Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing of 2017

These were the best pieces I read in 2017.

Honorable Mentions

A Team Of Their Own – Jessica Luther [Bleacher Report]

When The Levee Breaks – Spencer Hall [Every Day Should Be Saturday]

How SB Nation Profits Off An Army Of Exploited Workers – Laura Wagner [Deadspin]

The NBA’s Secret Addiction – Baxter Holmes [ESPN the Magazine]

Who Is Saul “Canelo” Alvarez? – Roberto Jose Andrade Franco [Deadspin]

How Did The Lakers Get Here? The Inside Story Of The Buss Drama – Ramona Shelburne [ESPN.com]

The Power Struggle At Georgetown Goes Back To A Petty, 50-Year old D.C. High School Hoops Feud – Dave McKenna [Deadspin]

Why Richard Sherman Can’t Let Go Of Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss – Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]

What You Can’t – Colin McGowan [Medium]

The Top Ten

10. (tie) Judge And Altuve – Bill James [Bill James Online]

10. (tie) The Next Battle In The War Over WAR – Rany Jazayeri [The Ringer]

Dive into the debate dividing the sabermetrics community with the first piece from Bill James, one of the pioneers of the field of advanced analytics, and the second piece from Rany Jazayeri which contextualizes the debate and explains what it all means.  The short version is that Bill James believes WAR is a flawed statistic and backs up his case by comparing Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve’s MVP cases, despite their near equal WAR in 2017 (James believes Altuve was vastly superior).  It’s intellectually challenging but I found the arguments on both sides to be fascinating, especially since advanced stats finally feel like a normal part of the fan experience these days (in baseball, at least).  These are the kind of watershed moments that will define an entire field in the decades to come and I especially appreciated the second piece for breaking down the impact that James’ essay had on that community.

9. The Ratio Is The Triple Crown Of Bad Tweets – David Roth [Deadspin]

This piece is equal parts stupid and brilliant.  To understand it, one needs to understand the ins and outs of the user experience on Twitter in 2017.  Roth uses an incredible sports metaphor to explain the reactions certain tweets get from users on the social media platform.  I laughed out loud and find myself now tracking tweets using the idea from this piece.  One of the most memorable pieces I’ve read in years.

8. This Is For Boston – Isaiah Thomas [The Players Tribune]

Who better to explain the shock of the Celtics/Cavaliers blockbuster trade than one of the centerpiece players?  Thomas does a remarkable job of explaining his mixed emotions about the deal but the best part is the connection he describes with the city of Boston and how perfectly matched both player and city were together.  Here’s hoping the trend of athlete in-their-own-word pieces continues to produce excellent content into the future.

7. Sin City Or Bust – Don Van Natta Jr. & Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]

I don’t know how these two do it, but it seems like Van Natta and Wickersham are personally at the table taking minutes during the NFL owners’ meetings.  The piece is full of juicy nuggets and impeccably-reported details about the Raiders move to Las Vegas and how the seemingly inept Mark Davis outmaneuvered Las Vegas’ shrewdest businessman and the entire NFL to get a new city and stadium for his team.

6. Pat Riley’s Final Test – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]

A legend of sports writing meets a legend of basketball.

5. Fractured Friendship Of Aaron Hernandez And A Gangster Played Out In Bone-Chilling Court Scene – Dan Wetzel [Yahoo! Sports]

It’s hard to believe that the story of a former NFL player getting convicted of murder and subsequently committing suicide isn’t on the top ten list of craziest things that happened in the last year.  Dynamite columnist Dan Wetzel was there for the whole ride of the arrest, investigation, and court battles that ensued and it culminated in this remarkable piece about a courtroom confrontation between Aaron Hernandez and his former friend.

4. The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles – Dion Waiters [The Players Tribune]

This piece came out within the same week as the Pat Riley article above. Despite the odds of going against the best sports writer in a generation getting unlimited access to a near impenetrable subject in Pat Riley, Dion Waiters beat the odds and had the more interesting piece of writing.  Kind of poetic–as he’ll explain in the article–what with a long-shot guy like him making the NBA and playing his Miami Heat team within inches of the playoffs after being written off as a bust.

3. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Lost So Much More Than A Fight – Roberto Jose Andrade Franco [Deadspin]

I learned so much about so many topics in this piece: Mexico, Boxing, Machismo, Masculinity, Julio Cesar Chavez, etc.  Please read this piece about what an athlete can mean to an entire nation and how the weight of that burden eventually falls to his children (unfairly or not).  It’s a sports history lesson and a cultural deconstruction of Mexican masculinity all wrapped up into one of the best pieces of sports writing this year.

2. Rodger Goodell Has A Jerry Jones Problem, And Nobody Knows How It Will End – Don Van Natta Jr. & Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]

These two writers are the Jerry Jones whisperers. Get all the juicy details from Jerry Jones very public dispute with Roger Goodell over the state of his contract negotiations.

1. Colin Kaepernick Has A Job – Rembert Browne [Bleacher Report]

Like it or not, Colin Kaepernick was the most discussed sports story of 2017.  This was the best piece written about him and Browne managed to do it all without getting any access to the quarterback.

Share

Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing of 2016

These were the best pieces I read in 2016.

Honorable Mentions

A Guy Like Me – John Scott [The Players Tribune]

Cam Newton Is Changing The Definition Of Southern Gentleman – Spencer Hall [SB Nation]

The NFL Has An Age Problem – Kevin Clark [The Ringer]

What Happened To Robert Swift? – Chris Ballard [Sports Illustrated]

After The Process: Meet Sam Hinkie 2.0 – Chris Ballard [Sports Illustrated]

Long Time Coming: End Comes For David Blatt’s Bumpy Cavs Tenure – Brian Windhorst & Dave McMenamin [ESPN.com]

The Art Of Letting Go – Mina Kimes [ESPN the Magazine]

Rory McIlroy Doesn’t Know What He Wants – Kevin Van Valkenburg [ESPN.com]

Farewell, Champions Of Havana – Brin-Jonathan Butler [Roads & Kingdoms]

The Top Ten

10. The Writer Who Was Too Strong To Live – Dave McKenna [Deadspin]

A remarkable obituary written for a talented sports writer whose alcoholism prevented her from reaching the heights of the profession.  It’s a deeply moving piece, not for the weary-hearted.

9. How The Daily Fantasy Sports Industry Turns Fans Into Suckers – Jay Capian Kang [The New York Times]

There were several pieces this year written about the downfall of the daily sports industry but this was the first piece I read that specifically discussed the structural designs of the business model that led to its collapse.  Kang is an ultra talented writer/reporter but this was my favorite piece from him this year due to its timing and intelligence in seeing an emerging issue before anyone else.

8. Zero Tolerance For Domestic Violence Will Only Make It Worse – Diana Moskovitz [Deadspin]

Moskovitz had a hell of a year writing for Deadspin this year and has carved out a corner  all her own with her in-depth coverage of the intersection of sexual assault, domestic violence, and sports.  This was her opus. She eloquently writes about the perils of effectively treating and preventing domestic violence in sports.

7. Holding The T – Tad Friend [The New Yorker]

I never thought I would enjoy an essay about the little-known sport of squash as much as I did this piece.  It’s really about so much more than that though.  The author writes about overcoming the effects of age on his body while simultaneously gaining knowledge and passion of the sport in his old age.  It’s also a charming piece about being a dad and loving sports for no apparent reason.

6. The Crossroads Of Hoosier Hysteria – Mark Titus [The Ringer]

I say this every year, but my favorite sports articles always have an element of the author’s own story included in the piece.  Titus is an Indiana-born basketball junkie who discusses the perilous future of basketball in the hoops-obsessed state of Indiana.  Only a person who was born and raised in that part of the world could write about the topic this well.  Highly recommended for basketball fans of any kind.

5. Hooked For Life – George Dohrmann [Huffington Post]

We all know the NFL is an evil profit-hungry corporation who refuses to believe in science when discussing player health.  Did you also know they’re using tobacco-style marketing to try to hook children while they’re in elementary school?  There seems to be no depth too low for the NFL these days and this depressing piece is especially horrific.

4. Buffalo – Spencer Hall [EDSBS]

Spencer Hall writes an essay each year to kick off the college football season and this year’s was especially memorable.  He somehow links the brutality of the sport of football to American bison and the Wild West.  Just read it.

3. The Incredible Tale Of Mark Cuban, Chandler Parsons, And The Friendship That Threatened The Mavericks – Tim MacMahon [ESPN.com]

Incredibly reported pieces like this one are a modern rarity due to players’ continued reluctance to speak with reporters and the media.  MacMahon somehow unearthed this story about Chandler Parson’s tenure in Dallas and his bromance with owner Mark Cuban.  This actual story does not disappoint.

(tie) 2. What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over The Golden State Warriors – Bruce Schoenfeld [The New York Times]

The Warriors are, without a doubt, the most interesting story in sports these days.  It didn’t seem fair to include just one story, so how about three?  The first details the incredible egos involved in the creation of the team.  Watch how many people try to claim credit, but pay particular attention to the owner, Joe Lacob.  To say he jinxed the Warriors chances at the greatest season of all time is the understatement of the year.  You will not believe what he said on record in this piece which was written mere weeks before the team’s historic collapse in the NBA Finals.

(tie) 2. Golden State’s Draymond Green Problem – Ethan Sherwood Strauss [True Hoop]

Draymond Green is by far the most interesting player on the Warriors.  Whereas Klay is shy and Steph is aww-shucks bashful, Draymond is a fire-breathing dragon who doesn’t shy from the spotlight or controversy.  This piece was written in the months following the NBA finals loss and details all the personality quirks and minor controversies the team has to deal with to keep Draymond inspired and playing well.

(tie) 2. You Won’t Believe How Nike Lost Steph To Under Armour – Ethan Sherwood Strauss [True Hoop]

This piece has nothing to do with the team but was my favorite Warriors-related sports article this year.  Learn about how Nike screwed up their chances to get Steph Curry on the cheap in one of the most astonishing failures in sports business history.  You will not believe how badly they messed up signing Steph before he broke out and became a two-time MVP superstar.

1. The Secret History of Tiger Woods – Wright Thompson [ESPN.com]

The best sports writing of all-time requires athletes who are the best of all-time.  Combine the best modern sports writer in Wright Thompson with a once-in-a-generation icon like Tiger Woods and you have the best sports article of 2016.  A captivating piece with all kinds of details about Tiger’s golf career that you never knew about.  If you read nothing else, make sure you read this piece.

Share

Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing Of 2015

These were the best pieces I read in 2015.

Honorable Mentions

Silence At Baylor – Jessica Luther & Dan Solomon [Texas Monthly]

How They Do In Oxford – Kiese Laymon [ESPN.com]

The Meaning Of Serena Williams – Claudia Rankine [The New York Times Magazine]

Rousey Says She’s Down But Not Out – Ramona Shelburne [ESPN the Magazine]

The Story Behind Bob Beamon’s Miracle Jump And The Only Photo That Mattered – David Davis [Deadspin]

The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived On – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]

Star Tribune’s Amelia Rayno Adds Her Own Story To Teague Scandal – Amelia Rayno [Star Tribune]

Wizards Paul Pierce Speaks The Truth – Jackie MacMullan [ESPN.com]

The Rookie And The Zetas – Joe Tone [Dallas Observer]

This Is Why NFL Star Greg Hardy Was Arrested For Assaulting His Ex-Girlfriend – Diana Moskovitz [Deadspin]

Broke – Spencer Hall [EDSBS]

The Top Ten

(tie) 10. The World We Live In…Man Has It Changed – Curt Schilling [38 Pitches]

This type of piece didn’t exist five years ago.  In the past year or so athletes have demonstrated a remarkable shift towards owning their own stories, best evidenced in the Derek Jeter led website The Players Tribune.  In this piece, Curt Schilling details an account of his dealing with an internet troll who took things way too far by threatening Schilling’s daughter with sexual violence.  Schilling no doubt gets the last laugh but in the process is an examination of the unique way that fans’ relationships with athletes have changed given the advent of social media and 24-hour news cycles.  This piece evidenced the new sports media world that we live in better than anything else I read this past year.

(tie) 10. How Jason Whitlock Is Poisoning ESPN’s Black Grantland – Greg Howard [Deadspin]

The golden age of Deadspin has probably been over for a few years now, but that doesn’t mean the site can’t consistently do what it always does best with its role as the critic-in-chief of ESPN.  Greg Howard is proving himself as one of the best young sports writers in the country and will likely have his choice in jobs when he chooses to leave the site.  This incredible piece of investigative journalism details the story of the website The Undefeated.  The site was conceived in the model of Grantland except that it would specifically be oriented towards African Americans.  The concept is a great idea but it consistently failed to get off the ground in no small part because its creator Jason Whitlock proved to be an uninspiring choice to lead the effort.

9. Spygate to Deflategate: Inside What Split The NFL And Patriots Apart – Don Van Natta Jr. & Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]

The dumbest sports controversy of the year never smelled right.  There was the unprecedented punishment Tom Brady received for a seemingly harmless infraction and the idiotic way the football community was forced to pick a side on whether he deserved it.  Enter the two terrific writers who dug in and found out why Roger Goodell did what he did.  I won’t spoil the story, but thank the Lord for such talented writers like Van Natta and Wickersham for getting to the bottom of this story once and for all.

8. The Future Of Basketball Is Here, And It Looks A Lot Like James Harden – Kirk Goldsberry [Grantland]

Among the many innovations of Grantland, introducing Kirk Goldsberry and his unique style of sports writing was among the best contributions in the site’s history.  Goldsberry is a trained cartographer and geography professor who used his talents in an unprecedented effort to map data about the NBA into detailed analyses about the sport.  This is what happens when Moneyball meets sports writing.  It sounds complicated but Goldsberry is so incredibly intelligent that he is able to present his information in entertaining maps that are easy to understand for even the most naive sports fan.  This piece may as well be titled “The Future Of Sports Writing Is Here, And It Looks A Lot Like Kirk Goldsberry.”

7. The Cruel Tutelage Of Kevin Garnett – Jackie MacMullen [ESPN.com]

Kevin Garnett is a one of a kind athlete and among the best NBA players to lace them up.  Did I mention he is also insane?  Jackie MacMullen finds Garnett shifting into his latest, and, likely, last role in the NBA: that as a mentor to the next generation of NBA talent.  This is the kind of piece that was obviously cultivated over years of relationship between the author and the subject and MacMullen delivers with one of the best pieces of the year.

6. How Did Lamar Odom Fall So Far? – Ramona Shelburne [ESPN.com]

There were several pieces written by Shelburne this year that could have made the top ten but this one was my favorite.  She reached a certain status this year where anything she publishes is a must read.  In the days following Lamar Odom’s emergency room visit and coma, Shelburne got out on the road and put the pieces together about the days leading up to the 911 call.  What she found was a man broken by an unusually cruel life and his struggle to deal with the series of personal tragedies he’s had to deal with.  Shelburne somehow got the women at the brothel to speak to her about what Odom was up to even after the owner of the placed an unofficial gag order on his employees.  Here’s hoping that Odom recovers in full and is finally able to find some peace in his life.

5. One Hundred Years Of Arm Bars – David Samuels [Grantland]

Consider this my official obituary for Grantland, without a doubt my favorite internet site of all time.  How Bill Simmons managed to convince the higher ups at ESPN to bankroll a website stacked with an unprecedented amount of writing talent remains one of the great mysteries of our time, but there is no doubt that the site more than lived up to the incredible hype, creating some of the most legendary pieces of sports writing of all time in its four short years of existence.  I miss being able to log into my browser after work and read what whacky, deep, imaginative piece of writing the site conjured up on that particular day.  The above piece was another story in a long line of them that could only have been created at Grantland.  Samuels chronicles the history of a particular style of Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu and how the martial art came to be.  I had no idea about its history and that the writer was able to fly around the world putting together the story meant it was only ever going to happen at Grantland.  RIP Grantland.

4. Beyond The Breach – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]

Wright Thompson is the undisputed champ when it comes to longform sports writing.  He had about five other pieces that easily could have made the top ten but this is the one that resonated most.  This epic piece looks into the role of sports in the rebirth of the city of New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina.  The piece is unfathomably long and it’s a credit to Thompson’s talent that he was permitted to write such a behemoth for the print edition of the magazine.  The piece is more than worth the time it takes to read it.

3. The Boxer And The Batterer – Louisa Thomas [Grantland]

This is the most beautiful piece of writing on the list, hands down.  The title of the piece recalls one of the most famous pieces in sports writing history.  Thomas writes a profound essay on the contrasts of Floyd Mayweather, brilliant boxer, and Floyd Mayweather, serial abuser of women.  This is the type of piece you could only find at Grantland and Thomas tackles one of the most difficult sports stories of 2015 with the typical brilliance one came to expect while on that site.

2. How The NBA Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb – Tom Haberstroh [ESPN.com]

In the past five years there has been a shift in the way the game of basketball is played by the elite teams in the game.  Gone are the days of the triangle offense or post up isolations to skilled big men.  Welcome to the “pace and space” era where the three point is king and teams that fail to shoot the three at a high level are left in the dust.  This fantastic piece chronicles the history of the three point shot from its creation in the ABA to being the key offensive weapon of last year’s NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.  It’s remarkable to think that a shot once deemed to be a gimmick is now the most important aspect of the modern NBA offense.  This piece tells you how it happened and why it happened.  Perfect piece at a perfect moment in time.

1. The Education Of Alex Rodriguez – J.R. Moehringer [ESPN the Magazine]

The best piece of the year profiled A-Rod after his one year suspension from baseball for using PEDs.  Rodriguez tries in vein to become educated and give his children opportunities that he never had and Moehringer writes a brilliant profile that understands Rodriguez as a human being and father.  When all the puzzle pieces are finally assembled, it’s clear how Rodriguez became one of the most enigmatic superstar athletes in baseball history but also leaves you feeling sympathetic for him, which seems impossible.  To a certain extent, the best sports writing of all-time require once-in-a-generation athletes as the subject matter.  This piece will show you why.

Share

Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing Of 2014

These were the best pieces I read in 2014.

Honorable Mentions:

The Reinvention of Chris Bosh – Tom Haberstroh [ESPN]

P.K. Subban and Hockey’s Problematic Relationship With Players of Color – Harrison Mooney [Puck Daddy]

Can Jason Whitlock Save ESPN’s “Black Grantland” From Himself? – Greg Howard [Deadspin]

The Istanbul Derby – Spencer Hall [SB Nation]

The Immigrant Sport: What Ping Pong Means in America – Eric Nusbaum [Deadspin]

While The World Watched – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]

The Two Michael Sams – Joel Anderson [BuzzFeed]

Why Do People Hit Their Kids – Drew Magary [Deadspin]

The Top Ten:

10.  Money In The Bank – Dan O’Sullivan [Jacobin Magazine]

A brutal and fascinating look at how the modern wrestling industry came to be.  Take a dive into the self-perpetuating way that wrestling dupes its own stars into a way of life that is intent on leaving them with nothing.  Anyone who enjoyed the movie The Wrestler can’t miss this piece.

9.  Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux – Jeremy Collins [SB Nation]

One of my favorite kinds of writing here.  Collins writes the kind of piece that only he could write.  He uses the greatness of Greg Maddux as a tool to explore sports, addiction, and his relationship with his now departed best friend.  It’s a devastating piece that will leave you captivated throughout.

8.  Together We Make Football – Louisa Thomas [Grantland]

The best thought piece of the year on football and the problematic relationship America has with the sport.  It touches on the Ray Rice saga, among many other topics.  It gets to the philosophical question facing all of us right now: how is it possible for us all to love and support such a savage sport?

7.  How Jon Jones Became the Baddest Motherfucker On Earth – Greg Howard [Deadspin]

The best profiles on athletes always are able to show the reader the distinction between the athlete as a public figure and the athlete as an actual human being.  Jon Jones’ awareness of this fact makes the piece all the more interesting as he gives Deadspin’s Greg Howard a rare look into how his brain actually ticks.  Did I mention Jones is the most interesting fighter since Tyson and Ali before him?

6.  Meet the Bag Man – Steven Godfrey [SB Nation]

I have an unwritten rule that every year the top ten has to include the year’s most fun piece.  Here it is.  Ever wondered how college players actually get paid?  This seems like the biggest no brainer piece ever for anyone interested in college football and yet I can’t recall any major sites ever profiling the guys who actually pay the players.  This piece is all kinds of fun, delving into the high stakes world of SEC football.  It also does a great job of killing the myth of amatuerism.

5.  Pop and Timmy: Power Couple – Marc Stein [ESPN.com]

This is the kind of piece that can only be written after years of grinding it out on a particular sports beat.  In this case, it’s Marc Stein and the beat is professional basketball in the state of Texas.  Saddle up for years worth of anecdotes and confessions that Stein had been holding onto for this exact moment.  Throw in the fact that the Spurs won the title and this was easily one of the best pieces of the year.

4.  Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey – Achal Prabhala [Africa is a Country]

A fascinating look at the impact of centuries of imperialism, racism, and globalism on the modern identity of Brazil as told through soccer and, specifically, Neymar.  For thoe not as familiar with the sport of soccer, Neymar is the player poised to take over the world when Ronaldo and Messi start their decline.  If you’re a fan of the flat world theory or soccer or race, this is the piece for you.

3.  Decline of The Curve – Pat Jordan [SB Nation]

It’s hard for me to describe what makes Pat Jordan such a good writer.  There’s the fact that he was a former MLB prospect and has a treasure trove of stories on the times he crossed paths with the sport’s greats.  There’s alo the fact that he has made a hall of fame career as a writer while never working for any major publication.  He is sports writing’s best indie rocker.  In this piece he attempts to answer the basic question: what happened to the curveball?  And, as usual, he delivers

2.  The Sea of Crises – Brian Phillips [Grantland]

This is the kind of piece only Grantland could produce and why I thank God every day that it exists.  Phillips is an annual tradition on this list and this piece doesn’t disappoint either.  On the surface, it’s an article about him traveling to Japan to learn about Sumo, but it’s really so much more than that.  There are parts of this piece that I quite literally couldn’t believe actualy happened.  This is what happens when the unlimited resources of ESPN get behind a supertalented writer like Brian Phillips.  Pure genius.

1.  Jerry Football – Don Van Natta Jr. [ESPN the Magazine]

Once in a generation access + a once in a generation icon like Jerry Jones + a very talented writer = best piece of the year, hands down.

Share