Relentless fandom is a young man’s game. I am in an on-and-off relationship with the Mets. I follow the New York Giants and the Philadelphia 76ers with interest bordering on gusto. Neither wins nor losses linger. I don’t have the stamina. The little things matter most: How Klay Thompson shoots a basketball without a second’s hesitation, like how you or I open a door. LeBron James lowering his shoulder and punishing a helpless defender like a 32-year-old playing his 10-year-old son one-on-one. Jacob DeGrom painting the corners. Patrick Mahomes finding a new way to throw a football.
Thanks to the coronavirus, they are gone. What do we do?
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To me, stories make sports special. Maybe it’s because I first savored sports from a distance when I wasn’t playing them. A big part of my childhood was spent devouring The Asbury Park Press’s sports section, a rewarding compilation of game recaps, columns, and features that went beyond who beat whom.
I’m not sure this kind of upbringing exists anymore. Your hometown newspaper — if you have one that isn’t just wire reports and an overtaxed municipal reporter filing three stories a day—can’t afford a robust sports department.
But I was lucky. From my parents’ living room couch, I digested sports in a very different way than today’s boiling-lava-hot take culture, where once-respected writers like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith have become wrestling heels in $1,000 suits, where Twitter gives us news, opinions, and (if you’re a female media member) misspelled, envy-fueled misogyny immediately. A moment of triumph or mortification is captured for the world and then analyzed and commented upon and debated until boredom sets in. That works out pretty well. Every day there’s a new game.
Except now, thanks to Covid-19 there isn’t. Sports writers have had to find ways to pass the time. A popular option is a piece on great sports books. This pleases me to no end. In my office, a bookcase is fastened to the back wall. I’d say a quarter of the books on these shelves are unread sports books, my nerdy, peculiar form of fandom. The games we play provide a springboard for any number of literary explorations, because sports are the stories of our lives. The games we watch merely serve as a plot point or an extended action scene in a bigger, more rewarding narrative.
This has unfolded in real time when the Michael Jordan-endorsed Chicago Bulls doc The Last Dance airs on ESPN. Twitter has come alive on Sunday night. I have not watched the 10-part documentary series yet. Part of it is my current quarantine work schedule — which includes smoothing a book into shape and meeting deadlines so the stack of empty seltzer bottles piling in the mud room isn’t our only savings — has me working seven days a week.
But what’s been amazing to see — as David Shoemaker and Bryan Curtis observed on their Press Box podcast — is younger viewers treating well-established facts as revelations. Basketball fans know Larry Bird uttered his “God disguised as Michael Jordan” line after the 1986 playoffs and feted Jordan in his autobiography, Drive. The 1985 Bulls’ cocaine-fueled antics blew a lot of people’s minds, but it was not surprising. Orlando Woolridge, Quentin Daily, George Gervin, three main players on that team, had well-publicized drug issues. Only Gervin is alive.
Such insights reinforce why sports books delight me in a way live sports never will. Great sports books teem with revelations that flesh out the players we only know through PR-massaged sound bites and staid press conferences. Look at Richard Ben Cramer’s dissection of Joe DiMaggio’s gauzy mythology in Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life or Jeff Pearlman’s depiction of Magic Johnson’s epic whoring in Showtime.
It’s not all salacious. Read the autobiographies of Bill Russell, Andre Agassi, and Oscar Robertson. You’ll see the toll these men shouldered.
Books also gives us a chance to participate, like when Brad Balukjian met his boyhood baseball heroes in The Wax Pack or when Stephen Fastis became an ersatz placekicker for the Denver Broncos in A Few Seconds of Panic. All of today’s sports heroes — Mike Trout, Steph Curry, Lamar Jackson — had antecedents. Now is the time to read about Mickey Mantle (The Last Boy by Jane Leavy), Pete Maravich (Pistol by Mark Kriegel), and Randall Cunningham (Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden).
I’ve always leaned on books about sports, because they provided emotional or historical context to what I was watching. Now they’re a retreat. So much of sports coverage has remained the same post-coronavirus. Who got traded or signed a big contract? What team will draft that stud quarterback? Writers have to be on the attack, because the news cycle is relentless. I understand the need for a distraction — and how painful the absence in a world where each day is exhausting — but that approach has always felt like a bombardment. Now it feels like the rantings of a person deep in denial. I can’t imagine any professional sport starting this year—unless we want our games to resemble the interior shots of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Books about sports provide that break, a chance to absorb the background that we miss in our daily obsession. Loving a team is a commitment. Sports, like any national passion, are overwhelming and expansive and enraging. Making sense of it all is crazy.
The celebration about sports is never about right now, but how we got here. That story never ends — and it’s fascinating.
Pete Croatto is a sports writer whose work has appeared in Grantland, Sports Illustrated, and Publisher’s Weekly, among other places. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA, comes out this fall.
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