If you want to be great at something you need to soak up the best, and long before my first sports book became a reality I was a purveyor of the genre. While I haven’t come close to reading all of the classics (Ball Four and Paper Lion are on my summer reading list) I want to run down a short list of the sports books that have done the most to inspire me as a writer and as a fan:
1. Friday Night Lights. It was the book that launched a big-screen film that launched a television series, and somehow all managed to be beautifully executed. H.G. Bissinger’s immersive look at high school football in Odessa was a feat of storytelling that captured the culture of small-town gridiron obsession so accurately because the author lived in Odessa with full access to the team for a year. More than any other sports book I have read, this was the one that left me saying, “I wish I had written that.”
2. Seabiscuit. No one makes reality read like great fiction like Laura Hillenbrand, and this book was her calling card. I don’t follow horse racing at all, but she made me care deeply about the trainer, owner and jockey of this extraordinary underdog who took Depression-era America by storm. It’s a stretch to call Hillenbrand’s second book, Unbroken, a sports book, even though its hero Louie Zamperini was one of the top U.S. distance runners in the 1940s, but however it’s classified, it is singularly amazing and it changed the way I tell stories.
3. My Losing Season. For me, Pat Conroy is to fiction what Laura Hillenbrand is to non-fiction, so when he penned a memoir of his basketball career at The Citadel I had high expectations. He is a maestro of the English language, and when he used his command of words to show a reader what it feels like to come down the court as the point guard, my favorite sport was elevated to poetry.
4. The Blind Side. I wish Michael Lewis was a sportswriter who dabbled in finance from time to time rather than the other way around, because I’m just not that interested in the subject matter of most of his works, but I would like to read more of his writing. If you only saw the movie, you have only experienced a sliver of Lewis’s blend of brainy analysis and heartfelt storytelling. I have friends who told me they skimmed the in-depth history of football strategy to get back to Michael Oher and the Tuohy family, but I feasted happily on the whole thing.
5. Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I am a runner and a running coach, and this compelling book pushed all the right buttons for me as Christopher McDougall took a Michael Lewis approach to examining the history of American distance running and the fringe sport of ultrarunning through the lens of the Tarahumara Indians, a Mexican tribe with superhuman endurance. I learned so much about a sport I love and was gripped by the tales of an obscure tribe whose members could run for days.
One caveat: I am halfway through The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and already it is threatening to break into my top five. Compelling writing and a story that just, you know, glides across the water like an eight-man shell heading for Olympic golf.