News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: Basketball Books and Today’s NBA: Cross Sports Book Awards; Pelé’s Sports Auction; Frank Deford Goes Short
The imaginative work that flowed from the life, times and splendid athletic and public career of Muhammad Ali was often worthy of the boxer’s legend, and not just because legions of writers, filmmakers and artists around the world had an ideal subject to portray.
Those who wrote about, drew, filmed and created other portraits of one of the most influential sports and cultural figures of the 20th century were heavyweights of their own literary, journalistic, cinematic and artistic domains, and their Ali-related output is just as unforgettable as the man who provided the raw material.
As Janan Ganesh wrote in The Financial Times in February, as an Ali exhibit opened in London, it was his less saintly side that attracted the literati.
The poetic, loquacious and often bombastic Ali, who died in Phoenix Friday night at the age of 74 (here’s Robert Lipsyte’s tremendous NYT obituary), didn’t really need anyone to articulate for him. Even after the onset of Parkinson’s disease, with which he lived for more than 30 years, Ali attracted the attention of younger generations who never saw him in the ring, but did witness his poignant, trembling lighting of the torch during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
For those of us fortunate (and old enough) to observe the fighter, Muslim convert, Vietnam draft refusenik and Parkinson’s sufferer through the many stages of his luminous life, it is hard to explain his legacy in brief and simplistic terms to those who did not.
The man born Cassius Clay and who renamed himself Muhammad Ali just as the United States became embroiled in civil rights and anti-war unrest was as complex as the nation that spawned him, and that’s what I think made him appealing. Not just to the underclasses and minority populations of America, but for millions around the world.
Ali was fully and richly human, entertaining and maddening, full of bravado and deeply spiritual. As failing health and age robbed him of his silver tongue and his brawny, proudly black masculinity, even some who disliked his political views and resistance to the military (myself included) increasingly admired the fearlessness and honesty that he possessed to be himself, whether one liked that or not.
I think too much has been made by Ali’s admirers of what he sacrificed in losing three years from his boxing career for defying draft induction. I can’t help but think of the tens of thousands of young men of all races and backgrounds who sacrificed so much more. Their names are on the walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
I don’t hold that against Ali as I once did. For a very long time, I was angry that he got to enjoy the restoration of his boxing career and heavyweight title, and was feted after the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. He also popularized poor sportsmanship, and regrettably, this is a permanent feature of our sports culture today.
While I’ll never approve of the vision that Ali’s mentor, Malcolm X, had for America (he was a racial separatist, no less so than white Southern segregationists), I can understand why Ali identified with the Nation of Islam founder, and as sports historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith wrote in a recent book about their friendship, how they grew apart.
Ali helped us all navigate some momentous, troubling times with the power of his own individual example and determination to live by principles that were as subversive during his young adulthood as they are more widely accepted today.
The following links represent the work and remembrances of some of the writers, authors, journalists and authors who knew Ali best, and who gave us marvelous creative portraits of a larger-than-life figure. I can’t do Ali or his chroniclers proper justice, but there’s so much here to savor in this modest sampling of a colossal body of work.
- Thomas Hauser, author of “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” for The Guardian;
- David Remnick, author of “King of the World,” for The New Yorker;
- Dave Kindred, author of “Sound and Fury,” for Fox Sports;
- Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist and longtime Ali friend, for The Star-Ledger;
- Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s former physician, in a Q and A for USA Today.
Memorable stories about Ali:
- Alex Haley’s interview with Ali (then Cassius Clay) for Playboy magazine, 1964;
- “The Passion of Muhammad Ali,” by Leonard Schechter for Esquire magazine, 1968;
- “Muhammad Ali: Then and Now,” by Dick Schaap for Sport magazine, 1971;
- “Lawdy, lawdy he’s great,” Mark Kram, author of “Ghosts of Manila,” for Sports Illustrated, from Ali-Frazier III in Manila, 1975;
- “My Dinner With Ali,” by Davis Miller, author of “Approaching Ali;” story originally published in 1989 by Louisville Courier-Journal and adapted in 2013 at Deadspin.
More About Ali:
• Books: The Greatest: My Own Story | Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight | The Fight | The Muhammad Ali Reader | The Mammoth Book of Muhammad Ali | Goat: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali | Tales from the 5th Street Gym
Basketball Books and Today’s NBA
With the NBA finals underway, I’ve written on the blog this week about a number of basketball books that illuminate where the league is today, and how its present-day popularity came to be.
The evolution of the jump shot in Shawn Fury’s “Rise and Fire” isn’t limited to the NBA, but the long-range exploits of the Golden State Warriors provide a timely update to how far the modern game of basketball has come in such a short time.
Jonathan Abrams’ “Boys Among Men” is a terrific deep-dive into the last of the NBA stars, including LeBron James, to jump right from the high school ranks. A decade later, the “one and done” rule has produced mixed results, and Abrams offers up some nominal solutions.
I also wrote about “Chasing Perfection” by Andy Glockner, which illustrates how NBA front offices are using analytics, data visualization and other high-tech tools to assess player performance and guide them in roster moves. Glockner’s “most perfected player” is Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver, who’s improved his already stellar three-point shooting prowess with some of the techniques covered in the book.
While there are so many good new books about basketball and the NBA, Pete Axthelm’s classic about the 1970 New York Knicks championship team remains at the top of my list. In my ode to “The City Game,” I explained about how the late Axthelm, better known to many as a sports TV oddsmaker, deftly weaved the story of the Knicks against the backdrop of playground hoops in New York City, and tragic figures like Earl “The Goat” Manigault, whose lives were ravaged by drugs and poverty.
In my latest book review, I examined a full-scale biography of the late Dražen Petrović, “The Mozart of Basketball,” by Todd Spehr. We take for granted the global stars in the NBA today, but it’s easy to forget how much Petrović, who died in a car accident just as his career was peaking, had to work to overcome skeptical perceptions inside the league about international players. His work ethic, flair and determination earned him tremendous respect in the NBA, and his pioneering journey is given a respectful tribute in this book.
One of the first North American writers to take note of Petrović is Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated, whose 2002 book, “Big Game, Small World,” explored the global soul of basketball and still serves as a comprehensive guide to how expansive the game has become in all corners of the planet.
Last weekend I finally met Wolff (a Sports Biblio subscriber!), who participated in a panel discussion on basketball writing at the North American Society for Sport History conference at Georgia Tech.
It was a terrific conversation that I will be writing about in more detail on the blog very soon. Wolff, most recently the author of “The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama,” is continuing his globetrotting ways, and is currently taking a pre-Olympics reporting visit to Rio de Janeiro.
Another panelist I’ve been eager to meet is Yago Colás, a comparative literature professor at the University of Michigan and author of the newly published “Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.” The book (excerpt here) is an historical romp blending the use of language and the game’s many myths dating back from the Naismith era to Rasheed Wallace’s signature phrase that serves as the book title, and that has become ubiquitous in hoops media.
There’s a Yahoo! Sports NBA blog with the same title, and likewise, there’s a film about a junior high hoops prodigy. Colás, whose personal blog, Between the Lines, is a terrific read for hoops mavens, told me his next book is about basketball and analytics. Here’s more on what he has in mind. Also check out this Q and A Colás did recently with Bryan Harvey at The Classical.
One other NBA-related read comes from Mark McCluskey at Wired on how techies are trying to turn the NBA into the world’s biggest sports league. With owners like Steve Ballmer, Mark Cuban, Joe Lacob and others having made their fortunes from the tech industry, the spirit of innovation is high in spreading the NBA’s in-game feel around the world. As NBA commissioner Adam Silver told McCluskey:
“Our future over the next decade will be defined by technology’s ability to come as close as we can to replicating that courtside experience.”
More Props for ‘Barbarian Days’
William Finnegan’s surfing memoir “Barbarian Days” was among the winners announced this week during the Cross Sports Book Awards at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Ronda Rousey’s memoir “My Fight, Your Fight,” was named the best international autobiography, but the majority of these awards are for books published in the British Isles during 2015.
Longtime soccer journalist Brian Glanville also was honored in the outstanding contribution to sports writing category.
Bill Simmons’ Empire Grows
The Ringer was launched this week, and if it has some of the look and feel of Grantland, well, you’re right. Bill Simmons’ latest sports and pop culture site features about 20 or so former staffers of Grantland, although we’re already being lectured not to see too many parallels.
HBO is rolling out Simmons’ new program, “Any Given Sunday,” on June 22. The Ringer, which was preceded by a podcast and daily newsletter, is apparently being done separately, as Simmons tries to recreate independently what he did at ESPN until late last year, when a rather ugly fallout that ensued.
Personally I don’t care for pop culture being mixed in with sports, but I’ve never been a charter member of Simmons Nation. I’m also a quite weary of a proliferation of writing about sports media, but Grantland refugee Bryan Curtis is an exception, and his debut piece for The Ringer is an interesting read about Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Joe Buck.
At The Big Lead, Ryan Glasspiegel speculates on how The Ringer is being funded, among other things.
- Pelé is set to auction off his entire collection of sports memorabilia, which could fetch millions;
- The always-excellent SI Vault podcast explores the history and evolution of baseball cards, including expertise from curator Freyda Spira of the Jefferson Burdick Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A Few Good Reads
- John Branch of The New York Times, winner of the 2015 PEN sports writing award for his book on Derek Boogaard, continues his work about hockey players and concussions. He writes about former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat, who has been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease afflicting many football players and needs his family to help care for him;
- After 50 years in downtown Atlanta, my hometown Braves will be moving, closer to me in the suburbs. My friend Ray Glier, an excellent freelancer for many years, writes this for Vice Sports on how many in the poor community surrounding Turner Field are bracing for the absence of a big-league baseball team;
- A longstanding dispute over the use of an iconic Babe Ruth photo has been resolved;
- Ex-Grantland writer Louisa Thomas has landed at The New Yorker, and writes something of a nuanced piece on the gender wage complaint filed by the U.S. women’s soccer team;
- At NY Mag, Atlanta native Rembert Browne (also part of the Grantland diaspora), has a terrific Q and A with my friend Doris Burke of ESPN on the NBA, the challenges of women in sports media and her favorite hoopster, Diana Taurasi. Money quote: “Diana, she was as good a passer as I’ve seen, but she didn’t mind being a bitch;”
- In Colorado, Frederick Dreier writes about a feud over the use of a backcountry trail involving hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders who can’t seem to get along;
- From the excellent Victory Journal, a glimpse into the world of American ski jumpers;
- At The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay wonders if American Ninja Warrior represents the future of sports. I sure as hell hope not.
News About Sports Books
Sports media writer Ed Sherman serves up some mini-book reviews in the Chicago Tribune, including a new Dick Allen biography and the latest from Frank Deford, “I’d Know That Voice Anywhere,” a collection of his now-discontinued NPR sports commentaries. For The Poynter Institute blog, Sherman talks to Deford about how he learned to write short after many years of going long at Sports Illustrated;
At the Mint on Sunday, an interesting Indian webzine previously unknown to me, Dilip D’Souza offer his appreciation of John McEnroe’s autobiography and “Forty-Eight Minutes: A Night in the Life of the NBA,” a 1987 classic by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto.
Hot Off The Presses
Here are notable books being published in the coming week:
- Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports, by Cyd Zeigler (Edge of Sports, Tuesday)—More gay and transgender athletes, coaches and sports executives are coming out. The author, a co-founder of Outsports, a gay sports site and gay sports activist, discusses their journeys and challenges.
- Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour, by Shane Ryan (Ballantine, Thursday)—A survey of the new landscape of the men’s pro golf tour, as Tiger Woods fades from the scene and new stars like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are dominating.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 42, published June 5, 2016. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website, which is updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
I’d love to hear what you think. Send feedback, suggestions, book recommendations and requests for interviews to Wendy Parker, firstname.lastname@example.org.