The Best American Sports Writing 2003by Buzz Bissinger
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor… See more details below
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respectedand most popularof its kind.
Buzz Bissinger selects the very best writing on a vast variety of competitive endeavors, from baseball to weightlifting, skating to demolition derby. Herein today's foremost journalistsamong them Gary Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Plaschke, and Rebecca Meadthrow revealing light on a pantheon of stars: Shaquille O'Neal, Bobby Fischer, Mike Tyson, the San Diego Chicken, and more.
Read an Excerpt
If you care, as I do, with a love and passion that is almost mysterious
because of the very depths of it, this was the year that pushed me overboard.
To hell with sports. To hell with all of it. To hell with the greed and
the pettiness. To hell with that insouciant arrogant athlete swagger of I-could-
care-less, man-boys making their millions and not putting out a dime's worth
of effort for it.
The hype got to me, the towering Babel of Kornheiser and Wilbon
and Rome and Tom Arnold, Tom Arnold for godsakes. The saturation got to
me, college football games around the clock, NCAA basketball for every
mood swing, the NFL draft receiving almost as much bad seat-of-the-pants
analysis as the War in Iraq. The scandals got to me, the pathetic shame of
the Harricks at Georgia and the decision by St. Bonaventure, when
confronted with cheating, to simply cancel the rest of the basketball season
as if it never happened. I got tired of sports pages reading like rap sheets. I
got tired of wondering whether Shaq liked Kobe or Kobe liked Shaq. I got
tired of checking the box score every night to see how many times Rasheed
Wallace had pouted. The more I read about high school basketball
wunderkind LeBron James, the more it seemed like a nasty little morality
play, big-time magazines and big-time networks making this kid larger than
life only to chisel away at him when he began to act like the entitled smack-
ass monster that they of course had created.
I went to a couple of Major League Baseball games, but they were
at Veterans Stadium in Philly where I live. The stadium is amorphous and
atmosphere-less, everything about it drab except for the hideous glaring
green of the artificial-surface field and the increasingly desperate prancings of
the Phanatic. By the time it got into the fifth inning, the players seemed like
they were in slow motion in the thick soupy summer Philly heat, and I knew
it wasn't just the beer that was inducing such bleary-eyed lethargy.
I went to an NBA game in Seattle. Thanks to a friend, I had a
great seat on the floor right opposite the Seattle SuperSonics' bench. The
SuperSonics were playing Indiana, and the game was pretty good, actually
damn good since it went into overtime. You couldn't help but admire the
intensity of Gary Payton even if his scowl did cast the entire arena in
shadow. But it was the conduct of the players on the Seattle bench that drew
my attention, the way they rose for a team huddle during a time-out with all
the enthusiasm of arthritic octogenarians, the cool little nods they gave
during the game to friends in the stands, as if what happened after the game
was a whole lot more important than what was happening during it.
I went to a pro football game in Tennessee. It was a big game, a
Monday Night game on ABC, the Titans versus the Patriots. As a result,
there was a lot of hype, and it seemed to me that for some of the players, in
particular Jevon Kearse, the pregame intro was far more important than the
game itself, the way he ran onto the field like a gyrating drum major,
swiveling his head back and forth with slightly less effect than when Linda
Blair did her 360 in The Exorcist. It was a grand entrance, a great entrance.
The fans l it. The cameras loved it. Kearse loved it most of all, making
his invisible play during the game almost incidental. Face time, baby. Face
time. And he had gotten lots of face time in that preening cockadoodle strut,
better than any sack.
The disillusionment I felt wasn't something conjured up. Sports
truly has defined my life, a presence as powerful in my forties as it was in my
prepubescence. Drawing ever closer to the no-man's-land of fifty, I am
shocked by the slippage of so many facts that were once at my fingertips.
And yet, there is all this sports knowledge that still crams my head, as if
there is a specific part of the brain actually dedicated to the gathering and
permanent collection of it, a frontal sports lobe.
I can't tell you where I was last week, but I can tell you exactly
where I was when Joe Pepitone hit a grand slam for the Yankees in game 6
of the 1964 World Series — on the Eighty-sixth Street cross-town bus just
as it was leaving Fifth Avenue, the sublime knowledge of it coming from men
in coats and ties with transistor radios glued to their ears. I can't come close
to telling you who the presidents of our nation were in the twentieth century,
but I can list off the top of my head all the World Series champions from 1957
to 1980. Before September 11 I had no idea where Afghanistan was, much
less its political climate, but I do know that the great Dartmouth football team
of 1970, where my father went to college, shut out six of nine opponents in
its undefeated season and gave up only forty-two points.
I remember sitting in the Yale Bowl in tears as a child when the
Elis handed Big Green a particularly humiliating 56–15 defeat, and I still
can feel the arm of my father cupping my skinny shoulder blades, trying to
console me in the cold shiver of that barren hateful place. Close to forty years
later, in 2001, as my father lay in a hospital bed in New York trying to stave
off the cancer that would kill him and I groped for words of reassurance that
would not come because there was no reassurance that I could give, the
bond that held us together was the sweet music of the Yankees. We
watched the American League Championship Series games together against
the Mariners, and it gave my father and me something to care about, unite
over, share together, without having to confront what neither of us could
confront. He loved the Yankees, and he had passed that love on to me. We
didn't say much as we watched. We let the games do the talking for us. But
as they unfolded, he suddenly blurted out that he had actually seen both
Ruth and DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium, and that for his money DiMaggio
was the best he ever saw, the grace of him like magic.
We reminisced over game 4 of the 1964 World Series, Yankees
versus the Cardinals at Yankee Stadium, when he had somehow copped a
pair of tickets and had decided to take me. I was nine at the time, and in that
hospital room I could still recall the score, a devastating 4–3 Yankee loss
after the Bombers had gone up 3–0 in the first. I remembered the
circumstances that had caused it as if it had happened yesterday, an error
by my favorite player, second baseman Bobby Richardson, on an easy
double-play ball that loaded the bases, followed by a grand slam by Ken
Boyer off of Al Downing into left field that I mercifully didn't have to witness
because there was a big fat concrete girder in front of us like there was in
front of most seats in the old Yankee Stadium.
In fact, I didn't move out of my seat at all on the crack of Boyer's
bat. The instant I heard it I knew it was bad, but my father rose, as did all the
thousands around us, moving in unison with outstretched necks a little bit
like a Bill Gallo cartoon in the New York Daily News, then cranking their
necks back in when the havoc Boyer had just wrought became sadly
apparent. When my father looked back at me, there was such a sweet sense
of concern in his eyes, as if he knew I would impale myself on the nearest
mustard dispenser if left to my own devices. I was crushed, totally crushed,
the slap-in-the-face of Ken Boyer's home run only made worse by the fact
that he had a brother Clete who played for the Yankees (how could you do
something like that to your own brother?), not to mention the shame of
Bobby Richardson, who never made an error. Never. Never. Until now when I
was there to witness it.
I did not do any harm to myself, as it turned out. But I did not
speak for the rest of the day. I simply could not, and maybe that sounds
extreme, although it really wasn't if you were a kid discovering the thrill of first
love in your hometown sports team.
As I related the details to my father, he looked at me and asked
how it was possible that I still remembered 'all this shit,' particularly when he
acknowledged that he couldn't remember what he had had for dinner two
hours earli maybe not such a bad thing given that it was
hospital food. We laughed, something we so rarely did anymore. In the orb of
that hospital room where he lay dying, watching the Yankees was somehow
enough to make us forget, at least for a little bit. Like the father and son we
once had been, or maybe just like little kids at a sleepover, we turned off the
lights, the glow of that television set enough to make us feel safe. We could
not talk about what was really happening. But we could talk about the
magnificence of the Rocket's longevity. We could marvel at the fluid serenity
of Bernie's swing. We could both agree that no place in the world was more
lonely than the batter's box from the left side when Mariano threw one of
those wicked cutters.
Maybe it all sounds overdone and silly. Maybe this idea of sports
having such a hold, even in the face of the death of someone you love, is the
reflection of an empty life, or at least a life with odd priorities. But the place of
sports had been that powerful, which made the potential loss of it over the
past year not a matter of defiant anger, one man's fuck-you to the spoiled
brats who increasingly dominated it, but the genuine loss of something
Even the football-mad chaos of Odessa, Texas, where I had spent
a year while researching the book Friday Night Lights, had not filled me with
the profound sense of deflation that I now felt. The excesses that I witnessed
as I chronicled the Panthers of Permian High School were no doubt shocking
and disturbing — racism, a warped sense of values in which the culture of
football was considered of far great than the culture of academics,
more money spent on athletic tape and travel by chartered jet than on books
for the English department. But even in the obsession of Odessa there was a
saving grace — the nobility of the kids who played, their dedication to a goal
so far beyond the immediacy of themselves. The games across the
windswept West Texas plains on a Friday night were unlike anything I had
ever witnessed — exciting, valiant, even poetic, in the sense of these boys
sacrificing themselves for the sake of a town that so depended on them.
I was disturbed by what I saw, terribly disturbed, but I wasn't
turned off. Not like the past twelve months. With more and more regularity,
the television went on and then went off after a quarter, or an inning, or a
period. I watched the 2002World Series between the Anaheim Angels and
the San Francisco Giants, but it felt like obligatory duty. Being a Yankees
fan had no doubt spoiled me, but the games started too late and then
seemed to go on for days. You could get up in the middle to take a nap, have
a shower, go to the 7-Eleven for a box of Sugar Pops, make a bank deposit,
have a garage sale, and still find yourself in the top of the eighth with Tim
McCarver making the same point he had made in the second. The Super
Bowl? I know the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in it, but it just took me a
good minute to remember whom they played. The NBA finals between the
San Antonio Spurs and the New Jersey Nets? Don't be ridiculous . . .
And then something strange happened.
A query asking if I might be interested in serving as the guest
editor for the 2003 edition Best American Sports Writing. An answer of
yes, largely because of the flattery of being asked and following in the
footsteps of such figures as David Halberstam and Richard Ford. Followed by
a feeling of dread that it would be a chore and a pain in the ass, having to
read some eighty-odd entries with some fair degree of seriousness and then
cull them down to the twenty-five best, assuming there were twenty-five best.
Like most things in my life, what started as something joyful psychologically
mutated into an albatross around my neck. Why did I say yes?
But once the entries started arriving, something truly unexpected
happened. From the very first story I read, and continuing until they had all
been exhausted, I found myself enthralled and delighted. It made the job
easy, dread replaced by craving as I waited for the next packet of stories to
arrive. I also found myself feeling a sense of gratitude, the best funkiest
qualities of sports not lost at all, but there all along in the hands of exquisite
writers with the eye and appetite to scoop it out.
It's there in Susy Buchanan's piece on demolition derby in
Arizona, where among the cast of deliciously deranged wackos is a pair of
brothers known as the Shoeless boys:
Shoeless Jim is twenty-six years old with thick glasses and a permanently
dazed look on his face. He's been racing since he was thirteen. The
shoeless nickname stems from the fact that he and his kin don't wear
shoes — ever — because 'that's the way our daddy raised us. That's how
everyone is back home.'
It's there in Bill Plaschke's ability to literally get inside th
the San Diego Chicken and report that it's 'sour, steamy, a moldy shower
stall in a darkened locker room.' It's there in Ted Levin's piece on bird
watching in Camden Yards, which gives a whole new method for coping with
a rain delay:
At 6:34 p.m., Casey spots ten great egrets flying in loose formation above left
field, white birds against a dark sky, like a bevy of outfielders dressed in
immaculate home jerseys. A ring-billed gull lands in shallow center field,
walks around in tight circles, wet to the bone. Mercifully, the game is
It is there in David Grann's profile of Barry Bonds, which gives us
an insight into Bonds that makes him seem almost sympathetic given his
puzzling and pathetic layers of persecution:
He had spies up in the press booth, Bonds explained to me, that reported
back to him the things reporters and broadcasters said to one another. 'They
don't know I have ears up there, but I do. I know everything they say.
And it's there in Rebecca Mead's ability to capture Shaq's very
strange world by describing the utilitarian act of using a cell phone:
He holds it in front of his mouth and talks into it as if it were a walkie-talkie,
and then swivels it up to his ear to listen, as if the phone were a tiny planet
making a quarter-orbit around the sun of his enormous head.
It's there in these stories and twenty more just as good. They
span a spectrum of subjects from Bonds to Shaq to Michael Jordan to Bobby
Fischer to Pancho Gonzalez to Jud Heathcote to the San Diego Chicken.
They tap into a host of subjects, some on the beaten path and —
the well-meaning but inept ludicrousness of the NFL trying to teach pro
football rookies how not to behave badly by handing out condoms; the bitter
fight over the ownership of a baseball that ends up in the hands of a federal
judge; crouching in a tiny three-by-four-foot cubbyhole of an America's Cup
sailboat as it cuts the water at forty-five degrees in seventeen-knot winds.
Some of the stories, like Elizabeth Gilbert's about a former
Ironman competitor named Jim MacLaren, reveal a resolve in the face of
tragedy as uplifting as it is incomprehensible. Some of them, like Rene
Chun's piece about Bobby Fischer, reveal shocking disgrace. Some of them,
like Josh Sens's piece about playing a round of golf with a Tibetan lama, are
sweet and hilarious. Some of them, like S. L. Price's profile of Pancho
Gonzalez, or Bill Donahue's chronicle of the rise and fall of former Olympic
gold medalist skier Bill Johnson, are so sad and haunting they will linger long
after you have read them.
Each story is different, of course. Each stands alone. But there is
a cumulative force to them, an evocation of sports sometimes glorious and
sometimes inglorious but with a momentum and weight powerful enough to
convince even the most disillusioned member of the flock that there is reason
after all to stick with the church.
To hell with sports?
Not when it's your religion.
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company. Introduction copyright ©
2003 by Buzz Bissinger. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
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