Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Best Sports Books Ever (That I've Read)

It's a beautiful Tuesday morning here in Carrboro, and I can literally sense the college basketball season approaching. It feels like a faint tingling down in the bottom of my feet, or sometimes on my elbows. Every fifth person I see on the street looks, for a split second, like Seth Curry. There were already a few games last night, and a near-upset when Rhode Island almost took down the Pittsburgh Pantera. Illinois dusted UC Irvine, Texas beat Navy (they have trouble on land), and the Twerps scored 105 to rout a team called "Seattle," who I can only assume is a group of brave men in their mid-30s desperately trying to keep the Supersonic name alive.

Beyond all that, Duke is #1 in the ESPN preseason power rankings. I'm obviously thrilled to hear that, since every #1 team in the ESPN preseason power rankings has gone on to win the national championship since the poll began in 1995.* And people are writing articles like this one, asking which teams on Duke's schedule might take them down.

*Everything in that sentence is made up.

But we're just a hair away from the good stuff. Duke begins their regular season campaign Sunday against Princeton. We all know the deal with Princeton: they're second in arrogance only to Cal-Poly Pomona. And even though their basketball team isn't very good, they still have a sort of legit paternal condescension thing going since James Duke, our founder, insisted that our campus look just like Princeton's, down to the Gothic architecture and the type of stone.

So we have to beat them mercilessly, the way you beat your own father at games when he's too old to compete anymore.

But that will be discussed in greater depth, I promise you. For now, as the title of the blog promises, I'd like to talk sports books. Joe Posnanski is one of the best sports writers going, and on his excellent blog he keeps promising a post called "the 32 Best Sports Books." When he finally writes it, that will be like Christmas morning for me. I've loved sports books my entire life, and I'm on kind of a huge kick lately. Last night, I just started "To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever," a book about the Duke-Carolina rivalry told from the perspective of Carolina partisan Will Blythe. Man, does he hate Duke. It's pretty entertaining so far, but I'm only a few pages in.

So I thought I'd come up with a top-10 list of the best sports books I've ever read. This list will be severely limited, mind you, by my inexperience. I've never even read "Friday Night Lights," which I'm told is indispensable. And that's where you, the reader, come in. I'm on the always lookout for great reads, so if you see anything missing (and you surely will), please let me know in the comments.


(that I've read)

#10. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby

I'm not the biggest Nick Hornby fan in the world; his humor misses with me more often than it hits. But this account of his lifetime as an Arsenal fan is notable for its awful kind of fatalism that could only come from Europe. He became a Gunners fan as a small child before realizing that they're the most boring and hated team in the Premiership, and would open him to a lifetime of abuse from friends and peers. The descriptions of Hornby's utter pessimism and negativity while watching games rings very true, as does his depiction of the complete joy the moment after a goal.

#9. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, David Winner

This was a fascinating look at soccer in the Netherlands by British writer David Winner. His main thesis is that the Dutch are a creative people by necessity, and they've especially had to become masters of space. Their country is basically below sea level, and a system of dykes is necessary to maintain livable conditions. This attitude or philosophy or ability has in turn influenced their art, politics, culture, and soccer. Winner's main focus is on the "Total Football" teams of the 1970s, and by the end of this book you'll be in love with Johan Cruyff. Sadly, the last 40 pages are a strange jumble of quick writing and typos and general sloppiness. After such a strong and fascinating start, it was really jarring. I'm not sure if Winner was in a rush to finish, or just lost motivation, or what, but this book could have been higher with a solid finish. Still very much worthwhile.

#8. A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley

Exley was a wreck of a human being and a failed writer. His life came to be defined by his obsession with Frank Gifford and the New York Giants. This book is a pretty huge downer in some ways, following Exley in and out of mental hospitals and his mother's couch as he struggles to maintain even a loose hold on life, but it's also very funny. It's a road map, on one hand, of how a man with potential can be dragged down by old baggage and weakness into the life of a degenerate, and on the other of how sports can provide meaning for the lost souls of the world. Also, he loved "Lolita," so he can't be all bad.

#7. Levels of the Game, John Mcphee

McPhee is one of two authors who will appear twice on this list. "Levels of the Game" is a short book about the 1968 US Open semi-final between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. As the match progresses, McPhee writes a wonderful journalistic account of the players' lives and attitudes. They are two very different men, and their respective character and experience influences the tone and result of the match. In some ways, this is a psychological study, but more than that it's just a very good story. Arthur Ashe is one of the most interesting American athletes ever, and the story of how he became a tennis player at all is essentially a re-telling of a miracle. The third star of this book is Dr. Walter Johnson, a former football player who became a self-taught tennis player, and one of the few black men playing the sport at a top level in the 1930s. He went on to start an academy for young black players, and that's how Ashe became who he was.

#6. My Losing Season, Pat Conroy

I absolutely loved Pat Conroy as a kid, and I devoured all his books over a one-year period in high school. This one, written a bit later when I was in college, is a memoir about his senior year as a point guard at The Citadel. The basketball action is great, and so is the description of the intense military atmosphere at the school. It's a very sad book, especially considering Conroy's strained relationship with his semi-abusive, distant father, but in the end it's a great account about how a team comes together in the face of loss and humiliation.

#5. Eight Men Out, Eliot Asinof

I read this one many years ago, but it's stayed with me. It's easy to describe: a thorough historical account of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the team that threw the World Series. The characters in this story are amazing, from Shoeless Joe Jackson to stingy White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to brilliant New York City gambler Arnold Rothstein. It's sort of incredible that something like this ever happened, but in a way, the economic environment and the poor treatment of ballplayers made it inevitable.

#4. Education of a Coach, David Halberstam

It's fun and logical to hate Bill Belichick, and children across America should be encouraged in this endeavor. Unfortunately, Halberstam ruins the fun by humanizing him with this excellent biography. The son of a Navy football scout, Belichick was around football from the start. His single-mindedness wasn't always absolute, but it was always at least present. From the time he took his first unpaid job as a film man for the Baltimore Colts in 1975, it was obvious to a lot of people that he would end up at the top of the profession. Still, there were a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, and some of the best parts of this book come in the retelling of Belichick's failure in Cleveland and his complicated relationship in New York under Bill Parcells. Halberstam is an excellent writer, and he's the other author on this list who appears twice. This book might be as high as it is since I just finished it, but I have a feeling I'll stand by the choice even as time passes.

#3. A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee

Princeton hate aside, this book knocked my socks off. It's all about Bill Bradley's senior season at Princeton, and by the end you'll be under the impression that he's the greatest basketball player of all time. His incredible work ethic and athleticism propelled him to the very top of the game, and the otherworldly performances he put together in the quest for a national championship are the meat and potatoes of this account. McPhee delves into his childhood effectively, but smartly stays mostly in the present, describing the style and finesse and precision with which Bradley plays the game. This book was published well before Bradley became a politician or even won titles with the New York Knicks, and it's a prescient look at a very special player and a highly unique human being.

#2. Among the Thugs, Bill Buford

Taught me everything I know about hooligan culture in England. I can't describe how awful, thrilling, and terrifying this book is. Buford immersed himself in the life, becoming closely tied with a Manchester United hooligan group, and his accounts of shameful violence and marauding hit you right in the gut. I remember being particularly revolted at the story of the hooligans laying waste to Turin in the aftermath of a Champions League loss in that unsuspecting Italian town. Somehow, he's also hysterically funny throughout. Buford basically deserves a Pulitzer for this stuff.

#1. The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam

Unparalleled, at least in my experience. Halberstam travels with the 1979 Portland Trailblazers, a team beginning a descent into mediocrity only two years after their timeless Bill Walton-led championship team. Halberstam's writing has an awesome way of shifting to different subjects almost without warning, and he covers so many people and stories along the way that this can really be seen as a novel about the entire NBA and further, the game of basketball. One of my favorite parts is when he recounts how Bobby Knight recruited Isiah Thomas to play at Indiana. This, for me, is the crowning work of sports journalism; an endlessly informative treatise on the state of an entire professional organization seen through the lens of a faltering team.


It occurred to me while writing this list that I probably couldn't put a top-15 together if I wanted to. Please fill me in on your choices, as I'm running out of books here at home and a long Christmas break is coming.


  1. Great list, Shane; I've read most of the books you mention and think of them often.

    You mention To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever--I'm rereading that now; yeah, Blythe loathes Duke, but I love that he wrestles with a sense of hatred in general. So much of sports fandom is based on hating the Other, which is tremendous. Also Feinstein's (before he got crappy), A Season on the Brink (Knight and IU) really gets me. Of course Friday Night Lights is superb too.

    -Casey W.

  2. Casey, good to hear from you! I'm really digging 'To Hate' so far, he's got a pretty strong voice and its portrayal of sports fandom as a negatively motivated experience reminds me a lot of Fever Pitch.

    It's funny you mentioned A Season on the Brink. When I was young, my mom loved that book so much that she sent a letter to Bobby Knight. He wrote a really nice letter in return...I think she still has it. Definitely gonna get my hands on that, and I can't go much longer without reading FNL.

    Hope things are going good for you.


  3. I read "To Hate" a few years ago and thought it was okay. Blythe's description of the Walter Davis game in '74 is a highlight, though (as much as the game itself is a lowlight). "Breaks of the Game" is of course a classic, but I actually liked Halberstam's "Playing for Keeps" about Jordan's Bulls more -- probably because I knew more about that team going in (and "Breaks" just made me think that positions were defined way too rigidly in the 1970s NBA).


  4. I haven't read very many books about sports (maybe, like, 2), but the one I enjoyed the most was A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis. In it he goes through training camp with the Denver Broncos (this is where my bias shows) and it's a really interesting first hand account of what it's like to play in the NFL.


  5. Tim- I actually ordered that book about a month ago and the delivery company effed it up. I'm on it. Interesting that you think it's "okay," because even though I do like it so far, some of the language seems kinda overblown. And this might seem ridiculous for a blogger like me to say, but the constant "I" voice might get kinda annoying. There's only so much you can read about how CRAZZZZY some dude is for sports. I'm hoping there's more about the rivalry as the book wears on.

    Justin - I'm so on that. I just finished reading "Word Freak" by Fatsis about two weeks ago. It's about the competitive scrabble culture, and it was amazing. Had no idea he had an NFL book out.


  6. Not exactly funny, but "The Boys of Winter" about the 1980 Miracle on Ice and its team. Makes me start chanting U-S-A whenever I read it. People stare.

  7. I know you love the Yankees, but Bill Simmons "Big Book of Basketball" is still amazing even if it is written by a Sox fan.

  8. How about "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton and "The Natural"? How can you forget "Deliverance"?

  9. And as you guys mention "A Few Seconds of Panic", by Fatsis, consider the original dude-finds-himself-on-football-team-and-tries-not-to-die memoir-y thing, Plimpton's "Paper Lion."

    And Shane, nice to see those soccer books on your list too.

  10. Mom, the category was "Best Sports Books," not "Best Books to Psychologically Mess Me Up Due to Depictions of a Normal Dude Being Raped by Rednecks."

    In that second category, Deliverance is 4th.

    Also: you're embarrassing me.

    Casey, I've actually heard of that book. I forget where, but I remember people saying it was good and also a little sad. They compared it to "A False Spring" by Pat Jordan.

    Anons - the Simmons book has been on my list for a while now, and Boys of Winter is now in the queue.


  11. There are a few good baseball books not mentioned that are really good reads:

    money ball - slightly outdated, but only because it was published. If read critically, it gives a great insight into today's game since this was taken and modified by pretty much all GM's.

    9 innings - great great great book - breaks down a baseball game inning by inning, while discussing the game, the strategy, how the players got there, etc.

    the bad guys won - about the 86 Mets - great read. kingman was a dickhead.

    just a few ideas

  12. You hit the nail on the head with one of my problems with Blythe in "To Hate...". He's writing a sports book for a presumably sports-obsessed audience, yet still finds it necessary to hammer home just how "into" the game he and his family is. We get it. We're the same way with our teams.

    I liked "The Bad Guys Won," but I'm a Mets' fan, so...

    And "The Book of Basketball" was up and down to me. I wrote a review of it here: http://npinopunintended.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/the-book-of-basketball-where-flawed-but-entertaining-happens/

  13. Anon, Bad Guys Won seems right up my alley. It's on the (growing) list.


  14. Thanks for the compliment. I wasn't going to buy the Simmons book, but ended up just borrowing it from a friend and reading it alongside some actual "literature." I had no qualms spending the time on it; probably would had more if I had spent some cash on it, though.

  15. The 5-Point Play by Coach K about when Duke won the national championship in 2001.


  16. You should check out Jackie MacMullan's "When the Game was Ours" about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Fascinating look at their relationship and rivalry.


  17. Thanks Craig, just caught this comment. I think I read about that book from Simmons, or somewhere. I'm definitely adding that to the list.


  18. Kinsella. "Shoeless Joe Jackson." Imagine reading it before anyone even thought of making it into "Field of Dreams." Surreal and beautiful.