I compiled a top ten for you. I used to do a weekly feature each Friday called “great sports writing,” but no one ever read it. Doesn’t mean I’m not still keeping track though! Here are my top ten sports articles of 2011.
“Bill Simmons And Grantland” by Mobutu
This is easily the most controversial piece you’ll find on the list. In it, a writer using the pen name Mobutu unloads a brutal and, perhaps, 100% accurate, take down of ESPN’s number one writer/celebrity Bill Simmons. It’s a tough read for any fan of Simmons but many of the points of the author reign true. It presents the best arguments against the ESPN offshoot site, so good in fact that the criticism almost seems to morph into the realm of being personal. Although the identity of the writer Mobutu remains a secret, this was undoubtedly one of the best articles of 2011, whether you agree or disagree with the content. P.S. my bet is on Deadspin’s resident genius/notorious ESPN critic Tommy Craggs as the author.
“The Last Act Of The Notorious Howie Spira” by Luke O’Brien
Fascinating story about the man who got George Steinbrenner banned from baseball. Spira is a complex character, to say the least, and O’Brien’s story does an excellent job telling his tale.
“The Kiss” by Chris Ballard
This piece should probably crack the top ten but Ballard already finds himself on the list with another piece. He’s probably my favorite long form sports writer alive right now and don’t miss the chance to read into finding out just how that infamous kissing picture from the Vancouver riots actually wound up occurring. It was instantly one of the most famous sports photos of all-time and knowing its back story makes it 1,000 times more fascinating.
Want to read the best Hunter S. Thompson impression of 2011? Go no further than this awesome piece where Spencer Hall goes fishing with Leach while the coach was still on the unemployment line. Great piece for finding the origins of the pirate king of college football.
“Staying The Course” by Wright Thompson
Thompson is ESPN’s best long form writer and has a rightful claim to the throne of best long form sports writer on the planet. Everyone comes across an individual like Thompson once in their life, a southern man who seems to know everything about everything, knows everyone worth knowing, and has enough tall tales to fill an encyclopedia series. Thompson is that man but just so happens to be one hell of a writer as well. Check out this piece detailing one golf pro’s attempts to save a course from “financial meltdowns, voodoo curses, and the inevitable power of the tides.”
And now the Top Ten:
10. “Welcome to the Far Eastern Conference” by Wells Tower
This piece chronicles Stephon Marbury’s bizarre exile/journey to China. It details his grand plans to build a world basketball, clothing, and branding empire and he’s so convinced by his Jordan-like dreams that at times you can’t help but believe he’ll actually accomplish it. It gives you an excellent glimpse into what makes the former NBA star tick and the steep price a person is willing to pay to continue living his dream.
9. “Renegade Miami Football Booster Spells Out Illicit Benefits To Players” by Charles Robinson
Robinson’s piece was arguably the biggest story in the history of college football until a certain school in Pennsylvania was revealed to have covered up child molestation later this year. While I have personal disagreements with news outlets going after college athletes, there’s no denying the gravity of Robinson’s investigation. The time and effort that went into reporting this piece is very evident as well.
8. “Immigrant Misappropriations: The Importance of Ichiro” by Jay Caspian Kang
My buddies and I were somewhat giddy about the launch of Grantland this year, Bill Simmons’ new sports and pop culture website. I have to admit though that it was an early disappointment and that I thought it might actually fail. This was the first piece on the site that made me sit back and think “wow” and wonder about the potential of Simmons’ brain child idea for a website. Kang does an excellent job capturing Ichiro’s cultural importance to Asian-Americans as well as how the Japanese ball player influenced his own life.
7. “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal” by Michael J. Mooney
You might know the small town of Odessa, TX because of its legendary high school football obsession as chronicled in Buzz Bissinger’s famous book Friday Night Lights. Travel back to Odessa to learn of the perplexing tale of Jerry Joseph, a basketball player who may or may not have faked his age to play high school basketball. It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had only been about basketball, but then there’s the matter of his relationship with an underage cheerleader at the school. Did Joseph pull this off for a missed chance at glory? Is he really who he says he is? You make the call.
6. “College Coachs, Drinking, And The Two Men At The Rail” by Spencer Hall
Spencer Hall is the best writer you’ve never heard of. He’s currently the best sports blogger in the world, which somehow seems like a backhanded compliment, given his extraordinary talents. He’s the spiritual descendant of famous SI writer Dan Jenkins and share’s Jenkins’ affinity for and knowledge of college football. In this piece, Hall responds to a round of heavy drinking allegations that probed new West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen before the season started. Watch as the writer weaves a fantastic story from the past between his thoughts on the present. The surprise reveal at the end is one of the best you’ll ever find. And oh yeah, his poetic analysis of the blessings and dangers of drinking is divine. You can find more of his stuff at the sports blog “Every Day Should Be Saturday.”
5. “The Confessions Of A Former Adolescent Puck Tease” by Katie Baker
Every member of the Gen Y population probably has an embarrassing story about their early use of the internet. Former Deadspin, now Grantland writer Katie Baker recounts her journey into the world of early internet hockey message boards and the awkward/scary encounter that came as a result of taking white lies a bit too far. The brutal honesty and excellent storytelling combine for one of the best pieces I read this year. Baker is an up-and-coming rockstar in the sports writing world, so much so that she left a job at Goldman Sachs after Bill Simmons pleaded with her to join Grantland.
4. “The Shame Of College Sports” by Taylor Branch
I used this piece as the basis of a semester long research/thesis in a masters course I completed a few weeks ago. It’s the best ever look into the hypocrisy and sham that is college athletics, going into never before seen details about court cases, back stories, and people who shaped this world. Branch is a Pullitzer Prize winner himself and that he feels this way about college sports should be all you need to know on the topic. If ever you were against paying college athletes and keeping “amateur” athletics in place, this is the piece that will convince you otherwise. A masterpiece.
3. “Punched Out: The Life And Death Of A Hockey Enforcer” by John Branch
Many readers out there could make the case that this three part series from the New York Times was the best sports writing of the year. I’d have a hard time convincing you otherwise. Follow the journey of Derek Boogaard, who was at one time the baddest man in the NHL. Boogard made an unlikely career out of beating the crap out of people, but paid the ultimate price for it with his life. Branch’s three parts tell the story of how the boy grew up into that role, how he made it to the big time, and how he eventually met his downfall. It’s an extremely emotional look into the darker side of sports and the measures athletes will go to in order to stay in the professional ranks. It’s also extremely timely because of the breakthrough research into brain-related injuries for football and hockey players that we learned about this year. Do not miss out on this one (the three parts are easy to click through if you look at the top of the page).
2. “The Biggest Winner” by Joe Posnanski
My own personal opinion is that the best writing, not just sports writing, always has to involve an element of the writer bearing his soul to the reader. I guess an easier way of saying that is that the writer either needs to be a part of the story or must speak in the first person in their writing. The reason I feel this way is that no matter how excellent a person might be at capturing the feelings and emotions of characters in stories, the only truth we can really be certain of in life is what we feel inside ourselves. The only meaning I can really glean from this life is what I feel, what I find to be true, what I experience. With this in mind, here’s Joe Posnanski, my nominee for the best sports columnist on the planet right now. Posnanski’s story focuses on the greatest sports story he ever encountered: Rulon Gardner’s upset gold medal victory at the 1996 Olympics. Throw in Posnanski’s own personal experience and well, be prepared for the greatness that unfolds.
1. “What Was He Thinking?” by Chris Ballard
This is admittedly an extremely biased pick. Ballard is one of my favorite sports writers right now and that he chose to do a story on a former Bronco, well, let’s just say he had me at hello. Do you remember Jake Plummer? Do you remember how he walked away from the game Barry Sanders-style when there were plenty of teams begging him to come quarterback them to the postseason and continue living the dream life as a starting NFL quarterback? Well, meet the current version of Jake Plummer, resident of Sandpoint, Idaho. He loves to play handball. He loves to drink beer. And he doesn’t miss the NFL at all. Perhaps you won’t find this story as fascinating as I did, but you have to be at least a little curious as to how a man walked away from what many people would call the full American dream. Plummer’s logic and reasoning for doing so are a lot more complex than you could ever imagine.
Happy New Year’s from Generation Y where we’d like to thank you for your continued support of the site.