Despite what you may hear in the age of Twitter, people do still read books. The best part about good sports books is they don’t lose relevancy. Here are eight that will always be worth reading:
8. The Last Shot by Darcey Frey
Set amid the decaying backdrop of gang-infested Coney Island during the early 1990s, The Last Shot spends a year following the storied basketball team at Lincoln High School. A year which just happened to be Stephon Marbury’s freshman year. Marbury at 14 was just like was at 24, or is now. Smart, brash, cocky, delusional, me-first, but sophisticated, friendly and oddly likable. The real stars of the book though are his older teammates that weren’t bound for superstardom and who were just trying to use basketball to get to college. It is a touching, honest look at inner-city teenagers and their tenuous relationship with the American dream.
7. A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein
One of the first books of it’s kind, Feinstein spent the entire 1994 season on the PGA Tour with a handful of pros, cataloging the ups and downs while skillfully intertwining the backstories of each player into the overall narrative. Widely acclaimed when it was released, the book still holds up today, even with few-to-none of the players featured in it still relevant.
6. Slaying the Tiger by Shane Ryan
A rawer, newer version of A Good Walk Spoiled, Slaying the Tiger follows current players like Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, and Jason Day during the 2014 season. The book retains most of the good parts of a A Good Walk Spoiled, while managing to be more honest about the faults of the star players. Ryan gives credit where credit is due and remains respectful of the players, but has no problem tearing players like Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson apart when the occasion calls for it. He pulls no punches, and the reader is better off for it. The chapter on Bubba alone is reason enough to read Slaying the Tiger. If you currently follow pro golf AT ALL, it is hard to imagine you wouldn’t enjoy this book.
5. Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
At this point, it feels like this book HAS to be on the list. While we don’t blindly follow conventional wisdom here at TheLead, let’s put it this way: there is a reason the book got so much attention in the first place. After the movie, the (excellent) television series, and enough mythology to make Walt Disney himself moderately nauseous, the original book still stands tall as an extraordinary sociological examination of a small West Texas town struggling against the tide of a changing society. 25 years after it was first published, the story is still relevant, perhaps now more than ever.
4. Indentured by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
The NCAA is an unethical, corrupt organization that will be radically different or extinct within 5-10 years. There is simply too much momentum against their “mission” (i.e. Business Model) for them to survive in their current form. When that happens, this book will serve as an important historical artifact: a guide to how the anti-NCAA movement started. Along the way, Nocera and Strauss also weave in dozens of sickening examples of brutish NCAA behavior that show time after time how little regard the organization actually has for the “student-athletes.”
3. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Perhaps the most influential sports book ever, Moneyball eventually became so much more than a book. It became a movie, a movement, a term of derision, and a symbol for anything to do with analytics, sabrmetrics, or advanced stats. The book itself tends to get lost in all the coverage about the influence of the book. Which is a shame, because it is a damn good book. Michael Lewis is one of the most skilled people to ever put fingertip to computer keyboard, and Moneyball is still an engrossing narrative with plenty of information that is still relevant today. Do yourself a favor and read (or re-read) it.
2. Fall River Dreams by Bill Reynolds
This book follows the basketball team at Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts for a season in the early 1990s. It just happened to be the junior year of Chris Herren – future NBA player, heroin addict, and star of his own 30 for 30, Unguarded. He was the best player in Durfee history, but the book also captures him as he begins to deal with the demons that would eventually lead him into drug addiction. While Herren and his teammates are the nominal stars of the book, the central character is really the city of Fall River, and Reynolds does a masterful job of weaving the history of the city in and around the current exploits of the basketball team. It isn’t just a basketball book: it is a book about class, the decline of the manufacturing economy, family, alcoholism, drug addiction, education, expectations, and the role of sports in a once proud city in southeastern Massachusetts.
1. The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam
Written in the late 1970s after a year following the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers, this is widely considered the best sports book of all time and one of the best nonfiction books ever. David Halberstam was the master of combining reporting and literary nonfiction writing, and he brings the reader on an extremely enjoyable journey with Bill Walton (then the best player in the world, or second to Kareem), Maurice Lucas (his right hand man and protector – also the inspiration for the Luke in Luke Walton), and the rest of the then-dominant Blazers. The players featured in The Breaks of the Game probably learned something about themselves after reading it. And so will you.