Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing Of 2013

This is slowly becoming an annual tradition over here.  These were the best pieces I read this year, starting with the honorable mentions and finishing with the top ten. I openly admit a certain bias towards the pieces chosen.  The best pieces of sports writing, to me, involve one of two things.  The first is a personal element between the writer and the content.  The second is that the story involves a single piece of information that is so fascinating, so uniquely brilliant, that it vindicates the countless hours of life devoted to sports, the vast majority of which pay no dividends.  To the list…

Honorable Mentions:

The Trouble With Johnny – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]

Just a banner year all around for Wright Thompson, who asserted his place as the top longform sports writer on the planet.  You’ll see his name again on this list.  Thompson somehow talked his way into the Manziel family circle at the height of Johnny’s fame, before the disappointing season and close loss to Alabama.  It’s an interesting look at one of the most fascinating college football players of all time at his peak notoriety.  The reader walks away with a great understanding of why he is the way he is (hint: bloodline).

Jason Taylor’s Pain Shows NFL’s World Of Hurt – Dan Le Batard [Miami Herald]

We’ll always remember this point in history for the world finally waking up to the dangers of professional football.  This was the best story I read all year that delved into the topic.  It’s the kind of piece that is born out of years of covering a team and building relationships.  Le Batard has of course gained more fame for his on-air gigs at ESPN, but he reminds us all that he’s one hell of a writer too.

Man Up – Brian Phillips [Grantland]

Phillips’ declaration of war on NFL locker room culture is magnificent.  The diction and tone is likewise perfect.  There were several pieces written on the Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito conflict.  Phillips’ was easily the best.

Auburn Should Be Dead, Because We Watched It Die – Spencer Hall [Every Day Should Be Saturday]

Hall is the best college football writer and best sports blogger in the country.  There was no one better to write about the greatest ending to a college football game ever.  Hall’s wit, humor, and knowledge of the sport make him the perfect person to capture that perfect moment.

The Sports Cable Bubble – Patrick Hruby [Sports On Earth]

Hruby delivers with a superbly-reported piece on the reason this country’s cable bills have spiked so high in the last five years.  Can it last?  Will consumers somehow force the industry to change?  Hruby has all the details.

Qatar Chronicles – David Roth [SB Nation]

A five part series dealing with FIFA’s seemingly bizarre decision to award the World Cup to the wealthy Middle Eastern country.  If you don’t have time for all five parts, be sure to at least catch the first and the last parts which perfectly capture why the country was awarded the prized sporting event and just what it means to be Qatari.  Roth just absolutely crushed this.

Lost Soul – Chris Ballard [Sports Illustrated]

Perennial candidate on my lists.  He delivers with another great piece involving basketball, the sport that he loves.  Bison Dele, formerly Brian Williams, left the game during the prime of his career to explore other interests.  He then died under mysterious circumstances.  Dive into this story and see if you can figure out what happened to him.

Nick Saban: Sympathy For The Devil – Warren St. John [GQ]

Nick Saban just wants to coach football and doesn’t understand why we’re all so obsessed with cracking his code.  The way St. John uses the Rolling Stones to explain the enigma that is Coach Saban is perfect.

The Match Maker – Don Van Natta Jr. [Outside The Lines]

Was one of the most famous matches in tennis history actually fixed?  Yes.  Definitely yes.  Read about how Bobby Riggs put the fix in for The Battle of the Sexes.

Top Ten

(tie) 10. Nightmare In Maryville: Teens’ Sexual Encounter Ignites A Firestorm Against Family – Dugan Arnett [Kansas City Star]

This is a well-reported look into the evil side of sports.  A young girl is raped and abandoned on her own porch to freeze to death.  It seems an open-and-shut case until you learn that the accused is a football star in a football-obsessed town.  He also has political connections.  And somehow a helpless victim is characterized by her community as a dirty slut who had it coming to her.  Her family is driven out of town and her house mysteriously burns to the ground.  Travel to the dark side and feel the rage.  It’s amazing how those that we are supposed to trust can so thoroughly screw up in protecting the innocent.

(tie) 10. A Perfect Marathon Day-Then The Unimaginable – Kevin Cullen [Boston Globe]

Just the absolute perfect column on the tragic events that befell the city of Boston the day of the Boston Marathon bombing.  It captures everything wonderful about that city and its identity along with all the horror and tragedy that took place that day.  Boston Strong.

(tie) 10. Why NBA Center Jason Collins Is Coming Out Now – Jason Collins with Franz Lidz [Sports Illustrated]

One of the best sports stories in years.  This story merits a place solely for its courage and bravery.  Collins took a huge risk with this and he deserves all kinds of praise for being the first active player in one of the four major sports to out himself.  Bravo to him and Sports Illustrated for doing it the right way and completely owning the narrative.

9. When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough – Chris Jones [ESPN the Magazine]

Jones is one of the top magazine writers in the game and I continue to love that ESPN convinced him to write for their magazine.  This piece on Japanese youth baseball gives a thoughtful look into the demands and pressures of youth sports through a lens we’re not at all familiar with.  If you ever played youth baseball or if you’re a parent who struggles with the demands modern youth sports place on children’s bodies, you cannot miss this one.

8. Peyton Manning On His Neck Surgeries Rehab-And How He Almost Didn’t Make It Back – Sally Jenkins [Washington Post]

I’ve had my issues with Jenkins, most notably her continued defense of Lance Armstrong. There’s no denying the greatness of this piece, though.  How a writer for a newspaper in D.C. finally got the full story on Peyton’s comeback is beyond me, but I tore through every single bit of information.  I think we all had an idea that Peyton’s career was at risk, but reading about him barely being able to throw a football is shocking.  Jenkins takes us all the way through each painstaking step in the recovery.  This story is a must-read, considering the record-breaking season and the beginning of the NFL playoffs.

7. Inside Major League Baseball’s Dominican Sweatshop System – Ian Gordon [Mother Jones]

One of the most important stories of the year.  It’s really kind of pathetic that most baseball writers in this country believe the great tragedy of that sport has to do with performance enhancing drugs.  Take a look inside the darker side of America’s pastime, one in which a team can get away with gross negligence, immoral labor practices, and even death.  Try to imagine everything wrong with the NCAA model and then amplify it times a billion and you’ll have an idea of just how poorly managed MLB’s relationship with the Dominican Republic is.  The muckraking done by Gordon for this story is worthy of all kinds of awards.

6.  Soccer Bleu – John Samuel Harphem [American Circus]

Most will probably skip over this article, given that it involves the sport of soccer and the country of France.  I beg you to read it.  It’s a great look at the danger of mixing sports and identity as told through the French national soccer team since their 1998 World Cup victory.  Harphem constructs a Hemingway-esque setting in which to tell the story of his experience of being an American following soccer in Paris.

5.  Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax – Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey [Deadspin]

This was one of the most fascinating sports stories of all time.  It’s kind of been forgotten about, given that the majority of Te’o’s games were played during the 2012 calendar year.  This story did technically break in January of 2013, though, and thus has to be included on the list.  That outlets like ESPN and the New York Times completely bought into the Te’o dead girlfriend story without fact checking is exactly why Deadspin has to exist.  Their ability to complete knock this story out of the park in a limited amount of time was remarkable.  The reporting, the writing–everything is just perfect here.  Standing ovation to Tommy Craggs for building Deadspin into a force.

4. The Pain And Pleasure Of Spring – Pat Jordan [SB Nation]

Remember when I said the best articles involve a personal element or a single piece of information that makes being a sports fan all worth it?  This one has both.  Jordan is a legend in the world of sports writing.  He recounts in detail his story of being a once prized baseball prospect who just didn’t make it.  The story about him making love with an elder woman is beautiful, but stay for the unbelievable description of what made Hank Aaron Hank Aaron.  I’m not qualified enough to critique a writer like Jordan. I do know that this piece about his love for spring training is beautiful.

3. The Book Of Coach – Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]

The biggest irony in all of sports is that Americans know almost nothing about the X’s and O’s of football.  This is partly intentional as the game of football has gone to great lengths to prevent fans from that sacred knowledge (likely in an attempt to avoid criticism, but I digress…).  So it’s really kind of awesome when we get a writer like Chris Brown over at Grantland or this story from Seth Wickersham which brought to light a book which almost no one outside of football coaches knew existed.  Did you know legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh attempted to write a complete manual to everything that was necessary to be a great football coach?  Neither did I.  Apparently it is the bible for football coaches, with very limited copies in existence.  Everyone from Bill Belichick to college graduate assistants profess its value.  While Walsh never really felt satisfied, this article gives a great look into the long, difficult road it takes to be a great football coach.  I love finding out about sports secrets like this book.  I’m guessing you will too.

2. Stroke Of Madness – Scott Eden [ESPN the Magazine]

All apologies to Dan Jenkins, but this might be the greatest golf-related article I’ve ever read.  Far too often the conversations in individual sports like golf comes down whether an athlete is “clutch.”  It’s a sad reality that most of us don’t spend any time with golfers beyond the four majors. We know of Tiger’s dominance and competitiveness, but is it possible that the single greatest accomplishment in his career was that he changed his swing THREE times while never really losing his place as the number one-ranked golfer?  It’s a worthy question and Eden does an otherworldly job of explaining just how difficult the process can be and why it’s so rarely attempted.  This story is packed with nuggets on the history of golf and the evolution of Tiger Woods’s swing.  Even if he never surpasses Jack’s major total, this article should do enough to explain why he is the greatest golfer who ever lived.  His obsession with the mechanics of golf and always improving are only surpassed by the subject of the final piece on this list…

1. Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building – Wright Thompson [Outside The Lines]

Let’s end this list where we started it, with Mr. Wright Thompson and one of the single greatest years by a sports writer ever.  This story on Jordan was all types of fascinating, dealing with his post-retirement life.  It’s amazing how keenly aware Jordan is of himself and his image.  Read his quote about his inability to go back to living a normal life and the expectations he now has because he’s Michael Jordan.  You know the stories about the competitiveness, but I came away far more impressed with his ability to analyze.  The most fascinating aspect of this piece, though, involves LeBron James.  Jordan has a maniacal obssession to break down James and find his weaknesses.  It somehow seems impossible to feel pity for a guy like Michael Jordan, but even he is unable to escape the nasty habit that history has of forgetting its elders.  He’s determined to not let us forget.

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Gen Y’s Best Sports Writing Of 2012

We’re coming out of retirement this week to discuss one of the site’s pastimes: great sports writing. There are obviously several of these lists already out there (check here or here, if interested), but these were Gen Y’s top picks.

Honorable mentions:

Marathon Man – Mark Singer [New Yorker]

Bizarre story of a man caught lying about road race results.

The Beautiful Game – Patrick Symmes [Outside]

The lesson, as always: no one takes their sport more seriously than soccer fans.

The Fun In Funeral: 2011 College Football’s Dark New Orleans Sendoff – Spencer Hall [EDSBS]

Would have made the top ten if not for Hall writing an even better piece this year.

The Death’s-Head Of Wimbledon – Brian Phillips [Grantland]

Just remember being so impressed when I read this.  Read all five parts.

The Unfair Significance Of Jeremy Lin – Jay Kaspian Kang [Grantland]

An Asian-American writer explains why Jeremy Lin matters

Ultimate Glory – Dave Gessner [Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour]

The best stories always involve a personal element from the writer.  Gessner spills his guts out on the page here and the result is awesome.

Who Is Sarah Phillips? – John Koblin [Deadspin]

Deadspin at their best part I.

The Making Of Homer At The Bat – Erik Malinowski [Deadspin]

Deadspin  at their best part II.

ESPN Entertainment Writer Has A Bad Wikipedia Problem – Isaac Rauch [Deadpin]

Deadspin at their best part III.

How ESPN Ditched Journalism And Followed Skip Bayless To The Bottom: A Tim Tebow Story – John Koblin [Deadspin]

Deadspin at their best part IV.

Top Ten:

(tie) 10. 120 Reasons Why Football Will Last Forever – J.R. Moehringer [ESPN.com]

This was one of the most unique pieces of writing I read all year.  I can’t quite describe what I like so much about it, but I guarantee that you’ll like it as much as I did.  Given all the research and tragedies that have occurred in the past year in football, I’m almost angry at myself for including this piece in the top ten.  Well worth it though.  A great, great piece of writing.

(tie) 10. On The Trail Of The White Horse – Christopher McDougall [Outside]

It might not surprise you to learn that I spend almost all of my free time reading about sports.  One of the pleasant surprises of plunging down that rabbit hole was my discovery of Outside magazine.  It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like in that they cover stories of those brave souls who challenege the limits of the human body.  Whether it’s running, rock climbing, etc, Outside is the place to go to read about it and has a shockingly good stable of writers to tell their stories.  This was my favorite story from them this year.  It’s well worth the time.

(tie) 10. Man In Full – Chris Ballard [Sports Illustrated]

I still believe that Ballard is the best longform sports reporter in the country, even better than his longform whizkid colleague Thomas Lake.  “Man In Full” was his best piece of the year and tells the story of a high school wrestling coach who battles a rare disease and in the process inspires a generation of young men in his community.  Get the kleenex ready, this one will tug on the heart strings.

9. The Malice At The Palace: An Oral History – Jonathan Abrams [Grantland]

Abrams is doing an extraordinary job with his longform NBA dispatches over at Grantland.  This was his best one yet and easily the best Oral History of any sports subject in the last 12 months.  I think the thing that is most amazing about this story is how happy the participants were to finally discuss and process the events of that night.  They seem to find some kind of release that enabled them to finally move on.  It’s seems impossible, but literally no one has ever approached the athletes who were there that night about discussing what happened.  The Stephen Jackson portions in particular are so, so, so good.  I won’t spoil anything, but you’re probably not shocked to hear that the one person who refused to be interviewed was the man most responsible: Mr. Ron Artest.  Hearing Jackson’s side of things, well, let’s just say the story becomes clear.

8. Will You Still Medal In The Morning? – Sam Alipour [ESPN The Magazine]

You’ve probably heard the rumors about the rampant sex and partying inside the athletes’ village at the Olympics.  Now, for the first time, hear it straight from the mouths of the participants.  Just an all-around fun read on the debauchery that is the Olympics.  It’s also particularly fascinating to hear them explain how natural it all comes as a result of the intense amounts of time and training they put into getting to that point.  Can you really blame them for claiming their reward?

7. The Air Raid Offense: History, Evolution, Weirdness — From Mumme To Leach To Franklin To Holgorsen And Beyond – Chris Brown [Smart Football]

I think my favorite irony about sports in this country is the massive popularity of football and how little fans actually know about the game.  Sure, the casual NFL fan can tell you that Calvin Johnson is a better receiver than Chad Ocho Cinco, but very few could tell you the philosophy behind the Patriots passing attack or what exactly makes Jim Harbaugh’s teams so damn tough.  Enter Chris Brown who does the best job of any writer on the internet of explaining the X’s and O’s of football.  This piece in particular is one of his masterpieces as he draws on his wealth of knowledge and contacts inside the game to write the history of the most entertaining revolution in football of the last two decades.  A must-read if you are a fan of the rise of the spread offenses and passing in general.

6. Breakdown: Death and Disarray At America’s Racetracks – Walt Bogdanich, Joe Drape, Dara L. Miles, and Griffin Palmer [The New York Times]

I’m always a sucker for a good old-fashioned investigative piece, and there was none better this year than the Times’ look into the secret world of horse racing. Delve into this dark world and see the inhumane way in which horses are medicated and abused across this country to support a dying sport. It’s a sad but necessary wakeup call that action must be taken to protect the beautiful animals that make the sport possible.

5. Tom Brady’s Daze Of Disappointment – Dan Wetzel [Yahoo! Sports]

Wetzel is the best columnist in the country in the most traditional sense of the occupation. When you think of a classic sport writer capturing a game for his readers, Wetzel is the guy that should come to mind. In the minutes and hours following the Patriots loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl, watch him find a unique angle for a column and perfectly capture a moment in time, which is exactly what the columnist is supposed to do. So, so good if you’re a fan of old school sports writing.

4. Bury A Man, Keep A Statue – Spencer Hall [EDSBS]

The best sports blogger in the country is also the best college football writer in the country. I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth repeating again, Hall is this generation’s Dan Jenkins. Here is his best effort of the calendar year in which he tackles the delicate issue of Penn State following the Paterno/Sandusky scandal. Watch a master at work.

3. Poisonous Nostalgia – Brian Phillips [Grantland]

For all the writers with talent at Bill Simmons’ website, Brian Phillips is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. Phillips made a name for himself at Slate and his popular soccer blog Run of Play, but watch him weave a perfect metaphor between Mad Men and Augusta National and what both of those entities teach us about society. When Bill Simmons popularized sports and pop culture writing over a decade ago, he had no idea that it could be done this beautifully.

2. The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever – Michael Mooney [D Magazine]

Just plain fun, and kind of sad in a Kingpin, Big Lebowski sort of way. Follow the story of a Plano, Texas man who nearly completed the holy grail of the sport of bowling (completing three perfect games in a row). I won’t ruin it, but trust me, time well spent sitting down for this one.  Did I mention that Mooney is a master of the craft?

1. The Truth Is Out There – Patrick Hruby [The PostGame]

By far the piece that left the biggest impression on me this year. It starts out as a fan’s look into all of the best conspiracy theories in every major sport until, by the end, you’re questioning the integrity of every single athletic accomplishment of the last 100 years. Did Stern rig the draft lottery? Duh. Did the NFL willingly let its owners fix games for decades? Probably. Did NBC fix the 2008 men’s Olympic swimming results? Yikes (and yes, yes they did). Take a step into the darker side of sports where the only constant is money.

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Great Sports Writing: “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great”

We’ll continue the celebration of the Champ’s birthday with his famous Sports Illustrated piece written shortly after the Thrilla in Manila.  It was the third and final match between Ali and Joe Frazier, perhaps the two greatest heavyweight champions of all-time.  The piece does a wonderful job capturing the raw brutality of the match, going into painful details of just how much agony was inflicted on that evening.  On a more metaphysical side, the writer, Mark Kram, does an excellent job capturing the souls of the two fighters, nailing perfectly what exactly drove the two men to complete such a brutal affair.  Unlike a lot of the pieces I normally link to, this is a relatively short read and many consider it to be the best piece ever written for Sports Illustrated.  From SI:

A hint of shift came in the fourth. Frazier seemed to be picking up the beat, his threshing-blade punches started to come into range as he snorted and rolled closer. “Stay mean with him, champ!” Ali’s corner screamed. Ali still had his man in his sights, and whipped at his head furiously. But at the end of the round, sensing a change and annoyed, he glared at Frazier and said, “You dumb chump, you!” Ali fought the whole fifth round in his own corner. Frazier worked his body, the whack of his gloves on Ali’s kidneys sounding like heavy thunder. “Get out of the goddamn corner,” shouted Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer. “Stop playin’,” squawked Herbert Muhammad, wringing his hands and wiping the mineral water nervously from his mouth. Did they know what was ahead?

Came the sixth, and here it was, that one special moment that you always look for when Joe Frazier is in a fight. Most of his fights have shown this: you can go so far into that desolate and dark place where the heart of Frazier pounds, you can waste his perimeters, you can see his head hanging in the public square, may even believe that you have him, but then suddenly you learn that you have not. Once more the pattern emerged as Frazier loosed all of the fury, all that has made him a brilliant heavyweight. He was in close now, fighting off Ali’s chest, the place where he has to be. His old calling card — that sudden evil, his left hook — was working the head of Ali. Two hooks ripped with slaughterhouse finality at Ali’s jaw, causing Imelda Marcos to look down at her feet, and the President to wince as if a knife had been stuck in his back. Ali’s legs seemed to search for the floor. He was in serious trouble, and he knew that he was in no-man’s-land.

Whatever else might one day be said about Muhammad Ali, it should never be said that he is without courage, that he cannot take a punch. He took those shots by Frazier, and then came out for the seventh, saying to him, “Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up.” Joe replied, “Somebody told you all wrong, pretty boy.”

Great Stuff.

[Sports Illustrated]

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Gen Y’s Top Sports Writing Of 2011

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.

Honorable Mentions:

“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.

“A Day With Mike Leach: Sailing Key West’s High Seas With The Pirate Captain” by Spencer Hall

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.

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Great Sports Writing: The Shame Of College Sports

The court of public opinion is starting to point further and further towards the idea of blowing up the NCAA and its flawed system.  Almost all of the major sports writers are on board now and anyone left believing that college athletes shouldn’t be paid should have their sports fandom revoked immediately.  There have been tons of minor shots delivered over the years, most notably form the guys at Yahoo! Sports, but now comes the knockout punch with this brilliant piece in this week’s issue of The Atlantic.  It’s quite a read, but if you ever wanted to get your facts straight or finally have your opinion swayed on this issue, this is the work that will get you fully prepared to debate all your colleagues at work.  The best part about the whole thing is that the writer is a notable historian of the civil rights movement and has published multiple documents recounting that struggle.  He goes so far as to call the NCAA’s model racist, which comes with a ton of credibility, given his career.  From The Atlantic:

But after an inquiry that took me into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel. Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.

Make this your weekend reading.  You can thank me later.

[The Atlantic]

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Great Sports Writing: “Football Season Is Over. Football Season Has Begun”

Last night officially kicked off the college football season, but tonight marks the first night you’re likely to see a top 25 team get challenged when TCU travels to face Baylor.  This of course is all followed by the real first day of the college football year tomorrow, with some terrific night games in Boise facing Georgia and Oregon meeting LSU at the JerryDome.   With all of this in mind, take the time this afternoon to read my personal favorite college football writer Spencer Hall.  He runs the blog “Every Day Should Be Saturday” and in my opinion is the best sports blogger on the Internet, and if not that, then most certainly the snarkiest.  Every year he writes a brilliant piece that in the blogging world pretty much officially signals the start of the college football season.  Take a moment and read last year’s brilliant work titled “Football Season Is Over. Football Season Has Begun” and try to tell me bloggers aren’t great writers.  It’s so far beyond the every day content of your average sports writer that it makes any of us actually trying to write about sports feel utterly stupid and mostly jealous.  Check out why.  From Every Day Should Be Saturday:

My grandfather died in February. He looked like Bill Clinton crossed with Shrek. Personality-wise, he was more of the latter and the former, and in a good way. He liked to cook country ham on a hot plate on his sealed concrete patio. He tended a terraced garden big enough to feed a family and regarded squirrels with a hatred bordering on the pathological. He would take me out in his shed–a mini-house across the creek in the back of the property with wood-burning stove, radio tuned to WSM radio, and a hundred well-oiled tools hanging on the wall–and just sit there occasionally telling me stories while he fed split wood into the belly of the stove.

He was usually sipping on coffee during these chill sessions. Later, after his death, we would find whiskey bottles stashed all over that shed. I did not lick a taste for stimulants mixed with alcohol off the grass. 

He was one of the first people I can remember telling me anything definite about football. My grandparents owned a Magnavox. They don’t even make these anymore, and by they I mean “Americans who made televisions,” a rare breed of people that existed before we collectively acknowledged the universal truths of international existence: that Asians make killer electronics, that Germans make face-ripping cars, and that we do best when just sit back and kind of improv like the brilliant bullshitting nation we are. 

It was huge, and made a supernatural humming noise when you turned it on. For a time as a child, i believed televisions in wooden casings made to look like distinguished furniture could only pick up three types of programming: Hee-Haw, Gunsmoke, and Barnaby Jones. My grandfather seemed to live off pork products, black coffee, and those three television shows. He got vitamins from them, and were an important part of his balanced diet. 

It shocked me one day when football came on the television and shattered my beliefs about the receiving abilities of wooden-based television arrangements. Vanderbilt was playing Tennessee. I was maybe eight years old at the time. Tennessee scored off a short TD run. My grandfather made a displeased grunt from somewhere in his enormous lantern-sized head, the same one that totters on my neck like a bowling ball taped to a gameday shaker. 

“What’s wrong, Gran-gran?” 

“I’m thinking Tennessee’s a little bit more physically equipped than Vanderbilt is.”

Gameday baby.  Go Frogs.

[Every Day Should Be Saturday]

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Great Sports Writing: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose”

On this, the day where the Friday Night Lights series finale take place on NBC, I can think of nothing more appropriate than this fantastic oral history of the show.  The piece recently appeared on Bill Simmons’ Grantland site and shows up in the format popularized in the new book that tells the history of ESPN.  Read through it as the cast and crew recount just what exactly made this show so special.  I’ve endorsed the show enough times on the site already so I won’t go into that again.  From Grantland:

Berg: I couldn’t find a coach. The only actor I liked was Dwight Yoakam. He seemed interesting — kind of a flawed, messed-up Southern boy who wanted to act. I met with him a couple times, but then he started making demands. He would need eight weeks off to tour. He’d only be able to give us eight days of filming. And he wanted a ton of money. He made it impossible for us to say yes.

Linda Lowy (casting director): Pete and I talked a lot about who was going to play Coach Taylor. He had ideas for people who were Billy Bob Thornton-like. Kyle Chandler couldn’t be less like Billy Bob Thornton.

Berg: I said, “Kyle Chandler?” I only knew him from [late-’90s CBS drama] Early Edition. I was not a fan of that show, and I was not a fan of Kyle Chandler.

Aubrey: I think Pete was concerned that Kyle was too pretty. But a couple weeks later, Pete met him for lunch.

Berg: He rode up on a motorcycle. He’d been drinking for two days with his buddies. He had a beard and bags under his eyes. He was clearly hung-over as shit. I was really surprised, because I remembered him as this fresh-faced, boyish, charming young man. And here he was looking like one of the Baldwin brothers after a hard weekend.

Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor): Pete said, “Kyle, what the hell’s wrong with you?” I said, “I apologize. I was out with my friends.” We had been consuming a considerable amount of alcohol, smoking cigars, and playing poker. I’d been up all night.

Berg: He looked like a mess, and I just said, “You look like a Texas high school football coach!”

Chandler: He said, “Whatever you did last night, I want you to do that every night. I want you to look exactly the same you do right now when you do the show.” A big Cheshire Cat grin came across my face, because I envisioned telling my wife that that was part of the job.

I’ve already seen the episode on DVD, please tune in tonight if you have the opportunity.  Well worth it.

[Grantland]

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Great Sports Writing: “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal”

It’s that time of year when there isn’t much going on sports wise and quite frankly we’re all pretty desperate for anything to entertain us.  We’ve got something to keep you distracted though for at least twenty minutes.  Check out this bizarre tale from the recent GQ which details a 22-year old man who posed as a teenager in order to play high school basketball again…or did he?  This exceptional piece by Michael J. Mooney asks deep questions about perception and identity.  Is it enough to merely believe in who you think you are?  Must the community around you also believe it too?  Take a trip in the bizarre world of high school basketball in Odessa, TX — coincidentally the same city which inspired the classic book/movie/series Friday Night Lights.  From GQ:

He said he didn’t really know what day he was born. His parents were both dead before he turned 5, he said, and he’d never celebrated a birthday in his life. But Jerry Joseph’s birth certificate read January 1, so on New Year’s Day 2010, his family gathered around him. It would be a new year, a new decade, a celebration of Jerry’s brand-new life. There were flimsy cardboard hats and streamers and wrapped gifts. Jerry, who at six feet five and 220 pounds was several inches taller than anyone else in his adoptive family, was presented a white cake adorned with candles in the shape of a 1 and a 6.

Danny Wright, the 50-year-old basketball coach who had taken Jerry in a few months before, noticed the kid get misty-eyed, just as he had at his first Christmas a week earlier. When his wife saw Jerry crying, she too was moved to tears. Wright stood by as his five children, none of them his own biologically, surrounded their new brother. The youngest, a 2-year-old adopted girl named Ariana, crawled into Jerry’s giant arms. They sang the boy a song, told him to make a wish. It’s a moment Wright keeps coming back to, when Jerry closed his bright brown eyes. What could the boy have wished for? he wonders. Basketball glory, maybe, and untold riches in the pros. But if Wright had to guess, he’d say Jerry offered a more solemn prayer: that if this life somehow turned out to be a dream, he’d never feel a pinch—that he’d never wake up in another world.

Happy Fourth Of July weekend everyone.  Get out and see some fireworks.

[GQ]

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Great Sports Writing: “Isner, Mahut and Endless Tennis”

With the first couple rounds of Wimbledon wrapping up this weeknd, take the time today to end your week with this captivating recount of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s remarkable five set war that took place during last year’s tournament.  The two famously played the longest match in tennis history with Isner eventually winning the fifth set 70-68.  They were coincidentally matched up again in the first round this year (I smell a fix) and the match ended in a three set Isner sweep.  I can’t do enough justice to describing the match, the effort exerted, and the amount of mental and physical exhaustion that took place and so I’ll leave it to Ed Caesar’s extraordinary ability to do it for you.  From GQ:

The trouble with these statistics, however, is that they tell only one story: the match was long. The numbers tell you nothing about why Isner and Mahut were able to play like that – service hold after service hold; ace after ace – or what demons entered their minds and bodies. They can’t tell you that, at the end of the second day’s play, Isner was so bereft of energy that he briefly desired any kind of conclusion – even a loss – because the prospect of returning to play the following day horrified him. And, of course, the statistics tell you nothing about what has happened to the players since the match. They cannot map the strange and intense kinship these men now feel because of their three-day dance in the London sunshine.

There are many reasons why professional tennis matches do not normally last eleven hours. Run-of-the-mill tournament matches are played over three sets, and include tie-breakers when the game score reaches 6-all in any set. Only three Grand Slams (Wimbledon, the French Open and Australian Open) and three international tournaments (the Fed Cup, the Davis Cup and the Olympic Games) play men’s singles and doubles over five sets, with no tiebreaker in the fifth.

Even at the tournaments where a marathon is technically possible, however, fifth sets rarely stray beyond 20 games, because one player loses concentration. By the time someone reaches the latter stages of a fifth set in a Grand Slam, he has normally expended a significant amount of energy. At some point, errors and fatigue decide the match.

But neither Isner or Mahut blinked. To understand why, and how, you have to understand the distance they travelled to that fifth set. As Boris Vallejo, Mahut’s affable coach, explains: “nothing comes from nothing.”

Happy Friday everyone.  I hope the weekend finds you on a golf course somewhere.

[GQ]

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Great Sports Writing: “Magic Faces The Music”

Let’s continue with the theme of trying to figure out who exactly LeBron James is by taking a trip back to the 1980s to examine this curious piece on Magic Johnson.  Now that his career is long over, I think it’s fair to say everyone considers Magic one of the five greatest players ever…at least.  He’s widely celebrated as one of the biggest sports successes of all time having conquered the worlds of basketball and business with his gregarious personality and famous smile.  But that wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when he, like LeBron, was the most scrutinized athlete on the planet.  Take the time to go back and read this piece and examine how similar it is to the narrative surrounding LeBron right now.  The lesson, as always: winning heals everything.  From SI:

Whatever hurt Johnson felt then was only to intensify as the summer went on. He was stunned at the way he was carved up by the press that had once doted on him. He was particularly wounded by the suggestions that, with the championship at stake, he had choked. “I sat back when it was over,” Johnson says, “and I thought, ‘Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time, or didn’t we?’ This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was.” A headline that appeared on a column in The Los Angeles Times asked EARVIN, WHAT HAPPENED TO MAGIC? A month later, a columnist for The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner referred to Johnson as “the tarnished superstar” and “the goat of the series,” and pointed out that with the world watching him, and “right there against his arch rival, Larry Bird, he failed.”

“Those wounds from last June stayed open all summer,” says Riley. “Now the misery has subsided, but it never leaves your mind completely. Magic is very sensitive to what people think about him, and in his own mind I think he heard those questions over and over again to the point where he began to rationalize and say, ‘Maybe I do have to concentrate more.’ I think the whole experience has made him grow up in a lot of ways.”

“If you noticed, before when he was playing he used to smile a lot,” says Christine Johnson, “but now he doesn’t smile as much. It’s just a sign of his new determination. I see him settling down now and becoming more of a man.”

People always seem to be deciding that Magic Johnson has finally grown up, anticipating the arrival of his new maturity as if it were a long-overdue bus. And yet growing up and settling down are matters about which Johnson has remained largely ambivalent.

He came into the NBA in 1979, a magnificent child of 20, charming and funny and, in the way of most children, almost oblivious to any world other than his own. “I’ll never forget walking through airports with him,” says L.A. Clipper guard Norm Nixon, who played with Johnson on the Lakers for four years. “He’d have his Walkman on and all of a sudden you’d hear somebody singing, and there he’d be—stopped in the middle of the airport, singing his song and dancing with himself.”

Sound familiar?  Oh by the way, Pat Riley is now the President of the Heat and there could be no single person more capable of bringing LeBron through this than the man who was there with Magic.

Happy Friday everyone.

[Sports Illustrated]

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Great Sports Writing: “Federer As Religous Experience”

In case you haven’t heard the news yet, Federer ended Novak Djokovic’s brilliant record-breaking win streak to start a season today with one of the gutsiest performances of his entire career.  In a match where Djokovic was clearly the better player and clearly stronger and faster than his opponent, Federer found a way to take him down.  It was a beautiful display of just how wondrous the game of tennis can be when played at its best and thus it could never be more appropriate than to have you take a look at David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay on Federer, widely considered to be the most important piece of tennis writing ever conceived (and one of the greatest pieces of overall sports writing as well).  There is no possible way I could even begin to describe the essay’s brilliance, so instead I’ll just beg you to take the time and read it today.  From the New York Times:

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament — especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline — and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving,(4)how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer.

Interestingly, what is less obscured in TV coverage is Federer’s intelligence, since this intelligence often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision, and television’s perspective is perfect for viewing and reviewing these Federer Moments. What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game than TV — again — is set up to provide.

Happy Friday everyone.

[New York Times]

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Great Sports Writing: “All For One Sure Beats One For All”

Okay so this may not be as electrifying an example of sports writing at its finest, however I’m picking this selection for selfish reasons.  Why is that?  I happen to think this upcoming Dallas/Miami Finals is the evolutionary version of the 1977 NBA Finals where the Portland Trailblazers defeated the mighty Philadelphia 76ers behind the superb play of Bill Walton and all of the fundamentals of team basketball at its finest.  Take a look at some of the parallels:

-both Dallas and Portland are/were lead by revolutionary big men in Dirk (first seven footer to consistently spread the floor and knock down long jump shots) and Walton (considered perhaps the greatest passing center ever, analysts swear there was no one better at starting the fast break than the big red head).

-It was considered a miracle that Portland was able to achieve what it did and most especially how it did it.  Blazers head coach Jack Ramsey was praised the rest of his career for the “miracle” of getting modern athletes to play within his rigid system and buy into his strict discipline.  Coaches now speak of the ’77 Blazers season as if it were some myth that might never come true again.  Portland didn’t have all the talent of some it’s counterparts in the NBA but everyone bought into the system and, most importantly, they had Walton.  Dallas is doing the exact same thing: playing within the system, executing flawlessly, overcoming huge odds for the most improbable of NBA Finals runs, and, most importantly, they have Dirk.

-Both Miami and Philadelphia are/were considered juggernauts of athletic talent, the likes of which have never been seen.  LeBron, D-Wade, and Bosh speak for themselves, and by the same token you had that Philadelphia team with Dr. J (basically the patriarch to the style of basketball LeBron thrives on), Doug Collins (perhaps the best shooting guard in the league at the time, much like D-Wade), George McGinnis (a tremendous big man known for his scoring and rebounding, McGinnis famously choked severely in the ’77 Finals.  Chris Bosh anyone??) and others like Lloyd “World B.” Free, Henry Bibby (Mike Bibby’s dad) and Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant (Kobe’s dad).

Go back in time and read why exactly the Blazers were able to overcome an initial 2-0 series deficit and come back to trounce the Sixers over the next four games to win the NBA title.  Pay particular attention to the comments by Dr. J and his overall attitude toward the game/series.  It’s scary how much he sounds like LeBron.  Also take notes on Walton’s comments and how much his approach to the game is similar to Dirk’s.

What this all says about the upcoming finals and whether Miami is really the spiritual descendant of this Sixers team though, well, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions.  From Sports Illustrated:

But with eight seconds remaining, the Doctor shot from straightaway behind the foul line and missed. (“As a rebounder and defender I assume everybody’s going to miss,” said Walton.)

With five seconds to go, Free shot from the baseline, but he was sandwiched between Hollins and Gross. His shot didn’t go in either and Gross knocked the ball out of bounds.

With one second left, McGinnis, driving to the right, pushed up one final funny shotput jumper, but this one bounced off also. After Walton leaped to knock the ball away and secure the NBAchampionship for Portland, he whirled, ripped off his shirt and heaved it in the general direction of where he’d been swatting the Sixers’ shots for a whole week: right into the heart of Blazermania.

“If I had caught the shirt, I would have eaten it,” said Lucas. “Bill’s my hero.”

Not to mention the hero of everyone who has ever set foot on the Oregon Trail. “Did I plan the shirt?” Walton laughed at the question as people tried to shower his red hair and beard with champagne, beer and other wicked libations. “I only planned on winning,” he said.

“Dr. J is incredibly tough,” he added, “but we are not into stardom here. The 76ers played with their guts and their pride today and they didn’t try to star. That’s why both teams played close. But once we learn how to beat a team, we can do it and keep doing it.”

Then Walton asked, “Where’s my fruit juice?”

Happy Friday everyone.  Enjoy the long weekend.

[SI]

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Great Sports Writing: “Jordan’s Moment”

With the changing of the guard in the NBA, it’s only appropriate that we now go back and reminisce about just how dominant Michael Jeffrey Jordan was at the game of basketball.  If you read Simmons today you know that he, along with Phil Jackson, believes there will never be another Jordan, so it’s time we all stopped looking for him.  If you’ve forgotten why, today’s selection should do the trick.  Go back to 1998 and read this perfect David Halberstam (he of Breaks of the Game fame) profile on Jordan for The New Yorker.  In it, Halberstam somehow performs the work of a photographer through his stunning and beautiful use of language to perfectly capture a moment in time, one that we’ll never be able to re-live again (and make no mistake, that’s what’s important here).  It’s as if he were the sports world’s equivalent of Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthosue.  Read along through this wonderful piece and realize that although Kobe came close, we’re never going to see anything like this again.  From the New Yorker:

Roy Williams, the Kansas coach who had heard about Michael when he was back in Laney High School, in Wilmington, North Carolina, was at his camp for high-school players, in Kansas, and was watching the game in the coaches’ locker room. He remembered saying after the steal, as Jordan was bringing the ball up court, that some Utah defender had better run over and double him quickly or it was going to be over. You forced someone else to take the last shot, he thought—you did not allow Michael to go one on one for it. But no one doubled him. What Williams remembered about the final shot was the exquisite quality of Jordan’s form, and how long he held his follow-through after releasing the ball; it was something that coaches always taught their players. Watching him now, as he seemed to stay up in the air for an extra moment, defying gravity, Williams thought of it as Michael Jordan’s way of willing the ball through the basket.

There is a photograph of that moment, Jordan’s last shot, in the magazine ESPN, taken by the photographer Fernando Medina. It is in color and covers two full pages, and it shows Russell struggling to regain position, Jordan at the peak of his jump, the ball high up on its arc and about to descend, and the clock displaying the time remaining in the game—6.6 seconds. What is remarkable is the closeup it offers of so many Utah fans. Though the ball has not yet reached the basket, the game appears over to them. The anguish—the certitude of defeat—is on their faces. In a number of instances their hands are extended as if to stop Jordan and keep the shot from going in. Some of the fans have already put their hands to their faces, as in a moment of grief. There is one exception to this: a young boy on the right, in a Chicago Bulls shirt, whose arms are already in the air in a victory call.

The ball dropped cleanly through. Utah had one more chance, but Stockton missed the last shot and the Bulls won, 87–86. Jordan had carried his team once again. He had scored forty-five points, and he had scored his team’s last eight points. The Chicago coaches, it turned out, had been prophetic in their sense of what would happen in the fourth quarters of this series, and which player would be able to create for himself with the game on the line. In the three close games, two of them in Salt Lake City, Jordan played much bigger than Malone—averaging thirteen points in the fourth quarter to Malone’s three. Jordan should be remembered, Jerry Sloan said afterward, “as the greatest player who ever played the game.”

Happy Friday everyone.  Go Rockies.

[The New Yorker]

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Great Sports Writing: “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”

With the race coming up this weekend, what better way to pay homage to it than Hunter S. Thompson’s historic piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”  In this uniquely bizarre story, Thompson details his liquor-fueled, mace-happy journey through one of the oddest spectacle in American sports.  The story seems almost as implausible as the fact that this is widely praised as one of the greatest pieces of journalism in American history.  Thompson perfected his brand of gonzo journalism in this piece, a style which believes the writer has to be a part of the story itself in order to bring about the essence of it.  If you’ve never strapped in and read this piece before, you’re in for one wild ride of a story.  From  Scanlan’s Monthly via Chrudat.com:

The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until post time I had no press credentials and–according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal–no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used-car salesman name Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that might remind him of England.

Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’s was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room…and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”

I uttered a painful groan. “Didn’t the London office call you? They’re flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He’s Irish. I think. Very famous over there. Yes. I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told me we were all set.”

He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds but the clubhouse itself and especially the press box were out of the question.

“That sounds a little weird,” I said. “It’s unacceptable. We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard–or even Mace somebody.” (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box,