The best american sports writing 2014

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright

Foreword

Introduction

PAUL SOLOTAROFF WITH RON BORGESThe Gangster in the Huddle

DAVID MERRILLThe One-Legged Wrestler Who Conquered His Sport, Then Left It Behind

CHRIS JONESWhen 772 Pitches Isn't Enough

FLINDER BOYD20 Minutes at Rucker Park

AMANDA RIPLEYThe Case Against High School Sports

PATRICK HRUBYThe Choice

TIMOTHY BURKE AND JACK DICKEYManti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax

DON VAN NATTA JR.The Match Maker

MARY PILONTomato Can Blues

JAY CASPIAN KANGThe End and Don King

IAN FRAZIERThe Last Days of Stealhead Joe

JEREMY MARKOVICHElegy of a Race Car Driver

STEPHEN RODRICKSerena the Great

BROOK LARMERLi Na, China's Tennis Rebel

AMANDA HESSYou Can Only Hope to Contain Them

ELI SASLOW“Anybody Who Thinks This Is Porn or Abuse Doesn't Know My Family”

JONATHAN MAHLERThe Coach Who Exploded

BEN McGRATHThe Art of Speed

NICK PAUMGARTENThe Manic Mountain

BUCKY McMAHONHeart of Sharkness

ALICE GREGORYMavericks

RAFFI KHATCHADOURIANThe Chaos of the Dice

KATHY DOBIERaider. QB Crusher. Murderer?

CHRISTOPHER SOLOMONThe Last Man Up

CHARLES P. PIERCEThe Marathon

Contributors' Notes

Notable Sports Writing of 2013

Read More from The Best American Series®

About the Editors

Footnotes

Copyright © 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Introduction copyright © 2014 by Christopher McDougall

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

The Best American Series®is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.The Best American Sports Writing™ is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

 

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

 

www.hmhco.com

 

ISSN1056-8034

ISBN978-0-544-14700-3

 

eISBN978-0-544-30197-9v1.1014

 

“20 Minutes at Rucker Park” by Flinder Boyd. First published onSBNation.com, October 15, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Flinder Boyd. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, is a Hoax” by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey. First published inDeadspin.com. Copyright © 2014 by Gawker Media. Reprinted by permission of Gawker Media.

“Raider. QB Crusher. Murderer?” by Kathy Dobie. First published inGQ, February, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Kathy Dobie. Reprinted by permission of Kathy Dobie.

“The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” by Ian Frazier. First published inOutside, September 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Ian Frazier. Reprinted by permission of the Wylie Agency, LLC.

“Mavericks” by Alice Gregory. First published inn+1, October 9, 2013. Copyright © 2014 by Alice Gregory. Reprinted by permission of Alice Gregory.

“You Can Only Hope to Contain Them” by Amanda Hess. First published inESPN: The Magazine, July 22, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by ESPN, Inc. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

“The Choice” by Patrick Hruby. First published onSportsOnEarth.com, November 14, 2013. Copyright © 2013 bySportsOnEarth.com. Reprinted by permission ofSportsOnEarth.com.

“When 772 Pitches Isn't Enough” by Chris Jones. First published inESPN: The Magazine, July 22, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by ESPN, Inc. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

“The End and Don King” by Jay Caspian Kang. First published inGrantland.com, April 4, 2013. Copyright © 2013 ESPN Internet Ventures. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

“The Chaos of the Dice” by Raffi Khatchadourian. First published inThe New Yorker, May 13, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Raffi Khatchadourian. Reprinted by permission of Raffi Khatchadourian.

“Li Na, China's Tennis Rebel” by Brook Larmer. First published in theNew York Times Magazine, August 22, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by theNew York Times Magazine.Reprinted by permission of Brook Larmer.

“The Coach Who Exploded” by Jonathan Mahler. First published in theNew York Times Magazine, November 6, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Mahler. Reprinted by permission of Jonathan Mahler.

“Elegy of a Race Car Driver” by Jeremy Markovich. First published onSBNation.com, July 30, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Markovich. Reprinted by permission of Jeremy Markovich.

“The Art of Speed” by Ben McGrath. First published inThe New Yorker, February 4, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Ben McGrath. Reprinted by permission of Ben McGrath.

“Heart of Sharkness” by Bucky McMahon. First published inGQ, April 2, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Condé Nast. Reprinted by permission.

“The One-Legged Wrestler Who Conquered His Sport, Then Left it Behind” by David Merrill. First published onDeadspin.com. Copyright © 2014 by Gawker Media. Reprinted by permission of Gawker Media.

“The Manic Mountain” by Nick Paumgarten. First published inThe New Yorker, June 3, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Nick Paumgarten. Reprinted by permission of Nick Paumgarten.

“The Marathon” by Charles P. Pierce. First published onGrantland.com, April 16, 2013. Copyright © 2013 ESPN Internet Ventures. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

“Tomato Can Blues” by Mary Pilon. First published in theNew York Times, September 18, 2013. Copyright © 2013 theNew York Times.All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.

“The Case Against High School Sports” by Amanda Ripley. First published in theAtlantic, October 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Ripley. Reprinted by permission of Amanda Ripley.

“Serena the Great” by Stephen Rodrick. First published inRolling Stone, July 4–18, 2013. Copyright © Rolling Stone LLC 2013. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“Anybody Who Thinks This Is Porn or Abuse Doesn't Know My Family” by Eli Saslow. First published inESPN: The Magazine, June 10, 2013. Copyright © 2013 ESPN, Inc. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

“The Last Man Up” by Christopher Solomon. First published inRunner's World, March 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Rodale Inc. Reprinted by permission of Rodale Inc. and Christopher Solomon.

“The Gangster in the Huddle” by Paul Solotaroff with Ron Borges. First published inRolling Stone, August 28, 2013. Copyright © Rolling Stone LLC 2013. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“The Match Maker” by Don Van Natta Jr. First published onESPN.com, August 25, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by ESPN Internet Ventures. Reprinted by permission of ESPN.

Foreword

THERE ARE MANY WAYSto measure the impact or success of a book. In these metric-driven times, the temptation is to reduce everything to data—sales figures, “starred” reviews, Facebook shares, etc. Even the fact that this is the 24th edition since the series launched in 1991 says something about its value.

Still, for this book, a collection of stories, perhaps the best measure is the stories inspired byThe Best American Sports Writingitself. For me at least, that measure helps justify the work that goes into putting it together every year.

To be clear, I am not referring to thewritingthe book has inspired, although it is certainly true that it has done so, serving as some motivation for a generation of sportswriters. I mean instead the stories that contributors and readers have told me about the book, the personal stories about the role it has come to play in their lives.

In addition to my duties as series editor of this annual collection and as the author of the occasional book, for the past few years I have also served as editor of the longform journalism page forSBNation.com. As I acquire and then edit stories for the site, I have had the opportunity to talk writing and work with hundreds of writers; I find these interactions incredibly rewarding and gratifying—as much so at times as I find writing myself. At some point, most of these writers tell me what this book has meant to their career or to their development as a writer. It's something that is always nice to hear, and when I speak with the contributors to this book, they often tell me the same thing.

Given that I've been doing this since 1991, I am older than many contributors and almost all the writers I work with. I have become accustomed to hearing someone say, “I've been reading this book my whole life.” Until recently, however, that statement was usually hyperbole.

Not anymore. Earlier this year, as I discussed a story with a younger writer, he blurted out that he found working with me “surreal.” I laughed aloud and asked him why. In all seriousness, he told me that he had been reading this book his entire life. I paused, then asked him his age. When he told me, I did the math—not only was he correct, but in fact the first edition of this book predated his appearance on the planet by several years. In fact, I suspect that when he was first old enough to read this book, he was already 12 or 15 years behind. Reality, it seems, has more than caught up with flattery.

I also occasionally correspond on a variety of other matters with writers, including manyBASWcontributors. In one email exchange with a writer whom I've been happy to include in these pages more than once, he told me that the first thing anyone sees when they enter his house is his collection ofThe Best American Sports Writing.I think I responded with some quick quip—my series collection is in the basement, buried on a shelf in my terminally messy office under other books. He soon sent me another email with the subject line “What It Means.”

Attached was a photograph. I clicked it open, and sure enough, on a set of shelves that appeared custom-made, was a complete stack ofThe Best American Sports Writing, 1991 through 2013, flanked by the books of writing legends such as Frank DeFord and Jim Murray.

But it's not just what books mean to my colleagues and other writers that matters. There's also the way books can connect readers and bring people together. My only disappointment with the growing trend to read books and stories on tablets and phones is that it is no longer possible to eavesdrop on what people are reading in public places, to find kindred minds by way of a book or magazine cover.

Years ago, I once traveled the country by train, a nearly monthlong trip that took me from Boston south through New York and Washington to New Orleans, then up to St. Louis to visit family before heading southwest and up the West Coast to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I pillaged the bookstores. I returned by way of Portland and Seattle before heading east—a marathon journey home after a more meandering start. But I had a bag full of new books, and as the Rockies gave way to the Great Plains and then the Great North Woods, I read my way back across the country.

Somewhere north of Chicago, on the fourth day since my last shower, someone tapped me on the back. Another passenger had seen what I was reading and wanted to talk. By the time we reached Boston a day and a half later, we were already friends, probably the most memorable part of an 8,000-mile journey across some 30 states.

A onetimeBASWcontributor told me a similar story about this book and the role it played in a friendship of his. He and his best friend from college had something of a mercurial relationship. A few years after graduating, they had a falling-out, stopped talking, and lost touch with each other. One day his former friend was killing time at a bookstore, not really looking for anything but just browsing, and he picked up a copy of this book. He absently thumbed through the pages, and when his eyes landed on the contributor's name, he yelled out in surprise, “Hey, I know this guy!” He was so surprised and excited that he grabbed several strangers and just had to show them that he knew one of the contributors: “My best friend from college wrote this!!!”

That gave him an excuse to reconnect. He called the contributor, told him about finding his story in this book, and they started talking again. They have remained close ever since, a friendship saved by the power and reach of words—and a little help fromThe Best American Sports Writing.

Then there was the time I accepted an invitation to speak. When I arrived and met the man who had invited me, we started chatting. He was a teacher, he said, and knew of me primarily from this book. He told me that when he got the book each fall he would set it aside without even cracking it open, waiting for a snow day. Then, on that special day in the late fall or early winter when he would get the call informing him that school was canceled, he knew it was time. As the snow fell he would settle into a comfortable chair, open the book, and spend his unscheduled holiday sinking into its pages. Now, when the phone rings in my house with news of a snow day or I sit as the snow falls reading through submissions, I think of him.

I could go on, but of all the stories this book has inspired I do have a favorite. A longtime reader of this title was on a bus—or perhaps a subway train, I can't recall—when a young person saw him carrying this book and struck up a conversation. As they chatted this reader mentioned that he was a sportswriter. The younger person, as yet undecided on a career, liked to write, liked sports, and grew curious. So he asked the sportswriter how one becomes a working writer, what courses to take and what to read—all the things young writers worry about. The sportswriter did his best to answer, but they soon arrived at the next stop. It was time to part ways, and he knew he had not answered all the young man's questions.

Then he remembered that he was carrying this book. As they parted he simply handed the young writer-to-be his copy ofThe Best American Sports Writing.“Just read this,” he said.

I like to think it helped a young writer get off to a good start. One day I hope to hear the rest of that story, perhaps even in this book.

 

Each year I read every issue of hundreds of sports and general interest magazines in search of writing that might merit inclusion inThe Best American Sports Writing.I also write or email the editors of many hundreds of newspapers and magazines and request submissions, and I send email notices to hundreds of readers and writers whose addresses I have accumulated over the years. I search for writing all over the Internet and make regular stops at online sources likeSportsdesk.org,Gangrey.com,Byliner.com,Longreads.com,Longform.org,Nieman.org, and other sites where notable sports writing is highlighted or discussed. Still, I also encourage everyone—readers and writers, friends and family, editors and enemies—to send me stories they believe should appear in this volume. Writers in particular are encouraged to submit—do not be shy about sending me either your own work or the work of those you admire.

Each submission to the upcoming edition must be made according to the following criteria. Each story

must be column-length or longer.must have been published in 2014.must not be a reprint or book excerpt.must have been published in the United States or Canada.must be received by February 1, 2015.

All submissions from either print or online publications must be made in hard copy and should include the name of the author, the date of publication, and the publication name and address. Photocopies, tear sheets, or clean copies are fine. Readable reductions to 8½-by-11 are preferred. Newspaper stories should be submitted with either the original newspaper copy of the piece or a photocopy of the piece as originally published—not a printout of the web version. Individuals and publications should please use common sense when submitting multiple stories. I receive a heavy volume of material, so no submissions can be returned or acknowledged; it is also inappropriate for me to comment on or critique any submission. Magazines that want to be absolutely certain their contributions are considered are advised to provide a complimentary subscription to the address listed below. Those that already do so should extend the subscription for another year.

All submissions must be made by U.S. mail—weather conditions in midwinter here atBASWheadquarters often keep me from receiving UPS or FedEx submissions. Electronic submissions by any means, whether email or Twitter or URLs, and pdfs or other electronic documents are not acceptable. Only some form of hard copy, please. The February 1 deadline is real, and work received after that date may not be considered.

Please submit either an original or a clear paper copy of each story, including publication name, author, and the date the story appeared, to:

 

Glenn Stout

PO Box 549

Alburgh, VT 05440

 

All submissions from me to the guest editor are made blindly, not identified by source or author.

Those with questions or comments may contact me at[email protected]. Copies of previous editions of this book can be ordered through most bookstores or online book dealers. An index of stories that have appeared in this series can be found at my website,glennstout.net, as can full instructions on how to submit a story. For updated information, readers and writers are also encouraged to join theBest American Sports Writinggroup on Facebook or to follow me on Twitter@GlennStout.

Thanks to guest editor Christopher McDougall for his attentiveness, to Michael Everett, Joel Reese, Wright Thompson, and Jon Gold for sharing theirBASWstories with me, and to everyone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for supporting this book. My thanks also go to Siobhan and Saorla for stumbling over the occasional carton of submissions and not complaining too much. And to the writers collected within, I hope this book helps you find more stories.

GLENNSTOUT

Alburgh, Vermont

Introduction

DEATH-ROW CELLShave better natural light than the Rite Aid in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where you can only glimpse the sky through the sad slit of a window above the checkout counter. That's where I was gazing one afternoon when two bodies suddenly sailed past.

These guys had to be six feet in the air, flying by one after the other like they'd been slung out of a catapult. Moments later they reappeared outside the glass doors, this time swinging through the railings of the handicapped ramp. By the time I got to the cash register, I'd watched them hurdle, vault, tightrope-walk, and otherwise wring a crazy amount of movement out of those blue bars. I hurried outside to catch them, but they weren't leaving any time soon. “You start practicing parkour,” one told me, “and whole nights disappear.”

Technically, he was talking aboutl'art du deplacement, more universally known by the funkified version of its other name,parcours—French for “obstacle course.” Parkour was born in the late 1980s, when a band of mixed-race kids living on the outskirts of Paris got tired of being roughed up by bullies. Together, they created their own “training method for warriors,” as cofounder David Belle would explain. The original parkour tribe didn't mind mentoring other true believers who were willing to submit to their punishing tutorials, but otherwise they had just about zero interest in sharing their skill with the rest of the world. They detested the idea of competition and produced no training videos or instruction books. Until very recently, you had only two choices if you wanted to learn parkour: go to France or try your luck with YouTube.

Not surprisingly, the two guys I met in the Rite Aid parking lot got their start on the YouTube route. They studied videos of other self-taught parkour disciples and broke down lightning-quick sequences, frame by frame, into individual moves. Like the original parkour crew, they were using their own bodies to discover the most animal-efficient way to fly over, around, and under the hard edges of the city landscape the way monkeys tumble through the trees.

“I got into it because I was so fat,” Neal Schaeffer told me. He'd begun partying after high school and by age 20 had bloated up from 175 pounds to 240. One afternoon he was in the park watching some strangers “Kong-vault” picnic tables—they'd charge a table, plant their hands, and shoot both feet through their arms like gorillas and fly off the other side—and Neal was talked into giving it a try. Neal was shocked to discover that even out of shape, once he got over his fear he could master skills that at first looked impossible.

Well, maybe notmaster.“You're on this endless trajectory where you're always getting better, but it's never good enough,” Neal explained. “That's what's so exciting. As soon as you land one jump, you can't wait to try it again. You're always looking for ways to make it cleaner, stronger, flow into your next move.” Neal became a member of a local parkour tribe that likes to train after midnight, when the city is all theirs. Whenever a police car prowls by, they drop to the ground and bang out push-ups. “No matter what time it is, no one bothers you when you're exercising.” Within a year, Neal was so fit and trim he was able to scramble to the roof of a three-story building and hang off the flagpole like Spider-Man.You're back, he told himself.

Neal still doesn't rank his skills on the level of Andy Keller, a recent college grad who returned to Lancaster to rejoin his local parkour homies. You can tell within about 90 seconds of meeting Andy that he'd probably be superb at any sport he tried. He's strong and graceful, with a swimmer's broad back and enough bad-assery, as I witnessed firsthand the day we met, to bust out a back flip in the middle of a crowded coffee shop because his buddy dared him. I'd come to see him because of a theory I was looking into that the sports that truly evolved from human survival were the ones with the smallest performance gap between men and women. Logically, anything our ancestors relied on to stay alive would be activities that both men and women, old and young alike, would be good at. Endurance sports fit the bill, as 64-year-old Diana Nyad demonstrated when she became the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. And what about parkour? With its emphasis on agility, control, and creativity, was it the tightest link we have in sports to our evolutionary past?

Andy agreed to show me the ropes. Which is how, a few days later, I found myself facing a six-foot-high brick wall outside a bank during the lunch-hour rush on the busiest street in Lancaster. “You've got to learn to shut out distractions,” Andy said. “Forget who's watching you. Forget where you are. Just focus, and go.” Then he broke into a sprint, hitting the wall full speed. He ran right up the bricks, grabbing for the top and vaulting over. As he trotted back, he was met with applause. An audience had formed, blocking the sidewalk.

“Impressive, isn't he?” I said to the guy beside me.

“I knew he'd make it,” the man responded. “I'm waiting to see ifyoudo.”

 

Nosy Guy just bugged me at the time, but later—much later, when I was sitting in the middle of dozens of great sports stories from the past year and trying to put my finger on what connected them—I thought back to the way he'd watched me bang the tar out of my knees that afternoon and realized I was kind of glad he'd been there. In his own way, Nosy Guy is what sports writing is all about. Our games are at their best when they're shared, when electricity jumps from the player on the field to the fan in the stands and a connection is sparked between what you see and what you believe you can do yourself.

That's what happened to me when I came across David Merrill's wonderful story “The One-Legged Wrestler Who Conquered His Sport, Then Left It Behind” and Amanda Hess's “You Can Only Hope to Contain Them,” her so-smart (and superbly titled) piece on, arguably, the most important breakthrough in athletic equipment of our lifetime: the sports bra. I felt the shock; the spark crackled between my life and two worlds I knew nothing about. I'd never imagined what it would be like to kneel on a mat with one leg and hope I could somehow burst up and around and take down someone with all limbs attached. Deep-diving into that experience through Merrill's reporting made me think that maybe, you know, scuffing myself up on a brick wall to learn parkour wasn't much to whine about after all. And wow! To reach the peak of collegiate wrestling despite that handicap and then suddenly walk away because . . . well, dig in for yourself and find out.

Likewise with breasts. I didn't know Amanda Hess's writing before coming across this piece, but I'm on high alert from now on. What remains with you after you've read it isn't even her light-touch storytelling and ability to pull up just the right tales to bring her point to life, but the gratitude you feel whenever someone opens your eyes so that you see things differently from then on. When I finished reading the stories nominated for this year's collection, I was so blown away I went online to announce, “I'll stackBest American Sports Writing 2014against anyBest Americananything of any year.” I'd never known I could feel sympathy for such devils as Don King, a criminal cage fighter, and bull sharks. Until Don Van Natta Jr. unearthed secrets from a generation ago, I had no idea that Bobby Riggs loved Billie Jean King. Truly loved her.

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