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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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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