Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2007”

Having now read both “The Best American Sports Writing of 2010” and “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”, I’ve decided to back-track and read all 19 other volumes of the series, dating back to 1991. There’s no particular order I plan to read them in; “The Best American Sports Writing 2007” was given to me as a gift over a year ago, so it’s the first one I’m tackling.

The “Best American Sports Writing” series is edited by Glenn Stout, with a different volume editor each year. For the 2007 volume, Stout chose Washington Post editor David Maraniss to choose its contents. Maraniss has written several sports books, including a biography of Pittsburgh Pirate and Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente and a look at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but he may be best-known for his coverage of Bill Clinton and the 1992 presidential campaign, which won Maraniss a Pulitzer Prize.

Every volume editor introduces the chosen stories (28) with an original essay; Maraniss’s shifts his in tone midway through. The essay starts with a pseudo-nostalgic look back at how journalism used to be done, and how the permanence of typewriters required far more conceptualization for a story before any words were put to paper. With word processors, essays can be written, re-written, structured and re-structured in moments. While this may give writers more freedom to experiment, it also lets editors make last-second changes without worry. Maraniss concludes that newspaper writing today runs the risk of becoming over-edited, to the point where any style or individual voice is washed out.

Maraniss leaves his diatribe midway, however, to tell a sweet story about his father, and how his father’s teachings affected which stories he chose for the volume. The essay reads as two disparate article squished together, and you finish it (and thus enter the actual articles) in an odd state of mind. When the opening article is about a boy going raccoon hunting, finding a rare albino, killing it, then deciding to toss the carcass in the woods instead of bringing it home, you don’t leave that state of mind for awhile.

Strong Articles From Running to Racing

One of my major complaints about the 2010 volume was that it was over-saturated with articles about injury and death, to the point that an overwhelming sense of despair creeps up on and then overwhelms you. The 2007 volume does not fall into this trap. Yes, there are a few tragic articles, such as Bruce Wallace’s “In Iraq, Soccer Field is No longer a Refuge,” about a budding Iraqi soccer superstar shot dead while going up for a header. But these are the outliers, not the norm, and they’re balanced against stories of recovery or inspiration. John Brant’s “Team Hoyt Starts Again,” about a father who runs marathons with his son, who suffers from cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia, actually gave me goosebumps when I read it. I felt better about the world knowing a father this devoted and a son this determined exist (or existed in 2007).

But even better than Brant’s story is Steve Friedman’s “A Moment of Silence,” a profile of John Moylan, a competitive runner who was in one of the Twin Towers when the planes struck, but survived. This is the best September 11 story I’ve ever read. What makes this story so great is that it doesn’t try to do anything more than tell one man’s story. There’s no infusion of patriotism or nationalism, fake or honest, no exploitation of one man’s story to further a cause. The story is actually kind of pointless: Moylan used to run, survived September 11, found he couldn’t run, then later found he could. So how can a pointless story about September 11 be any good? Because Friedman makes Moylan come alive. Friedman characterizes Moylan as a person who only acted after carefully weighing his options, so that each choice he made was a calculated risk with the least risk for the most reward possible. As he exited the Twin Towers, Moylan saw bodies on the ground, and realized that people on higher floors had to choose between burning alive and jumping to their deaths. For man where every move is a conscious and clearly analyzed decision, it makes perfect sense that that – what Friedman calls repeatedly the “terrible choice” – is what would traumatize him. Friedman gave me such a clear understanding of who Moylan is that I could deeply empathize with the trauma he went through, even though I’d never gone through anything that horrific. Friedman also writes a charming set of sentences that make Moylan’s running route come alive, not just in description but in Moylan’s thoughts while running it: “He’ll run past one dairy farm and its herd of cows, and he’ll make mooing sounds and wonder why they never moo back. Later, he’ll pass another dairy farm and moo at those cows, who always moo back. One of life’s mysteries.” Great color. Plus, I like cows.

There were also two very strong profiles: Michael Lewis’s on Bill Parcells, and Robert Huber’s on college basketball coach John Chaney. And Mimi Swartz does such a fantastic job entering the world of Brazilian formula-1 racing that I found myself Wikipedia-ing the story’s focus, young racer Bia Figueiredo, just to see whatever happened to her (she’s doing well, since you asked). Great journalism makes you interested in something you’d never otherwise think about, and Swartz’s essay does just that.

Words, Not Writing

The two weakest articles in the 2007 edition are written by people who don’t know the difference between using a lot of words and being able to write. Jeff MacGregor’s “Let Us Now Raze Famous Men” is as ridiculously written as its title. The message of the story, I think, is that Don King’s self-contradictory nature makes him the quintessential American. But in all of MacGregor’s pompous, bomastic language (even King would probably tell him to calm down), I don’t think I learned anything about King or America.

Eric Neel’s “The Saturday Game” is ostensibly about a New Rochelle, NY, pick-up basketball game that’s been played by the same group since pretty much forever. But his writing stinks of an inferiority complex, and Neel tries far too hard to show us how hip he is, how much basketball slang he knows, how much he’s like these guys, who are so cool, so he must be also be so cool. Hunter S. Thompson inserted himself into most of his stories, but he was up front about it. He either wrote about himself, or he wrote about someone else. He never pretended to be writing about someone else. Neel doesn’t write about these players so much as exploits them. It’s dishonest journalism, and it makes the characters in the story seem muted. In the next story in the volume, Bryan Smith’s “Playing 4 Keeps,” about a group of elderly African Americans and the Chicago billiard hall where they gather, the story flows naturally and the main characters jump off the page, and the writing is better for it.

Both of the Washington Post articles are surprisingly weak. Sally Jenkins’s “Only Medal for Bode is Fool’s Gold” is well-argued, it just doesn’t stand the test of time, given how Miller transformed himself for the 2010 Winter Olympics, shedding his “bad boy of skiing” persona while winning a gold, silver and bronze medal. And Michael Wilbon’s “The Real Deal in So Many Ways,” a tribute to Celtics legend Red Auerbach, was a loving tribute at the time (it was published just two days after Auerbach’s death), but three years later reads as “too easy.” Arguing Auerbach was the greatest coach of all time is like arguing Ted Williams was the greatest hitter of all time. Where’s the nuance?

Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe gives us another long-form exposé, this time about two Amateur Athletic Union basketball coaches in New England who also are sneaker representatives. It’s not a bad article, but his “Failing Our Athletes” in the 2010 volume is far more comprehensive and emotionally resonant. Michael Sokolove’s “Allonzo Trier Is in the Game,” also in the 2010 volume, is a better look at the AAU, taking the reader to the level of the children actually playing, which is really all we should care about). So in two ways Hohler’s 2007 entry reads as weaker than later writing.

Final Thoughts

Maraniss may be a strong political writer, but his sports-writing abilities are dwarfed by 2010’s editor, Peter Gammons. Consequently, the 2010 volume packs more of a punch than the 2007 volume. The overall writing quality is just better in 2010. However, the 2007 volume doesn’t leave you feeling like a truck ran you over when you’re done with it. There’s far more balance between the tones of the submissions, and the characters themselves feel a little livelier. “The Best American Sports Writing 2007” is an easier read than the 2010 volume – the writing is a little bit weaker, but more of the articles entertain as well as educate. And ultimately, shouldn’t reading be entertaining?

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