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.