Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2003″

“The Best American Sports Writing 2003,” edited by Buzz Bissinger
“The Best American Sports Writing 2003,” edited by Buzz Bissinger

I’ve on several occasions derided what I call “sick kids or dead coaches” stories, but not everyone knows what that means. Considering one such story appears in the Best American Sports Writing volume I’m about to review), let me explain.

All “sick kids or dead coaches” stories follow the same structure, beginning with some introductory paragraphs that can be summarized as “John Smith’s life is crap. Here are all the ways it’s crappy.” If it’s a dead coach story, replace “John Smith’s life” with “living in Springfield,” because instead of being about a person, the story’s about a town.

Anyway, after the reader feels horrible about the universe because of this dude’s crappy life, there’s a couple of paragraphs that say something like, “the only thing that makes Smith’s life less crappy is this sport. He’s not good at it, but he loves it because it makes him feel slightly less crappy, so he devotes all his time to it.”

Throw in a quote from some outsider about how heroic this guy is for devoting himself to something that’ll never really solve his problems, conclude it with a paragraph or two about how even though his life sucks, the guy will keep playing until he can’t, and you’re done. If it’s a “dead coaches” story, the quote is about how much the town changed because of the coach, then end with a couple of paragraphs on the minor positive change he brought.

Don’t get me wrong — a few such stories (including some I’ve read in BASW volumes) have been really, really good. But with “sick kids and dead coaches” stories, the writer sacrifices things like creativity, structure, emotional complexity and intelligence and instead tries to exploit the reader’s sense of sentimentality and nostalgia.

That, more than the subject itself, is what bothers the crap out of me.

Anyway, here’s The Best American Sports Writing 2003, edited by Buzz Bissinger.

Finally, a great golf story

Though I’ve gradually (and begrudgingly) come to accept golf as a sport, that doesn’t mean I like reading about it, and nearly all the golf stories I’ve read in BASW volumes have failed to arouse my interest.

Josh Sens’ “Good Karma, Bad Golf” is by far the most enjoyable golf story I’ve ever read. The story of an actual Buddhist monk who likes to golf, it bounces wonderfully from quotes from the movie Caddyshack (including one in the opening paragraph) to puns you might not understand without taking an introductory course in world religions.

It’s a hilarious, fun little story, and Sens never tries to do too much with it. It’s by far the best story out of the 24 total in this collection.

All the top stories in this volume move at a similar fast pace. Susy Buchanan’s “Appetite for Destruction” captures the impassioned chaos of a demolition derby, and her characters show a surprising range of backgrounds, interests and levels of education. And Elizabeth Kaye’s “Servant of the Cause” captures then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson in a series of short, disjointed paragraphs that serve as a charming contrast to Jackson’s celebrated zen-like approach to coaching.

But both Sens’ and Buchanan’s stories are paired with a second story on the same subject that falls far short of education. Bill Plaschke’s “Veteran Finds Green Peace” is a “sick kids” story about golf, and Rebecca Mead’s “A Man-Child in Lotusland” doesn’t tell you anything about Shaquille O’Neal you couldn’t also read in his autobiography (which, to be fair, was published nine years later).

Ted Levin’s “The Birds at Oriole Park” is a really cute story about a sports journalist and avid bird-watcher killing time during a rain-delay by watching for birds with his kids. You’d never think of baseball stadiums as great places for bird-watching, but Levin makes his point in adorable fashion.

But right beforehand is Michael Agovino’s “My Dad, the Bookie.” Another story about family, this one takes much longer to read but never seems to go anywhere.

There is an actual story about a sick kid — Terry Pluto’s “His Role on Team Is Beyond Words,” about an autistic water boy — and it’s actually really good. There aren’t any quotes about the main character a hero, but rather a raw, complex and honest look at how tough a condition autism can be.

Was 2002 a boring sports year?

The two biggest sports stories of 2002, it seems, were the Los Angeles Lakers’ attempt at a third championship and Barry Bonds’ run at the single-season home run record. But a decade later neither of those stories seems all that interesting, killing the impact of the four stories about those two subjects.

There was also a Winter Olympics in 2002 — in Salt Lake City, an American city, no less. But while there are four stories about Olympians and Olympic sports (including Alexander Wolff”s “When the Terror Began,” a sad recount of the “Munich massacre” in 1972), apparently the Salt Lake Games were so boring that no great stories came out of it.

The best story about a 2002 event is one no one seems to talk about any more. Bruce Feldman’s “Out of Control” is the story of Brittany Benefield, a then-15-year-old freshman at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who was allegedly subjected to multiple counts of statutory rape by UAB athletes.

Feldman does a good job reminding the reader that all the details he gives are allegations in court documents and not facts, but he also brings in a lot of outside sources whose only job seems to be to explain why Benefield’s actions make sense and UAB must be guilty.

Journalists aren’t judges (as my editor has told me on a few occasions). And in presenting so many horrifying details as plausible, Feldman may have unfortunately crossed the line.

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