What is great sportswriting?
In my opinion, it’s simply great writing, with sports as the glue that holds the words together.
It’s the human drama backed up by the sound of bouncing balls and roaring engines, the swish of nets, the whack of pads, the shriek of whistles, cries of pain and joy, the pendulum swing of winning and losing. It’s simply about us, the oddest, wildest species we know of.
When Glenn Stout, the series editor of the annual ‘‘Best American Sports Writing’’ anthology, contacted me last winter and asked if I would be the guest editor of the 2016 edition, I leaped at the chance.
Not only was this an honor, but it would give me the chance to read many long-form sports stories from the previous year and help me to see if my criterion for terrific writing held up to recent sports journalism out there.
Let me say it did. In spades.
Stout sent me a winnowed mass of contending stories from all over the country — perhaps 200,000 words in total — from many different venues, something I could tell from the tone and geographical locations of the pieces. There were no magazine, website or newspaper logos attached, and all authors’ names had been redacted.
I halfway recognized some stories because I already had read them, but this basically was a blind read. If I knew what gender, race or religion the author was, it was only because that author had mentioned such in the story.
It would have been easier to do this online, of course, but I wanted physical pages, what we now refer to as ‘‘hard copy.’’ A book is a book. Paper comes from trees. I wanted tree residue to hold and mark. So be it. The boxes weighed a ton, and my office became a mess.
But, oh, the stories!
I’m not bragging here — I was only the judge, not the creator — but long-form American sports writing isn’t in decline, folks. It’s blooming.
How about a story about a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, a married female runner who lost a leg — as did her running husband — and now, three years later, must decide if she will have her badly damaged ‘‘good’’ leg amputated, too. It’s a lose-lose situation she must navigate and surpass — and she does, winning beautifully. The story, titled ‘‘Her Decision, Their Life,’’ is by Eric Moskowitz of the Boston Globe.
I had never heard of him. He might be Hemingway Jr., for all I know. But his words stand alone, and they moved and inspired me.
And that’s but one of the 27 pieces, which cover — if my count is correct — 22 sports.
There is an astounding story by Gretel Ehrlich, a scientist/poet, titled ‘‘Rotten Ice’’ from Harper’s Magazine. In it, she chronicles her travels by everything from motorboat to dogsled to snowshoes to reach the top of Greenland to speak with natives and witness genuine climate change and its effect on animals and, thus, the people themselves.
How can you not read further when the second line of ‘‘Rotten Ice’’ is: ‘‘I’d been hit by lightning and was back on my feet after a long two-year recovery’’?
Amazed, I ordered and read Ehrlich’s ‘‘A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning.’’ She had, indeed, been blasted by lightning while walking with her dog in the Wyoming mountains.
But don’t get the idea all the stories are gloomy, please. Several made me laugh out loud. One, ‘‘Revenge of the Nerds,’’ by Chris Ballard from Sports Illustrated tells how genius-loaded, sports-irrelevant, science-geeked Caltech finally figures out how to win a basketball game.
There’s a piece by John Brant from Bicycling that tells about a curiosity-crazed, funny-as-hell Chinese student who abruptly decides to ride his bicycle slowly across America, stay with kind strangers and learn about this oddball country.
Six-foot-one Michael McKnight — ‘‘Learn to Dunk,’’ Sports Illustrated — makes you grin for 13 pages as you struggle along with him on his 12-month quest to jam. And Matt Calkins’ piece on virtually mute retired running back Marshawn Lynch is a howler, not to mention surprisingly sweet and inspirational.
I rewarded writers who did hard work, who got off their butts and went places, investigated, questioned people, bored toward the soul of humanity and loved their words just right.
Great writing, great sportswriting. It’s the same, people.
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