As ceilings go, the one in the Sistine Chapel is right up there at the top, which is where a good ceiling should be.

The folks at the Vatican could have gone for something understated, maybe an off-white, but instead they hired Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling with nine episodes from the Book of Genesis. It worked, and for nearly 500 years tourists have been standing beneath it, staring up, feeling a sense of profound awe and a stiff neck.

But 500 years is a long time for any paint job, so it's probably a good thing that Sports Illustrated has decorated the cover of its superb 50th anniversary issue with a lovely four-page fold-out of a new, re-imagined, sports-themed Sistine Chapel ceiling, featuring God, Babe Ruth, Howard Cosell and other religious figures.

This Sistine of sport, created by illustrator Jeff Wong, is reprinted inside the magazine, along with annotations that explain the parallels between the old and new ceilings. Where Michelangelo painted Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Wong drew baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti ejecting Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson from the Hall of Fame. Where Michelangelo painted "The Punishment of Haman," Wong draws "The Curse of the Red Sox," with Bill Buckner muffing Mookie Wilson's grounder in the 1986 World Series.

And so on.

It's a lot of fun and so is the rest of this anniversary issue. SI does not succumb to the temptation to take itself or its subject matter too seriously. Jeff MacGregor sets the perfect tone in his introductory essay:

"Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary. The goal of which is to do something that doesn't need doing better than someone else can do it."

That's true, and well put. But of course the unnecessary is an absolute necessity for us humans, which is why we invented sports, art, fashion, music, TV, philosophy, beer, crossword puzzles and chocolate chip cookies. Plus the Sistine Chapel and Sports Illustrated.

In this issue, SI takes a playful look back at the last half century in sports. There are nods to Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and other great athletes, of course, but there's also a tribute to some of sport's great oddballs, like Gilles Gratton, the hockey goalie who believed in reincarnation and once asked to sit out a game because he'd injured his leg in the Franco-Prussian War.

There's also a compendium of quotes from past SI stories written by literary hotshots -- Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. But, if truth be told, the prose of these pros is nowhere near as wise or funny as "They Said It," a collection of goofy quotes uttered by athletes over the last 50 years.

"Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa," said Pirates pitcher Bob Veale in 1966.

"The word genius isn't applicable in football," said Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman in 1992. "A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

"I don't have the first clue who he is talking about," Seattle SuperSonics center Jerome James said in 2003, when his coach accused him of being selfish, "because all I worry about is Jerome."

Also included is a poll of SI readers, which reveals that 30 percent of men and 46 percent of women agreed with this statement: "I'd rather watch a big playoff game than have sex."

That statistic might seem depressing until you get to another statistic on the same page: 31 percent of SI readers agreed with the statement "I've had sex while watching a sporting event."

Which proves that you don't have to choose between sex and the playoffs. You can have both. At the same time. Ain't life grand?

Cash's Unlikely Fellowship

By the time country singer Johnny Cash met rap producer Rick Rubin in 1993, Cash thought his recording career was over. But -- as David Kamp shows in a moving story in the October issue of Vanity Fair -- the men's collaboration led to some of greatest recordings in Cash's career and perhaps in the history of country music. It also led to a deep friendship with an unexpected religious component.

It was an unlikely pairing. Cash, who died last September, was an aging country star from Arkansas, a recovering addict and a devout Christian. Rubin was a young rap and rock producer from New York, a bearded, long-haired Jewish vegan who'd never touched drugs. But the men shared two common interests -- music and religion -- and that was enough to jump-start Cash's moribund creativity.

"You could see that their connection went back into the mists of time somewhere," Cash's daughter, Rosanne, told Kamp. "Like these guys didn't just meet 11 years ago."

Rubin had a simple idea: Instead of making an elaborate studio recording, he sat Cash down in his living room and encouraged him to sing his favorite songs with no accompaniment except his own guitar. It worked, and the result was the Grammy-winning 1994 album "American Recordings."

After that, Rubin introduced Cash to an eclectic collection of modern rock songs -- Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Trent Reznor's "Hurt," among others. Rubin thought that Cash, with his deep, resonant, seen-it-all voice, could make the songs his own. He was right. Their collaboration yielded four more astonishing albums, including "American V," which comes out this fall.

The story of this musical collaboration has been told before. What's new about Kamp's piece is that it reveals the religious nature of their friendship. Rubin is a spiritual seeker who reads widely in religious texts from around the world. Cash also had a deep interest in comparative religion, and the two men engaged in long, intense spiritual discussions. These talks led to an odd but moving ritual: Every day for the last few months of his life, Cash -- wheelchair-bound and nearly blind -- would call his Jewish friend and lead him through the liturgy of the Christian ritual of Communion.

"Even after he passed away, I continued doing this with him," Rubin told Kamp. "As time has gone on, it's a little harder to do. But I still do it."