Thursday, June 04, 2020

The best sports books to read right now, according to the Post Sports staff

Mar 30. 2020
Photo: The US Breaking News
Photo: The US Breaking News
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By The Washington Post · No Author · SPORTS, BOOKWORLD

Without live sports on our TVs, The Washington Post's sportswriters, columnists and editors share their favorite sports books.

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Football:

- "Friday Night Lights" (1990), by Buzz Bissinger

The only downside to the credible movie and television adaptations of this title is that they obscure the remarkable piece of journalism Bissinger achieved in chronicling the 1988 football season at Permian High in Odessa, Texas. The book gives the reader an unflinching look at a place and the people who live there, as well as the racism and income inequality that shape their lives. It also treats the teenage players with a humanity that preserves their dignity, vividly depicting the real burdens that accompany hero worship. - Matt Rennie

- "When Pride Still Mattered" (1999), by David Maraniss

With all the wonderful reporting and elegant prose we have been blessed with over time, it's quite difficult for a contemporary work to reach the status of groundbreaking, but Maraniss accomplished that in his majestic 544-page biography of complex, legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. The work is exhaustive, but the masterful writing never feels exhausting to read. It should be considered the standard for sports biographies. - Jerry Brewer

- "Mad Ducks and Bears" (1973), by George Plimpton

Plimpton's greatest book examines the NFL through the eyes and lives of linemen on different sides of the ball, Alex Karras and John Gordy of the Detroit Lions. Plimpton explores the pleasures of literally moving men out of the way. His elegant writing applied to a game that can ruin men at the same time it exalts them is gripping. He never pulls a single punch or word or withholds a single truth about the game. It's a masterpiece. - Sally Jenkins

- "God's Coach" (1990), by Skip Bayless

Bayless, who covered the Dallas Cowboys for 12 years, examines Tom Landry's 29-year run as coach of the team, which during that time rose from NFL expansion club to one of the world's most popular and successful sports franchises. He debunks the myth of the all-knowing, always-in-control Landry, who was a deeply religious man coaching a team that often behaved like jaded rock stars in a booming, oil-rich city playing the role of enamored, enabling groupie. Rather than being the great wizard, Landry is revealed as a coach who struggled to relate to his players during an era of great social change; became enamored with and perhaps trapped by his own image as the pious leader of America's Team; and, maybe most shockingly, often became rattled in pressure moments and sent in plays to star quarterbacks Don Meredith and Roger Staubach that did not exist, only to be saved by their improvisational skills. - Mark Bradley

- "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (2012), by Ben Fountain

Sure, it's more of a war novel set at a sporting event - a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game during which a group of Iraq War veterans are honored - than a true sports book, but that's the point. Sports are the stage for human drama, one on which we gather to celebrate achievement, sacrifice and teamwork and sometimes also to pantomime, oversimplify and commercialize. In the six or seven years since I read it, I have thought of this book as much as any while watching games - this, of course, being the era of Colin Kaepernick and #StickToSports. So, yeah, it's a war novel and a great one. But it's a great sports book, too. - David Larimer

- "America's Game" (2005), by Michael MacCambridge

MacCambridge doesn't get lost in the weeds by applying any sort of sociological significance to the NFL's rise, instead delivering an exhaustive (yet readable) just-the-facts account of how the league became the behemoth it is today. The only issue is that the book was published in 2005 and could use an update, but that's a minor quibble. No one has told the league's history better. - Matt Bonesteel

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Baseball:

- "Bottom of the 33rd" (1981), by Dan Barry

No matter how many times you read it, this book will make you feel as if you were sitting there in an uninviting minor league stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on a frigid April night in 1981, witnessing the longest professional baseball game ever played. But the story is not merely an inning-by-inning recap of an endless game, which runs more than eight hours into the dawn of Easter Sunday and isn't continued until a couple of months later. The narrative flows with great rhythm against the backdrop of an old fading mill town. It poignantly and often hilariously humanizes so many people and their loyalty to the game. The handful of fans left watching at 3:30 a.m. The ejected manager. Wives and families. Reporters and announcers. Obscure players with big league dreams who will struggle later in life. The opposing young third basemen, Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs, who both wind up in the Hall of Fame. It's a great adventure that makes you think about why baseball is so important to so many. - Roman Stubbs

- "Men at Work" (1990), by George Will

When I was little, before I would listen to New York Yankees games as I fell asleep, my dad read me "Men at Work." I've read it plenty of times since. The book taught me about the nuances of the game and the levels of thought that go into it at the highest level. And anytime I have read it since, it continues to remind me about my earliest moments learning about baseball and how much there remains to learn. - Chelsea Janes

- "Catcher With a Glass Arm" (1964), by Matt Christopher

I could probably cite some of my favorite passages from "Positively Fifth Street," "Moneyball," "Ball Four" or "Why Time Begins on Opening Day "from memory. I can't quite remember the major plot points of "Catcher With a Glass Arm," and I have no idea what I would think of the children's book if I read it today. But recent events have induced sentimentality, and that book makes me more sentimental than any other. I read it in second grade, and I was so obsessed I walked into a parking lot stop sign on the way to school one day. It was the first book that made me love reading. It cracked open a door for me about what sports contained. It made me understand that sports were not something you told stories about but that sports and stories were one and the same. It's not the best sports book I have ever read, but at least for today, it is my favorite. - Adam Kilgore

- "Moneyball" (2003), by Michael Lewis

There are so many ways to go with this pick, but it's probably best not to overthink it. "Moneyball" - the story of the rise of baseball analytics, using the Billy Beane-era Oakland Athletics as the focus - changed everything. It was a brilliant idea, expertly executed. And 17 years later, with baseball front offices filled with executives from what is known as the Moneyball Generation, it continues to resonate. - Dave Sheinin

- "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (1960), by John Updike

Less a sports book and more a sports essay, Updike's 1960 New Yorker chronicle of Ted Williams' final game as a player lives on nearly 60 years later as a towering piece of sportswriting. Lyrical, mystical and with a fluidity to match the Splinter's swing, it has been reprinted countless times, but the 50-year anniversary edition that came out in hardcover 10 years ago is worth the time and the change. It includes a great afterword from the author on his fascination with Williams, and both the inside cover and back cover pull the curtain back on some of Updike's own self-editing, a nice touch. Updike dabbled in sports in his Rabbit series (those novels' central figure is a former high school basketball star), but this was his only true foray into sportswriting. He was one of 10,454 at Fenway Park on that chilly, overcast September day. He stayed to watch Williams homer in his final at-bat. Then he left to write about it. He retired as a sportswriter, undefeated. - Micah Pollack

- "Baseball Life Advice" (2017), by Stacey May Fowles

My favorite recent sports book sprung from Fowles's newsletter of the same name, which she began in 2015 in the midst of a memorable season for her Toronto Blue Jays. Fowles' love for baseball comes through in every essay in the collection, but she refuses to shy away from the sport's problems, particularly in regard to its treatment of women. If you have ever had your heart broken and then healed again by baseball, this book is for you. - Kate Yanchulis

- "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work" (2016), by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

There are so many good sports books, but this was one of my recent favorites. It starts with a fascinating question for any baseball fan - what happens when you run a baseball team with a radical, numbers-based approach? - and carries the experiment through with absorbing characters and consistent humor. The team is a small, independent league club in California, but the stakes are high. Outsiders enter the insiders' domain, put an idea on trial and watch what happens next. - Sam Fortier

- "The Boys of Summer" (1972), by Roger Kahn

Kahn's book changed the way I thought about sports when I read it in college. Kahn was a young beat writer covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, and there is plenty in the book about Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese trying to chase down the Yankees. But then Kahn tracks down the players 20 years later, and the book becomes an anthropological study of nostalgia, aging and what happens to our heroes when they aren't heroes anymore. - Ben Strauss

- "The Last Best League" (2004), by Jim Collins

Collins offers an intimate look at the Cape Cod Baseball League, an elite summer circuit for college players that has produced hundreds of major leaguers in its illustrious history. The author embedded himself for a summer with the Chatham A's, tapping into the thoughts and feelings of the club's stud prospects, bottom-of-the-roster grinders, well-traveled coaches and well-meaning boosters. The result is not just a fascinating lesson about the unusual nature of the Cape League itself but also a relatable exploration of the fragile egos of young ballplayers and the emotional impact of striving to achieve a lifelong dream. - Greg Schimmel

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Basketball:

- "The Breaks of the Game" (1981), by David Halberstam

The NBA has changed a lot in the past 40 years, and this book is a perfect snapshot of a bygone era. Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War coverage, spent the 1979-80 NBA season embedded with the Portland Trail Blazers, three seasons after Bill Walton led the team to its only title. Halberstam was given access to the players and coaches, which allowed him to thoroughly examine the changing social, racial and economic dynamics within the league. The chapters are filled with colorful player anecdotes, and there is an unguarded candor that is hard to find in modern locker rooms. - Tom Johnson

- "A Season on the Brink" (1986), by John Feinstein

No, my esteemed Washington Post colleague did not pay me to endorse his bestseller about the 1985-86 Indiana men's basketball season, but I am doing it anyway because of how groundbreaking it was at the time, given John's unprecedented access to Bob Knight and his players. Millions of copies later, it remains the blueprint for covering a single team for one unforgettable season. And it had a major impact in pushing many, myself included, toward a career in sports journalism. - Gene Wang

- "Play Their Hearts Out" (2010), by George Dohrmann

Although this book rips the innocent facade away from the youth basketball machine as it primarily follows a shameless coach devoted to building a sports empire on the backs of pubescent boys, you can't help but grow invested in these real-life kids. Or root that they win the big tournament AAU games, earn a Division I college scholarship and make it out of this basketball grinder with their souls intact. Some might lazily describe this book as being the "Friday Night Lights" of basketball. But it's more than that. It's the most honest and sobering tale of exploitation in youth sports, and it's one heck of a great read. - Candace Buckner

- "The Last Shot" (1994), by Darcy Frey

"The Last Shot" goes deep into the lives of four high school basketball stars living in Coney Island in the early 1990s, including a cocky freshman named Stephon Marbury. The inside looks at the recruiting process, their home lives and the struggle to balance sports and school are especially compelling. - Jesse Dougherty

- "The Game They Played" (1977), by Stanley Cohen

The 1949-50 City College men's basketball team in New York was extraordinary from its starting lineup to its popularity, which forced the New York Knicks to take into account the school's schedule when they booked games at Madison Square Garden. Then, after the Cinderella squad won the dual championships of the NIT and NCAA, becoming the only team to win both in the same year, a point-shaving scandal forever changed college basketball. Thirty-two players from seven schools, including three from City College, were arrested on charges of fixing games between 1947 and 1950. If you like the book, check out the award-winning HBO documentary "City Dump," which chronicles the team's rise and fall. - Neil Greenberg 

- "Basketball (and Other Things)" (2017), by Shea Serrano

This is a celebration of basketball, and it is as enjoyable for my 12-year-old brother as it is for me. Serrano is the perfect narrator for 33 chapters of musings about everything from pickup game rules to the most disrespectful dunks of all time to which NBA players would be the best accomplices in "The Purge." It's hilarious, it's lighthearted, and it analyzes the most ridiculous questions you never knew you had about hoops. Arturo Torres' amazing illustrations are another bonus - Baron Davis as a viking warrior and Robin Williams and Latrell Sprewell starring in a reimagined version of "Good Will Hunting" are just a couple of the highlights. - Katherine Randolph

- ":07 Seconds or Less" (2006), by Jack McCallum

Following in the sneaker steps of "The Breaks of the Game" and "The Jordan Rules" (Sam Smith on the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls), McCallum embedded with the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns to provide a deep look at an NBA iconoclast. Reading it now, a decade and a half later, you see how the fun, run-and-gun Suns launched basketball into a new era. - Mark Selig

- "Eagle Blue" (2006), by Michael D'Orso

D'Orso takes readers to Alaska, where he embedded for a full season with the high school boys' basketball team in tiny, remote Fort Yukon. If you're a pure sports fan, the book's descriptions of the team's thrilling "rezball" style would be enough to keep you riveted on its run to the state playoffs. But what sets this book apart are the insight and access it provides into the lives of the players, their coach, their families and their tribe - equal parts poignant, funny, devastating and beautiful. - Jeff Dooley

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Others:

- "Seabiscuit" (1999), by Laura Hillenbrand

Who knew that a book about a racehorse who died more than 70 years ago could be so gripping? Based on meticulous research, Hillenbrand unspools a gorgeous page-turner about the eccentric characters who populated the Sport of Kings in its heyday and a small horse who became a champion and lifted the country's spirits amid the Great Depression. Whether you have any use for horse racing or sports at all, I can think of little better to curl up with in these uncertain times. - Liz Clarke

- Three anthologies

I like to recommend sports anthologies because they can be consumed in either small or large chunks of time. My current favorite is "The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins" (2019), edited by John Schulian. "The Norton Book of Sports" (1992), edited by George Plimpton, has pieces by Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Sir Edmund Hillary, P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, John Updike, Carl Sandburg, Sir Bernard Darwin, James Joyce, James Thurber, Art Buchwald, Garrison Keillor, Robert Penn Warren and Norman Mailer. The stuff by "normal sportswriters" stands up very well against the big writers. In "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century" (1999), David Halberstam selects the 50 best sports stories of the 20th century. The three anthologies combined give you a 1,615-page head start on beating the pandemic. - Thomas Boswell

- "Soccer in Sun and Shadow" (1995), by Eduardo Galeano

This romantic ode to the world's game, from the late Uruguayan writer Galeano, is a timeless treasure. It's a collection of short, translated observations about people, places and positions, not to mention poetry, politics and Pelé. Shakespeare and da Vinci make appearances. Ultimately, this little book is about beauty. "When good football happens," Galeano writes, "I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it." - Steven Goff

- "Into Thin Air" (1997), by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer's gripping personal account of ascending Mount Everest while on assignment for Outside magazine in 1996 is the ultimate page-turner. While living vicariously at sea level through Krakauer's trip, which left eight others dead, is more than enough for me, the guides Krakauer met on his journey helped pioneer the booming commercial climbing business on the world's highest peak. - Scott Allen

- "A River Runs Through It" (1976), by Norman Maclean

The closing line, "I am haunted by waters," remains lodged in mind almost three decades after it first passed through the eyes, and it would do so even if Robert Redford hadn't kept the line intact to close the film he adapted from Maclean's work. If a great work makes you think about a subject in a way you never did - in this case, fishing - then hooray here. It's gorgeously written, it's by the man eventual Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens called "the teacher to whom I am most indebted" - Stevens took Maclean's poetry class at the University of Chicago - and it shares the essential quality of all great sports books: It's about the realities and oddities of life on Earth. - Chuck Culpepper

- "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" (1995), by Joan Ryan

I recently read "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," which I would describe as painfully important more than as a warm favorite. But this book is an essential read for anyone hoping to understand why an abusive culture festered in gymnastics and figure skating. The devastating account of elite athletes training through injuries or eating disorders and their tyrannical coaches outlines a win-at-all-cost attitude that became the norm in these sports. The detailed exposé was published in 1995, more than two decades before hundreds of gymnasts came forward as survivors of sexual abuse. - Emily Giambalvo 

- "Born to Run" (2009), by Christopher McDougall

I despise running despite having done it semi-regularly since high school. This book did not change my mind. But McDougall's part-memoir, part-scientific exploration, part-adventure novel captivated me. At its core, this book is a quest that winds from McDougall's doctor's office, where he begins his search for how to run without pain, to Mexico's remote Copper Canyons, where a tribe of indigenous people are known to run for days at a time with little more than sandals strapped to their feet. It's a heart-pounding bit of escapism that has the added benefit of making you really want to get off the couch and get moving - just what I want to read right now. - Ava Wallace

 

 

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