIT: Irving's stardom was evident in Pablo Torre's first Mag story, in which Kyrie opened his journals to us. Pablo declared Kyrie to be Next. But really, they're both stars now!
MISS: We used "metrics" to "prove" Matt Barkley was a franchise QB. He's since started seven games. Data d'oh
Oldest person (age 77) in the Body Issue.
MISS: RB LeSean McCoy was buying into Chip Kelly's system, becoming a "believer," we said. By late 2015, Kelly was gone. He went 2-14 with
the Niners in 2016 and got fired again.
First (and only) commissioner on the cover.
From the story: "I have talked to other commissioners about [gambling]. All of them have assigned people to study the issue intensively."
MISS: We bought high on pitch-framing -- and called Lucroy more valuable than Mike freakin' Trout. A bit of a stretchhhhhhhh.
MISS: We said the Colts would make the Super Bowl. They ... missed the playoffs. But c'mon! Andrew Luck was out for nine games!
First out action-sports athlete on the cover.
Kenworthy remembers: "I still have kids tell me that that issue and that article is the reason they came out and why people told their parents they were gay, or
why their parents accepted them being gay, or why they were able to feel comfortable with themselves."
HIT: Clemson's hero graced our cover a week before racking up nearly 500 yards in a national title loss to Alabama. He got his revenge in 2017, then passed for 4,000 yards in the NFL in 2018.
HIT: After her history-making turn at UConn, 2016 No. 1 pick Stewart entered the league and promptly was rookie of the year, then 2018 MVP.
From the story: "The more players who come in with higher skill sets, the more attention you can gain." -- Sparks forward Candace Parker
HIT: Curse? We don't know 'bout no stinkin' curse. A month after this cover story on Rizzo, teammate Jon Lester and their battles with cancer, the Cubs won their first Series in more than a century.
HIT: KAT's first cover dived into how a small-ball player in a big man's body could change the game for good. The ROY landed on the All-NBA third team in just his third season.
From the story: "I don't limit myself. If my coach needs me to guard 1 through 5, I have worked tremendously hard to have the ability to do that."
HIT: Thirty-three TDs in his freshman season? Put that man on our cover! And Darnold rewarded our faith: No. 3 pick in '18 -- and enough buzz in Year 2 to have us ... believing in the Jets?
HIT: We put the freestyle phenom on the cover prior to the Olympics and prayed she'd stick the landing for us. Nailed it!
MISS: Rosen was on a cover that read: "The Players That Define the Future of Sports." Huh. He was traded after a year with the Cards and ... might not start this year.
MISS: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan: ready for their title! A year later, sans DDR, the Raps won their title. So we were a year early? Can we do that? Cool, cool.
Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird
First gay couple on the cover.
Bird remembers: "Celebrating athletes' bodies is a wonderful thing, so I was just glad to be a part of that."
First gamer on the cover.
Ninja remembers: "I remember just being really, really, really frickin' excited that no one knew this was coming."
Most decorated American gymnast on the cover.
Biles remembers: "That [image] was about strength and power with a combination of beauty. Just showing how strong a female athlete can be."
HIT: Even as she grapples with the pressure of winning two majors, you simply can't take your eyes off her.
From the story: "I wouldn't be where I am without [Serena]. That's a fact. She opened so many doors for tennis and especially for people of color."
First Browns player on the cover.
From the story: "If you're worried about being understood, you're worried about the wrong things."
Additional reporting by Sam Alipour, Kevin Arnovitz, Sachin Dave Chandan, Wayne Drehs, Charlotte Gibson, Dan Hajducky, Rebecca Hudson, Ryan McGee, Anthony Olivieri, Kevin Pelton, Alyssa Roenigk, Ramona Shelburne and Elaine Teng.