Good Sports

27 Jan

Apparently, sports writing is the bastard child of journalism except when blowhards like George Will take their lifeless and desiccated prose to bloviating about baseball—which, by the way, seems to be the sport writers most like to indulge their wordsmithing. A few writers enjoy the sweet science of boxing (Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Gay Talese,Pete Hamill*) and, of course, David Foster Wallace’s 2006 piece on Roger Federer apparently already stands as a classic piece of sports literature.

Anyway, I got to thinking about this matter for a couple of random reasons. One, I recently discovered Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame writer Bill Conlin (shortly before he was disgraced by allegations of long ago, sexually abusing his nephews and nieces). He had written an especially flattering piece on Bobby Valentine and at the same time taking some shots at out going Red Sox manager Terry Francona (whip had previously managed the Phillies. I got to corresponding with Conlin whose writing I approached with the same eagerness I had for the late great George Kimball and Bob Ryan when he was writing on Roundball. Bill Conlin’s columns (if you can overcome the conflict) are still available (and not to make to fine a point about the repercussions of disgrace, his photo is still up at the Baseball Hall of Fame)

Now there are still a (very) few writers out there regularly covering sports whom I actively seek out. Dave Zifrin (The People’s History of Sports), not a particulaRLY outstanding stylist writes sports for the NATION (which may be akin to covering football for Women’s Wear Daily) and distinguishes himself by recognizing that sport is not separate from politics

Michael Rosenberg,at Sports Illustrated, has occasionally grabbed my attention and if he keeps writing pieces such as his assessment of David Stern and his stewardship of the NBA, I will look for him more often;

The best franchises find ways to manage their stars’ egos and complement their talents. The worst ones stand on false principles and turn their teams into a dysfunctional mess. We now know why David Stern has stood by so many lousy owners over the years: He is one.


Secondly, the McSweeney’s cadre entered the sports world with Grantland
edited by ESPN’s Basketball guy, Bill Simmons (The Basketball Book). There is lots of fine writing (and images) noteworthy for an iconoclastic tone and solid grasp of the sports being written about. All this by familiar writers(Tom Bissell Colson Whitehead, Chuck Klosterman, Malcom Gladwell and Jane Leavey). What grabbed me immediately in the debut volume Grantland Quarterly was the Boston Globe’s movie critic Wesley Morris’The Rise of the NBA Nerd Basketball style and black identitywhich I commend to your attention.Here’s a snatch from it:

…”Nerd” is a kind of drag in which ballers are liberated to pretend to be someone else.

When David Stern imposed the league’s reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn’t seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today’s Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern’s black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

I was lucky enough to have worked briefly in the same place (The Boston Phoenix) as George Kimball and that proximity acquainted me with his persona and his nonpareil work.Alex Belth has a wonderful tribute piece on Kimball. Here he explains why he put together At The Fights:

“It was as if I woke up one morning and realized that however good or bad it might have been, well over 95 percent of what I’d written in my life had been used to wrap fish,” George told me. “If I wanted to leave something more permanent, write things I’d always planned to write, and leave a worthwhile body of work behind, I needed to get off my ass and do it.”

*At The Fights Kimball & John Schulian (Library of America)

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2 Responses to “Good Sports”

  1. hdinin January 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    OK, I know you love the guy, having rubbed elbows in the City Room of that adamantine exemplum of sweaty, gutsy, professional journalism*, but… I cook. I’d never wrap fish, never mind consume, anything wrapped in a used newspaper. And is that an original trope? Or was George having an off-day?

    *The Boston Phoenix is justifiably notable for having given the first, or nearly the first, real job to a vast stable of genuinely good writers who are further associated with one another for having the good sense, most of them, to get the hell out the first instant they could to plow and harrow more productive legitimate fields of writing. But then, journalism is one of those fields where merit will out, but it won’t get you a job right off.

    • robertbirnbaum January 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      I’ve seen fish markets where newsprint wrapping is deriguer (so to speak) On the other hand I only eat frozen fish.

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