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
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 respected -- and most popular -- of 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 journalists -- among them Gary Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Plaschke, and Rebecca Mead -- throw 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 loved 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 handdddded the 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 earlier, which was 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 essential.
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 greater worth 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 of The 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 the head of 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 canceled.
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. Everything.”
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 some off — 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 Company.
Meet the Author
GLENN STOUT is the author of Young Woman and the Sea and Fenway 1912.
Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller 3 Nights in August and Friday Night Lights, which has sold two million copies and inspired a film and TV franchise. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for The Daily Beast. He has written for the New York Times, The New Republic, Time and many other publications.
- Date of Birth:
- November 1, 1954
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1985-1986
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I love gripping well-written sports writing. To be able to find so much of it in one book is truly gratifying. What I really found fascinating were the stories of lesser known athletes who overcame obstacles and rose to the task at hand. These stories are what America is all about.