Friday, April 24, 2020

Review: Losers (2020)

Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas

There are plenty of sports anthologies out there if you go looking for them. There are books about the best writing of a particular year, the best stories of a particular author, articles about particular teams, and so on.

"Losers" is ... different. It's a collection of articles, more or less, about a more abstract subject - losing.

Editors Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas have put together a collection of stories about one of the darker sides of sports. As a subject, it's generally been unexplored.

Take it from a veteran of postgame interviews - you always feel like you are intruding when you talk to someone after a loss - the more dramatic the loss, the worse those feelings are. It's all part of the journalistic game between players, coaches and reporters, of course.  Hockey player Craig Ramsay was one of the few who enjoyed the debriefing process under any circumstances. He once told me, "I knew it was time to retire when reporters only came to talk to me after losses."

Still, it's never fun for most and can be the subject of gallows humor. One time last season, the media was lined up to enter a losing locker room after a bad loss by the home team. I quipped sarcastically, "Well, this should be a lot of fun." Heads nodded in agreement. I still remember the game between the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers in which the Oilers blew a 31-3 lead to lose a playoff game. You don't know how happy I was not to be assigned to the Houston locker room.

The catch, though, is that sometimes you get good stories. The often hidden emotions bubble to the surface, and that adds insight to the subject and the game itself.

There is all sorts of ways to lose in a sense, and Pilon and Thomas went in a number of different directions here. There are careers that get off track one way or another, fans that lose their favorite teams, athletes who chase but never catch a better athlete, teams that unravel like a cheap sweater, and situations where it's advantageous for a team if its players fail. There's even a brief essay on the greatest losers in all of sports - the Washington Generals, the name of the team who has the job of losing to the Harlem Globetrotters night after night. Not all of the stories worked for me and a couple weren't a perfect fit for the subject, but the winning percentage was quite good.

The two biggest names among the contributors are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Gay Talese. Sir Arthur gained a bit of fame by writing about the fictional exploits of a detective named Sherlock Holmes, although he apparently could have covered running pretty well too. Talese's article on Floyd Patterson is justifiably famous. The author caught the boxer soon after Patterson had lost two championship fights to Sonny Liston in devastating fashion. Still, Patterson was amazingly articulate about expressing his feelings later on.

"Losers" isn't a long book, and some of the stories are newspaper-column length. Therefore, it goes down rather easily. There might be a worry that a typical fan might not want to explore this dark side of the sports business. But if that person does by reading there, there will be some unexpected rewards.  

Four stars

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