A Summer Reading List
A few weeks back, I devoured Peter Richmond’s Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders, the acclaimed writer’s rollicking account of the mid-1970s football team. For the uninitiated, the Raiders of that time were a collection of misfits, partygoers, and tough guys that formed a dominant football team.
Richmond’s book was a treat, jam-packed with great reporting, terrific stories, and lots of insight into how this motley crew succeeded. One key was Madden, who before becoming a video game icon and everyman analyst, used a laid back, we’re-all-adults-here coaching method. I read the book in four or five giant gulps, dying to get to the next player profile or long-buried insight. For about a week, bedtime was pushed back, assignments were neglected. Personal hygiene nearly faltered.
It had been long time since I had read a book purely for pleasure, to just let the narrative wash over me. That happens less and less these days. Reading has become more of a vocation than a hobby, a transition I don’t regret for a second. However, there’s nothing quite like sitting with a book for a block of time and just getting totally wrapped up in the world it presents.
As a reader, long stretches by a pool or a lake are the best time to get lost. With Labor Day coming up, I’d like to offer four sports books that are as welcome as a cool drink or a beach chair. If your region has an Indian summer, put Badasses—available for sale Sept. 14—in your beach bag along with the rest of these.
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto. This oral history of the American Basketball Association, a rival of the National Basketball League from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, introduced the world to Julius Erving, the three-point line, and cheerleaders in bikinis. Pluto weaves together hundreds of interviews to showcase the bizarre times and personalities behind the influential league. You’ll meet a young, woefully inexperienced broadcaster named Bob Costas; tough guys Warren Jabali and John Brisker, the latter whom mysteriously disappeared after his playing days; and Marvin Barnes, the selfish, unmotivated superstar who showed up at games with his uniform on underneath a fur coat. And that’s just a sliver of the amazing story in perhaps the best basketball book of all time.
The Bad Guys Won!, by Jeff Pearlman. In the beginning of his book on the 1986 New York Mets, the team's star pitcher Bob Ojeda tells Pearlman that if the writer does his homework he’ll discover that "we were a bunch of vile f------.” Pearlman did just that, detailing the bawdy, sometimes jaw-dropping antics of a team that raised holy hell (especially the pugnacious Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight), trashed an airplane, and won the World Series. The Mets may have been loathed throughout baseball, but Pearlman (a relentless reporter) turns their season into a highly entertaining read about what could be the last hedonistic team in an increasingly PC sport.
Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything, by Charles P. Pierce. By age twenty-seven, New England Patriots quarterback Brady had won three Super Bowls, had helped resurrect a snake-bit franchise, and had become a New England sports legend on par with Larry Bird and Ted Williams. For good measure, he hosted Saturday Night Live and dated a movie star. Pierce looks at how Brady reached this point, examining the influences (his close-knit and sports-crazy Catholic family) and events (a football career at the University of Michigan that was nearly derailed by an indecisive coach; his days as the Patriots back-up quarterback) that cemented the young man’s leadership abilities and unquenchable drive. Those qualities, Pierce suggests, provide the foundation for Brady's and his team’s staggering success. Though Pierce sometimes borders on idol worship over his subject, everyone will enjoy this compelling look at how a champion athlete is created. Also recommended: The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam's excellent examination of Brady's successful coach, Bill Belichick.
Beyond the Game: The Collected Sportswriting of Gary Smith. Frank Deford, Smith's colleague at Sports Illustrated, is generally acknowledged as the pioneer of the in-depth sports profile. Smith took the technique to another level. By 2008, he had won four National Magazine Awards—a record—and was a finalist ten times. In an industry dominated by quick turnaround times and bold headlines, Smith only writes just a few times a year for SI. I'll let the New York Times explain the man's appeal, and leave you to savor the narrative craftsmanship of perhaps the best non-fiction writer you've never heard of:
His work is only tangentially about games, with great appeal for people who wouldn’t know a nickel defense from a triangle offense. Each year he produces four long, earnest feature articles that probe the psyches of wounded people, some of them famous but most obscure, from Andre Agassi to high school basketball players on an Indian reservation.
Smith's work embodies why sportswriting is for anyone who loves good writing. (Note: I have not read Smith's newer collection, Going Deep, but several pieces in Beyond the Game also appear there.)
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.