Under the Radar Sports Books
Some titles that don’t make ‘best of’ lists, but probably should
The longer we shelter in place, the more boredom seeps in like Golden Gate fog. Many sports fans no longer able to watch live games turn to reading about sports. And many sportswriters no longer able to write about live sports pump out lists of “top sports books” to read while cooped up. The gold standard of these is Sports Illustrated’s “100 Best Sports Books of All Time,” a superlative scroll that does, indeed, include most of the genre’s best literature. But not all of it.
None of the books below are included on the SI list, and most do not grace any “best of” lists as far as I’m aware. These are some gems, some more hidden than others, that I’ve discovered over a lifetime of devouring sports writing. So if you’ve finished the SI list, never started it, or just want a break, here are some reads worth checking out — in no particular order.
Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, edited by Andrew Blauner (Grand Central Publishing 2005).
A range of heavyweight scribes including Frank Deford, John Irving, Buzz Bissinger and Toure’ offer essays on a coach who influenced their lives — both positively and negatively. By turns funny, sad, poignant, and thought provoking, the stories carry messages that will resonate with every coach and player, present and former.
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The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016).
A finalist for the National Book Award, this innovative, well-crafted novel tells the story of a group of friends that meets annually to recreate one of the most gruesome plays in NFL history. On Nov. 18, 1985, America watched in horror on Monday Night Football as blitzing New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor snapped the leg of Washington Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theismann, ending Theismann’s career. Despite the grisly premise, the tale brims with humor…and human pathos.
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The Long Snapper: A Second Chance, a Super Bowl, a Lesson for Life, by Jeffrey Marx (HarperCollins, 2009)
After a 12-year career, NFL player Brian Kinchen had retired and was teaching elementary school when the Patriots needed an emergency long snapper. He wins the job, but starts developing a case of the yips just as the Pats are headed to the Super Bowl. How long ’til this becomes a Disney movie?
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The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball, by Frank Deford (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2008)
Deford has one book on the SI list, “Everybody’s All American,” and It’s hard to believe this one didn’t join it there. If you love sublime craftsmanship, baseball, and an engaging story with a powerful ending, look no further. And when you’re finished, break out the tissues and follow up with Alex: The Life of a Child, Deford’s deeply personal, non-sports memoir of his daughter’s eight-year battle with Cystic Fibrosis.
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Hardball: A Season in the Projects, by Daniel Coyle (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994)
In the early 1990s, a small miracle occurred in Chicago. A businessman and a city human services worker founded a thriving youth baseball league at Cabrini-Green, the nation’s second-largest housing project. Equal parts baseball tale and sociological study, the book follows the fortunes of the Kikuyus, a team of 11- and 12-year-olds coached by a cadre of young white, upper-class executives, during a season of constant gang warfare.
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Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen, by Joe Drape (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)
Journey with the Redmen of Smith Center, Kansas (population: 1,931), as they strive for their fifth consecutive state football title amid rumors of change. Drape, a New York Times sports writer, actually moved his family to Smith Center while writing this book.
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What A Time It Was: The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports, by W. C. Heinz (Da Capo Press, 2001)
SI’s exclusion of this volume from its 100 Best list is bewildering, especially since it includes collections from two other sports writers, Red Smith and Grantland Rice. For my money Heinz was the best ever. His classic book on a week with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, Run to Daylight, is an equally bewildering omission from the SI list. The Professional, his seminal boxing novel, is on SI’s Top 100 but ranked much too low at number 51. And in another plug for a non-sports book, Heinz’s The Surgeon is one of the best novels you’ve never read. Heinz also wrote the book MASH, by the way, under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. The dude was prolific!
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Life on the Rim: A Year in the Continental Basketball Association, by David Levine (Macmillan, 1990)
In 1988, a young ex-NBA coach named George Karl is trying to claw back into the league by doing penance with the Albany Patroons, of the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. A few years later, the Seattle Supersonics will hire him away from a league in Spain, and Karl will lead the Sonics to the NBA finals go on to have a long and colorful NBA coaching career. This peak behind the curtain is well written and fascinating. If you’re a Karl fan, pair this with his recent biography, Furious George, a fun and smooth read that also delves into his, and his son’s, battles with cancer.
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The Education of a Coach, by David Halberstam (Hyperion-Acquired Assets, 2006)
Sticking with coaching biographies, how can you go wrong with Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, detailing the life of Bill Belichick, history’s most successful NFL coach? This was written, of course, before Belichick became BELICHICK and the dynasty had really begun. A keen insight into a dedicated professional.
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Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion, by Pete Carroll (Portfolio, 2011)
Disclaimer: I’m a Seahawks’ fan. Also: I wasn’t initially impressed with the hiring of Carroll, and didn’t expect to be impressed much with this book (I see many Amazon reviewers aren’t). That said, I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s the story of a man who reinvented himself, became one of the most successful head coaches of his era in both college and the NFL, and has written down his formula for our benefit!
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Make the Big Time Where You Are, by Frosty Westering (Big Five Productions, 1990)
Few outside the Puget Sound region have heard of Westering, who led Pacific Lutheran University to four national football titles while compiling a ridiculous 305–96–7 career record (.756). Like Carroll, he had a different style than traditional coaches of his time. The book is out of print and a little bit cheesy, but with a pedigree like this the man’s message deserves to be studied.
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Got your own suggestions? Leave them in the comments, or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org