Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2012”

"The Best American Sports Writing 2012," edited by Michael Wilbon
“The Best American Sports Writing 2012,” edited by Michael Wilbon

Well, it’s that time again. Time to review another volume of Glenn Stout’s Best American Sports Writing series. Time to see what another bigwig in the sports journalism world thought was the best work done in his or her industry during the previous year.

For The Best American Sports Writing 2012, Michael Wilbon — the guy always yelling unnecessarily and somewhat incoherently at Tony Kornheiser on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” — was that bigwig.

In his introduction, Wilbon falls back on the almost cliched observation that journalists have gotten lazy in this modern world of social media. But unlike other such critics, Wilbon at least points out the role teams and players have also played in diluting the system, intentionally creating hermetically sealed press conferences that prevent journalists from asking any real questions getting a leg up on one another.

In his introduction, Wilbon said his collection tried to show that there are still quality sports writers out there, producing stories as good as anything he grew up reading.

And he’s right — BASW 2012 has some really terrific writing.

Perfect stories

Every so often, a BASW volume features a perfect story. Combining excellent structure and technique with rock-solid research, personal voice and timeliness, Taylor Branch’s “The Shame of College Sports” is one such perfect story.

In a 38-page carpet bombing of an article, Branch finally exposes the NCAA as the collection of greedy, hypocritical, dishonest tyrants that it is. Branch loudly and convincingly calls out the organization for making millions off athletes’ names and likenesses while simultaneously punishing players for trading a jersey for a tattoo. After reading “The Shame of College Sports,” still arguing that college students shouldn’t be paid — or at least receive a share of the profits — becomes nearly impossible.

Wright Thompson’s “Why You Should Care About Cricket” is another perfect story. Thompson simultaneously manages to explain both the rules of cricket — a difficult task — and the appeal of cricket — an even tougher task. Thompson covers the 2011 Cricket World Cup, and he does it so well that upon finishing, I immediately had to look up the tournament to see who won.

If that’s not a sign of a captivated reader, I don’t know what is. Plus, the article finally explains what the heck they’re talking about in that question in Slumdog Millionaire.

Are concussions becoming a fad?

Few issues have dominated sports over the last several years like concussions have. And while the scientific side of the concussion issue emerged in late 2009 or 2010, in some ways the humanistic side didn’t emerge until 2011, when several high-profile players died, often by their own hands and sometimes even aware that concussions had been their downfall.

Because of that, some concussion stories no doubt belonged in BASW 2012. But three, and all in a row? That makes writing about concussions seem like a BASW cliche — that to get into a BASW volume, a writer just needs to write moderately well about something related to concussions.

None of the concussion stories in BASW 2012 are badly written, but putting three of them back-to-back-to-back minimizes each story’s tragedy. These are real people with real lives ruined because of this issue, and forgetting that is almost as heinous a crime as ignoring the issue altogether.

A clever contrast

Of the 20 stories in BASW 2012, just one doesn’t work at all. S.L. Price’s “Chasing Down History” — a biography of Novak Djokovic — lacks both Djokovic’s fun and fiery personalty and the sadness of his childhood in war-torn Serbia. The end result is a well-structured but emotionally flat piece of writing.

Otherwise, every story succeeds to a greater or lesser degree. Jeré Longman’s “Boy Genius” does capture the fun and frenzy of watching Lionel Messi play soccer, and fantastic stories by John Brant and Bill Donahue suggest that Runner’s World can turn out features every bit as good as Sports Illustrated.

Even Tim Layden’s “The Forgotten Hero” works. I normally relegate such stories — about a man’s effort to get a dead player’s number officially retired at Williams College — to the “dead coaches and sick kids” category, but Layden successfully avoids the traps of melodrama and pathos, instead producing something much more evocative and honest in its sentiment.

And then there are Robert Huber’s “Allen Iverson: Fallen Star” and Wells Tower’s “Welcome to the Far Eastern Conference.” The former is the third story in the volume, portraying the sad state of Iverson’s basketball career, Iverson having been exiled to Turkey.

The latter story is about Stephon Marbury’s desire to reinvent himself playing basketball in China. And while Iverson’s story is depressing, Marbury’s is actually rather hopeful. And because Jon Mooallem’s eight-page history of the high five — the only story after Marbury’s in BASW 2012 — takes just a couple of minutes, the tone of Marbury’s story lingers after the reader finishes the collection.

If a man like Marbury can turn his life around, anyone can. BASW 2012 leaves you feeling optimistic.

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