The older we get, I think, the more the idea of “legacy” enters our everyday thoughts. The legacy we leave for our families, our workplaces and industries, or our communities – the closer the end gets, the more we wonder what we’ll leave behind.
The Best American Sports Writing 2015 is the 25th entry in Glenn Stout’s annual anthology series. The forward from Stout, who at 58 has spent nearly half his life on this series, is much longer than it typically is, and “legacy” runs throughout.
BASW 15 then segues into an introduction by ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Thompson dovetails Stout by writing about the impact BASW has had on him since his days at the University of Missouri, and how honored he is to be part of its legacy, which is clearly the through line for the ensuing 21 stories.
Very few of the BASW volumes I’ve reviewed to date establish a running theme, but here it works. Seth Wickersham’s “Awakening the Giant,” about NFL Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle, makes Tittle’s severe dementia something that’s robbed him of any awareness of his own legacy, as he no longer recalls almost any of the moments that make him so beloved.
Some “Best American Sports Writing” introductions imbue their volumes with early energy. Others are fine, if forgettable.
The Best American Sports Writing 2000 is one of those unfortunate volumes with a detrimental introduction. Dick Schaap spends more than half of it mostly talking about how many famous friends he has and how cool that makes him, then gives a perfunctory final thought about how sports stories should always be entertaining, and when possible funny.
The problem is, none of the BASW 2000 stories are funny. What’s worse, too many of them fall flat.
James Hibberd’s “Poker Face” is about professional poker player Johnny Chan, but the essay doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond that he plays a lot of poker, and you kind of walk away from the story thinking, “so what?” Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “America is a Bull” is about a neither famous nor innovative bullrider, and his struggles aren’t enough to carry the central metaphor of the title.
And Jonathan Miles’ “Ay Caramba!…” is one of the worst fishing stories to appear in a BASW volume. Its lack of a point is matched only by a dense, meandering writing style that renders scenes all but indecipherable.
But by far the flattest of them all is Stephen Rodrick’s “Blown Away,” about a machine gun show and the militia communities surrounding Knob Creek in Kentucky.
Plenty of great books don’t have particularly memorable opening lines. But there are some opening lines so awesome on their own that they create an energy that carries through to the final line several hundred pages later.
The best such example might be William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
But the second best, at least for me, is from Christopher McDougall’s introduction to The Best American Sports Writing 2014: “Death-row cells have better natural light than the Rite Aid in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where you can only glimpse sky through the sad slit of a window above the checkout counter.”
Seriously, how awesome is that? If that doesn’t get you immediately pumped to read the rest, you should stop reading this blog, because I’m not sure the written word is really your thing.
The essay is about McDougall first experience watching the three-dimensional running style known as parkour. McDougall writes of the jolt of energy he felt watching these parkour runners, and how an especially well-written sports story can carry the same kind of electricity. Continue reading Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2014″
The Best American Sports Writing 2001 is the only volume I’ve reviewed so far where the introduction doesn’t actually introduce anything. Volume editor Bud Collins discusses the volatile, even occasionally violent relationship between athletes and the sporting press, but never once does he mention any of the 28 stories that follow.
Instead, Collins puts a one-section reaction at the top of each story. It’s a unique approach, but the lack of any discussion in the introduction sets an odd tone for the ensuing 357 pages.
And therein lies the theme of this review: tone. An appropriate emotional tone can make a great story even greater, but the wrong tone can just as easily tank an otherwise well-written story.
The best and worst stories in BASW 2001 earn that status because of their tone. “Everest at the Bottom of the Sea,” by Bucky McMahon, captures all the adventure and excitement and danger one would expect in a story about diving for treasure in a sunken luxury cruiser.
Series editor Glenn Stout has said repeatedly that sports writing isn’t the same as writing about sports. One might not think of treasure-diving as a sport, but this story is so cool it absolutely belongs in this collection.
In the four months since I reviewed The Best American Sports Writing 2003, I spent most nights reading a collection of HP Lovecraft horror stories. And after slogging through some very, very slow-paced stories about monsters, I decided to return to non-fiction with The Best American Sports Writing 2013.
Finishing the volume in at most a month, BASW 2013 was a breath of fresh air to a mind altogether exhausted by stories of nameless horrors with names impossible to pronounce.
Here’s my review of BASW 2013, which had Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer as its editor.
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.
So it’s been about eight months since I last reviewed a volume from Glenn Stout’s Best American Sports Writing series. Blame it on a new Neil Gaiman book, though that maybe took me three days to read. Or blame it on Guns, Germs and Steel, which took me about three months.
But really, just blame it on The Best American Sports Writing 1995 itself. As volumes go, this one just didn’t grab me.
Weirdest… intro… ever…
I read Dan Jenkins’ introduction to BASW 95, but I use the word “read” loosely. I definitely recognized letters, and my brain definitely ordered the letters into recognizable words. But reading usually implies a measure of understanding, and eight months later I still don’t know what I read.
The essay has something to do with sports books, but it’s really unclear if Jenkins was discussing real books I’d never heard of because I was 11 in 1994, or if he made up the titles to make some kind of point. If Jenkins was trying to criticize the sports media world of the mid-1990s, he didn’t. If he was trying to be funny, he wasn’t.
Whatever he was going for, these six pages of chaos never achieved it. If you ever opt to read this volume, I’d say skip the intro entirely. It says nothing about sports writing in general, nor the specific 28 articles that follow.
A “quaint” problem
Even before I started reading BASW 95, I’d feared that 20 years later, the subjects written about in 1994 would seem “quaint.” And to a large extent, I was right. James Ellroy’s “Sex, Glitz and Greed: The Seduction of O. J. Simpson” harkens back to a time when the most violent thing we cared about was whether a pro athlete murdered two people, and 20 years later Simpson has taken a back seat to things like terrorism and school shootings.
The volume also contains three separate stories on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan clubbing incident leading into the 1994 Olympics. Just two years later, an Olympics would get bombed, while another would see an athlete die during competition. Again, what mattered back then now seems pretty inconsequential, though Joan Ryan’s “The Cold Wars: Inside the Secret World of Figure Skating” depicts judging as corrupt enough to make the 2002 Olympic scandal seem not at all outlandish.
There are also two stories on the 1994 baseball strike, but after subsequent work-stoppages in the NHL, NBA and NFL — and in light of all the revelations about steroid use in the 1990s — it’s hard to look back at a strike in 1994 and care at all. But at least Bob Verdi makes the strike entertaining, turning the fiasco into a play on Abbott and Costello’s iconic “Who’s on First?” routine in “Baseball’s Troubles Could Play Out to Be No Routine Comedy.”
I didn’t like sports very much in 1994. Brett Favre hadn’t done much with the Packers yet, Boston was still a decade away from becoming the best sports town in America, and the Olympics didn’t start captivating me until the Atlanta Games. So while I as a journalist enjoyed reading this volume dispassionately, as a reader I wanted to connect to these stories and most of the time I just couldn’t.
Not everything’s irrelevant
While many stories read as “quaint,” not every story fell under that category. Skip Hollandsworth’s “Whatever Happened to Ronnie Littleton?” depicts an ex-football player as an alcoholic drug-addict what seems like 15 years before revelations about concussions made it clear how many players turn out that way. And Furman Bisher’s “This Ex-Voter Has Had Enough Heisman Hype” takes a shot at the NCAA football system, similarly taking up arms two decades before anyone else would challenge it.
Steve Rushin’s “1954-1994: How We Got Here” looks at the people and phenomena that led to the sports/marketing/media world of the mid-90s, and it’s not hard to extend the themes Rushin discusses and arrive at that scene as it is today. And anyone curious how New York Jets moron coach Rex Ryan turned into such a dingbat can just read Mark Kram’s “Bully Ball” to discover he probably got it from his dad, Buddy.
Jay Searcy’s “Worth More Dead Than Alive” discusses horse-owners paying to have their own horses killed for insurance money. Considering how often horses are shot after races — HBO had to cancel a series on horse-racing because too many featured horses got hurt and were killed — it seems quite likely this phenomenon continues to this day.
“Quaint” also isn’t a bad thing for every story. Gary Smith’s “An Exclusive Club” proposes the quaint notion that distance-runners will always be more popular than sprinters. That’s quaint because Smith had no idea people like Usain Bolt would eventually steal the spotlight, but the idea of bringing together all the still-living people who’ve broken the 1-mile record is so damn cool, their ideas about distance-running so intelligent and insightful, that it hardly matters.
Modern readers might not connect to BASW 95 the way they might with a volume from the last 10 years. But if you can wade through the stories that just don’t matter anymore, there are a couple of really good ones that serve as absolute signs of things to come.
I really don’t have anything to report from this week of sports coverage, except that I’m probably the first sports journalist in McAlester News-Capital history to a) devote significant coverage to the local recreational softball leagues, and b) actually drive to Tulsa for a Little League game. Whether that’s a sign of professionalism, desperation or something in between, who can say.
Beyond the News-Cap, however, I finally finished The Great Shark Hunt, the first anthology of essays by Hunter S. Thompson. I wrote about Thompson almost two years ago, breaking down his appeal to a combination of brilliant word-selection, a deeply nuanced understanding of the 60s and 70s, and a gleeful dishonesty.
More than 400 pages later, I still think no one picks words the way Thompson does, and I still think he really understood the cultural undercurrents of his time. But unlike two years ago, I no longer see his approach to the 60s as some kind of rah-rah, “We changed things forever” attitude. Thompson respected the intentions of the 60s’ counter-culture movements, but he’s also very aware that while the hippies didn’t exactly fail, they also didn’t really succeed, and within a decade, many aspects of American society had gotten much, much worse.
As to whether or not Thompson was a dishonest writer, and whether he took joy in that intentional dishonesty, I’m not so sure. Thompson’s Watergate writing is an especially tough nut to crack.
Nothing Thompson writes about Nixon and his cronies screams outright lie. But in this modern age of public relations, where so many layers of protection exist between the media and the people they write about that only the most white-washed versions ever reach print, it’s hard to believe a reporter — and especially one so openly hostile to his subject matter — could ever have been given such an intimate glimpse of the real people in power.
Thompson’s political writing — and the majority of his writing, one way or another, is political — seems like an honest look at the political realities of his age. But it’s so honest, and so “raw” in its honesty, that as a survival mechanism the reader’s brain refuses to take it seriously.
At the end of one his final essays in the collection, Thompson quotes Muhammad Ali: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.” Thompson goes on to claim those two sentences as the best explanation of “Gonzo journalism,” that reporting style that Thompson invented and no one has ever successfully replicated.
But a joke is not meant to be taken seriously. Jokes — and it’s pretty clear Thompson loved jokes — are fictions, and writing the truth in a way that makes it appear fictitious might count as dishonesty.
Or maybe not. I don’t really know. I just know I enjoyed the hell out of The Great Shark Hunt.
On an unrelated (except to the headline) note, here’s what I wrote this week.
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.
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.
When I saw that Bill Littlefield had edited The Best American Sports Writing 1998, I became very excited. This is the guy who created Only a Game, which consistently pushes the medium of sports radio to unparalleled levels.
While Littlefield’s abilities as an on-air personality and radio journalist are top-notch, his editing talents unfortunately don’t quite measure up.
Of the eight BASW volumes I’ve now read, BASW 1998 has by far been the weakest. So let’s review it.