Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2017

Edited by Howard Bryant

It's year 27 for the Best American Sports Writing series, and it's Howard Bryant's turn at the plate.

The anthology books have gone through plenty of guest editors since 1991, including such names as David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Peter Gammons and Michael Wilbon. Bryant is a worthy successor to that list.

The veteran sportswriter has did good work for a couple of newspapers, writes now for ESPN, and has written three fine books. He's obviously smart, and he's obviously serious - and that shows up in his selections here.

Just to review, series editor Glenn Stout collects several nominated stories and then passes them to the guest editor. That's followed by the no-doubt agonizing process of getting down the number of stories to fit a book. In this case, we have 27 stories to read.

And read them we do, because they almost always are worth our time. Maybe that's why the series has been around for 27 years.

There's not really a game story to be found here, or much that was written on a tight deadline. Stories on the death of Muhammad Ali or the completion of the Wimbledon tennis tournament might be the only qualifies, although neither had to be written for The New Yorker in two hours.

What's that leave? Plenty of long stories on a variety of subject, mostly serious in nature. My personal favorite was a 27-pager by Wright Thompson called "The Secret History of Tiger Woods." It's almost required reading as Tiger tries to make one last comeback on the PGA Tour, as Thompson obviously made an extensive effort to find out more on what makes Woods tick - no small challenge.

In hindsight, some of my favorite stories were about personalities. William "the Refrigerator" Perry seems to be on a path that will not end well. Football coach Barry Switzer is having fun in "retirement" being Barry Switzer, as we could have predicted. Dusty Baker's story seems more poignant now that he's out of work as the Nationals' manager. Figure skater Debi Thomas appeared to have it all together in her competitive days, but you wouldn't use that description now. Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr has a fascinating life story, and it provides him a perspective that is broad enough to be unique in sports.

There are plenty of other stories that aren't typical stories that turn up in sports pages but still lure us in. I've been to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and the battle of over Thorpe's body continues to be an everlasting and bizarre story. I'm not sure that a story about a 30-something woman enrolling in high school in attempt to make up for missed opportunities as a teen has much to do with sports, but it was a worthwhile story. An accounting of the daily sports fantasy business is a long one, but sorts out the particulars well. We get a good lesson that determining the sex of an athlete is not an either/or proposition, as seen from the eyes of a young girls from India. The tales of refugees in the Olympics and Africans trying to find a basketball home in America really are stories of strangers in a strange land.

The one danger of including serious and unusual subjects is that sometimes you'll lose the audience for a moment along the way. That happened to me in a couple of the stories here; I'll let you guess their identity. But the percentages are in Bryant's favor.

Stout, who has done an excellent job as caretaker of the series, talks in the foreward how the series has been inspiration to many young writers, which is excellent news. You always get something good in these books, and that's why you should keep reading them year after year.

Four stars

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles (2017)

By Steve Gietschier

This is an interesting idea.

Steven Gietschier used to handle some of the historically linked stories and columns in The Sporting News, a weekly publication I still miss these days. He was obviously pretty smart and knew his stuff.

Gietschier has done a national search for college professors who have studied certain events that stand out in sports history. Those academic types have written a relatively short essay(10 pages or so on average) on said event, and Gietschier collected them to put in one place.

Put the 23 essays together, and you have a book: "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles."

The list of subjects is rather wide-ranging and comes in chronological order. The brief rundown would include the invention of baseball,  the "Black Sox" scandal, the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, integration of the National Football League, the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, the 1972 Olympic basketball final, Ali-Foreman, and the start of ESPN. The cover photo is a shot of the relatively famous fight between Juan Marichal and Johnny Roseboro in 1965, in which Marichal hit Roseboro in the head with a baseball swing.

There's certainly reason for optimism in checking out the list of subjects. Someone else might have taken different events, but that's allowed. But does this list and concept work well? Somewhat.

The problem with it is that it's a wide-ranging collection of authors, all from the academic community. I've found over the years that such professors certain know their stuff, but they probably are better teachers than writers. In this collection, the essays go from quite interesting to quite easy to skim through.

Part of the problem is that some of the subjects don't really have answers. How did baseball get invented? Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Has America always not dipped its flag at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics? We're not sure, and there are no conclusions offered. Sometimes things have to stay in the fog of history. Sometimes the articles cover familiar ground and don't offer too much new. An article on "The Drive" in a Browns-Broncos playoff game is something of an excuse to review Cleveland's sports and economic history. The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles from Brooklyn is tough to summarize in such a short piece.

The stories that jump out, then, are the ones that are not covered by other sources very often. Lindsay Parks Pieper reviews Babe Didrikson at the 1932 Olympics. Althea Gibson's run-up to grand-slam tennis titles gets the once over through the work of Maureen Smith. The story of Dan Gable's one wrestling loss is a good one, thanks to David Zang. Michael Ezra does a good job of putting the Ali-Foreman fight into perspective.

Admittedly, I've read more sports history than most people, so that could be a reason for my lack of overall enthusiasm. Those a little less familiar with the subjects will learn some facts about important events from the past. Overall, though, "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles" comes across as a hit-or-miss proposition.

Three stars

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Review: Game Face (2017)

By Bernard King with Jerome Preisler

There's a lot to admire about the life of Bernard King.

He grew up in a tough part of New York with a family that featured a distant, alcoholic father and a mother who really had little clue on how to raise children. Even so, he managed to become one of the best basketball players in the city, and earned a scholarship at Tennessee. From there, King became an All-American for the Volunteers - although he encountered some 1970s-style racism along the way.

The forward left college early to turn pro, and made the transition to the NBA smoothly on the court - although he had some problems off it. King certainly deserved eventual status as a Hall of Famer.

Now 25 years later, he's written down his account of his life in his autobiography, "Game Face." And it's interesting that King's biggest obstacle - and the one he discusses at the start of the book - had nothing to do with anything listed above.

King suffered about as bad a knee injury as you could find without getting involving in some sort of traffic accident or other disaster. He jumped in the air during a game and knew he was in trouble even before he landed. Doctors looked at him and wondered if he would ever walk normally again. Basketball figured to be in the past, not in his future.

But King worked hard, harder and hardest. He was sidelined for about two years before finally returning to the NBA. King played three full years after the injury, and got his scoring average back up to 28.4 points per game. It was a remarkable comeback.

It's easy to split this book into two parts, one more compelling than the other. King's early years are the interesting ones. His father wouldn't even let him play basketball (or do anything else) outside on Sundays until Bernard defied him. His mother apparently used a strap on him more than one, because that how she was raised. As a result, King said he felt better hiding his feelings behind a "game face" - don't let them know what you are thinking, particularly on the court. Let me assure those who are too young to remember that King was a true handful when playing - a pure scorer who earned his points every single night.

The second half of the story doesn't work as well. One of the obvious reasons is that he played with some mediocre teams over the years - emphasis on "teams," since he bounced around quite a bit through five teams. King didn't come close to playing for an NBA champion. That's not his fault, but it will be noticed by the reader.

Also missing and a little puzzling is the lack of material on younger brother Albert. He was the finest high school player in the country as a senior, and he went on to play at Maryland and then to the pros. Albert isn't even mentioned in the front half of the book, only coming up  when the two players met in the postseason.

Albert isn't alone in that description. Bernard's first wife doesn't even have her name mentioned. Also avoided is how King got away from alcohol and drug abuse, a habit he picked up early in his career. And the picture painted about what King has been doing after basketball seems incomplete. He's done some broadcasting work; let's hope he took care of his money and moved happily into middle age.

Naturally, any book written about an athlete from the 1970s or 1980s is going to feel like ancient history to some. Even so, "Game Face" lets us have a peak at a man who admits he didn't like telling much about himself back in the day. Therefore, those in the proper demographic will find this worth a read.

Three stars

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