THE EARLY LEAD: A sportswriter’s list of favorite sports-related books
By BRANDON HURLEY
A well-crafted and thought out sports book hits a little different. It’s pure, painting a vivid picture of a significant moment in our history.
Sportswriting, even if I failed to notice it at the time as a young boy, has always been part of my destiny. My mom enjoys telling the tale of my frustrating childhood, a little too often, if I must say so myself. Apparently, I only read sports-related things, whether that was the sports page, magazines or books. But, I’m not embarrassed about that, not even the slightest. High-quality sportswriting produces some of the best content in the world, no matter how you look at it. And, yes, I did read the sports section every single day at breakfast. I can’t remember exactly how long I did such a thing, but it had to be somewhere close to a decade. It was a ritual, and I felt naked without my daily routine. It helped me understand sports on a deeper level, and it also allowed me to appreciate writing as a whole.
The written word has piqued my interest for well over two decades. but oddly enough, I moved away from reading books during my college years, even as I dove deeper into the subject. I wrote for my high school newspaper and became a journalism major at the University of Iowa, but my bookshelf never got any heavier, it remained a bleak sight. I’m not sure why - I still read the newspaper and online articles religiously and digested as much live sports as I could, but I rarely picked up a book. Maybe it was all the distractions tugging at me - video games, TV shows, partying with my friends, the inception of podcasts, school work and jobs, but I rarely took the time to venture into a riveting page-turner. That all changed a few years ago, when I rediscovered my love for books. Of course, I’ve been a writer for almost half of my life, and words have always spoken to me, but it felt good to attach myself to something substantial again. Since most of us have been cooped up with more free time than usual during this Coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been able to read even more, as I’m sure others have as well. Since my profession deals with writing and reporting every single day I’m on the clock, I felt it would be a perfect opportunity to share some of my favorite sports books.
Now, this list is comprised only of books I’ve managed to read. And, I must stress this, it’s solely based off of my own opinion. It’s certainly not a piece to take as gospel, just a fun little article to help pass the time while simultaneously easing the pain without live sports. When we should be watching the NBA and NHL playoffs and as the MLB season normally heats up, let’s take the opportunity to read, and read a lot. I compiled a list which was tremendously difficult to whittle down, so please excuse the randomness of it.
As you’ll see, I’m strongly drawn to historical non-fiction. I’ve recently become a huge fan of learning about our sporting past, which I believe creates some of the greatest stories, and may be why you see so many of those such articles in this piece.
Many of the greatest sports authors in our history began as newspaper writers. So if you can, please support local journalism and purchase a subscription. You won’t regret it.
And now, onto the list:
1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons
This was a fairly obvious choice after I took a few moments to finger through my bookshelf. This is essentially the encyclopedia for the NBA. It’s a tiny bit dated now (it was written in 2009, so a full decade has passed), but the detail and stories are tremendous. This is a must-read for any basketball fan.
2. Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson by Kent Baab
This is not your typical, feel-good, rags-to-riches sports book. Yes, it details the life of Allen Iverson, but it’s an introspective look into his troubled - and current - past. It’s riveting stuff and difficult to put down. Some of it really is hard to believe it ever happened.
3. Games of Deception by Andrew Maraniss
After the top two, things become even harder and harder for me to rank. The remainder of these books can easily be swapped out, and by no means is that a slight. They are all spectacular reads, in my mind, and Games of Deception, the story of the first Olympic basketball team is much more than a sports book. It dives deep into the Nazis as well as America’s relationship with sports in the 30s. A must.
4. The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove
Absolutely captivating, a real “page-turner,” if you will. Sokolove is a master of detail and research, vividly depicting the rise and fall of Darryl Strawberry’s high school baseball team. The similarities he and his teammates share throughout their lives is astonishing, sad and intriguing, all at the same time. Baseball plays its part well as a tremendous common denominator.
5. Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers by Jeff Pearlman
I was a little too young for this era, born in 1989, but thanks to Jeff Pearlman’s psychotic love for reporting and writing, I was able to indulge in this intriguing team. Basketball, entertainment and the Lakers, it doesn’t get much better than this.
6. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the collision of race by Andrew Maraniss
This is the most impactful book about Civil Rights and sports that you haven’t yet read. The pictures and scenes that Maraniss paints of Perry Wallace’s struggles in the South, even at a prestigious University like Vanderbilt, is heartbreaking. Just sickening yet incredible stuff. Oh, not to mention, Cooper resident and Iowa journalist Chuck Offenburger is cited several times throughout.
7. Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams
The truth of the high school straight-to-the-NBA career path is finally revealed here. From Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett and the infamous Kwame Brown, it’s all uncovered in this wonderful little book. You’ll never look at former high school phenoms the same way again.
8. Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
I can’t really explain how or why I waited until I was 30 years old to read this basketball bible, but I was definitely missing out. A tremendous book written by one of the greatest coaches in history. A psychologist in the game of basketball. This piece takes you into the mind of coaching and is a necessity for any fan of sports. It’s that extensive.
9. The Cost of these Dreams by Wright Thompson
Not exactly a memoir or a traditional book, per say, but a collection of the award-winning sportswriter’s best features. Each piece reads like a well thought out and researched mini-book. The range of topics is unique as well. For fans of writing, you can’t go wrong picking this one up.
10. Over Time by Frank Deford
One of the earliest and most genuine media superstars, Frank Deford could tell stories for years and I’d never get bored. He was a craftsman with the pen and knew how to seek out the best tales.
Chuck Long: Destined for Greatness by Aaron Putze
The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (Sadly, I haven’t finished reading this one, but 150 pages in and it’s spectacular)
The Opening Kickoff by Dave Revsine
The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff
Becoming Mr. October by Reggie Jackson
Basketball and Other Things by Shea Serrano
Adding a little more fuel to the already flaming hot nerd fire, I’ve also included a list of books I look forward to reading in the near future. And yes, I do own most of these titles:
Ali: The Myth by Jonathan Eig
Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel
Loose Balls: The short, wild life of the ABA by Terry Pluto
Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman (Hits shelves in September)
Hustle: The myth, life and lies of Pete Rose by Michael Sokolove
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam
Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero by Jeff Pearlman
Glory Road by Don Haskins and Dan Wetzel
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
If you found this column intriguing and feel as if I’ve left off a few books or there are some worth checking out, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Twitter. My handle is @BrandonJHurley.