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From Clayton Kershaw’s living room to Tokyo 7-Elevens, Times Sports’ favorite 2021 stories

Favorite Sports stories of 2021.
(Robert Gauthier, Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times; Gary Ambrose / For The Times; AP; Getty Images)

There are no shortage of year-end lists that employ metrics — unique visitors, page views, minutes spent — to measure the most popular stories of the year. The most enjoyable lists, however, are less quantifiable and divined instead by the writers themselves and what they have found most rewarding.

The Times’ Sports staff, unleashed after the surreal pandemic-necessitated isolation of 2020, traveled the world in ’21, mining stories that took them everywhere from the living room of Clayton Kershaw to 7-Elevens in Tokyo. The following is an anthology — one per writer, listed alphabetically — of the Sports staff’s favorite stories from 2021, one last gift to you, our readers.

  • Kevin Baxter

    Why this story stuck with me: The thing I love most about sports is the fact that much of it takes place at the intersection where culture, society, economics and history meet — and often collide. A pre-Olympic story about Mexico’s obsession with, and success in, racewalking is an example of that.

  • Ben Bolch

    Why this story stuck with me: This story illustrated the surreal world inhabited by UCLA players and parents during the NCAA tournament and the creative ways they stayed in touch despite the roadblocks intended to protect the players in the bubble.

  • Jorge Castillo

    Why this story stuck with me: Clayton Kershaw is a private person. He’s respectful with the media, but he has preferred to keep reporters at arm’s length over a long career. That made the access he gave the Los Angeles Times last January so unusual. Kershaw was coming off finally overcoming his infamous postseason troubles to win the World Series. It was the highest point of his career and he wanted to talk about it.

    Kershaw allowed me into his Dallas house for a few hours over two days. He let me interview him with his wife, Ellen, in their dining room, watch one of his workouts inside his home gym, and follow him to a throwing session at the local high school. Kershaw opened up about his past playoff failures, fatherhood, and his murky future heading into the final year of his contract. He was transparent, vulnerable, and honest. It was a Clayton Kershaw we rarely, if ever, had seen before.

  • John Cherwa

    Why this story stuck with me: I set out to write this story with the unusual goal of making no one who has an opinion of trainer Bob Baffert happy. I wanted those who hate Baffert to think the story was too soft and those who love Baffert to think it was too hard. Not sure, but that might be the definition of fair. It was a bit of a get when Baffert agreed to break a months-long silence on the topic of his medication violations and possible disqualification from the Kentucky Derby to talk to The Times, not so much because it was me but the reputation of The Times to tell all sides of the story. It’s unlikely anyone with an opinion on him changed their mind, but to a general audience, hopefully it gave a big picture view of the most famous man in horse racing.

  • Mike DiGiovanna

    Why this story stuck with me: I like the way I was able to capture the big-picture drama and craziness of the game while highlighting some of the smaller and often overlooked details—Rob Wilfong costing the Angels the potential winning run by not advancing from first to second on a play at the plate; Red Sox LF Jim Rice taking a few steps back before making a game-saving catch of a Gary Pettis drive to the wall, one night after Pettis hit a ball over his head—that were so important. It also featured one of the most quotable and wittiest (no, not Mike Witt) Angels of all-time, pitcher Chuck Finley, and one of the most insightful and observant broadcasters of our time in Al Michaels.

  • Helene Elliott

    Why this story stuck with me: I chose this one because it highlighted a problem that I hoped would have disappeared by now but remains a challenge for women in sportswriting — or any other profession.

  • Sam Farmer

    Why this story stuck with me: I really liked reporting the behind-the-scenes story of the NFL’s COVID season because of the access I had with Roger Goodell and his wife, Jane, who were so candid that it inspired others in the league to be revealing in ways I didn’t expect. I was able to break news in the story, both on the league’s secret plan for a 10-game season and on the Broncos’ quarterbacks lying about why they were suspended. If I can infuse an otherwise dry subject with memorable anecdotes, I feel I can elevate a story and make it more readable and digestible. I always aim to do that, and I think I achieved it in this story.

  • Nathan Fenno

    Why this story stuck with me: Unexpected stories are one of the best parts of this job, but I can’t say I ever thought I’d be writing about Japanese convenience stores while covering the Olympics. Some of us ate at them two or three times a day during the Tokyo Games because of COVID-related restrictions and quickly became aficionados. The stores had nothing in common with their counterparts in the U.S. I still get strange looks from people when I mention that I regularly ate at 7-11 during the Olympics. Eating our way through the astonishing variety of offerings provided a welcome break each day — and led to a fun, offbeat story that hopefully illuminated a small part of everyday life in Japan amid so much serious news from the Games and our world.

  • Andrew Greif

    Why this story stuck with me: A VHS tape of Kobe Bryant’s little-known draft workout for the Clippers, stashed away since 1996, and whose contents had been seen by only a handful of people since? I was immediately hooked when I first heard about the tape’s existence in 2019. But Bryant’s subsequent death made this more than a chance to reveal to readers something new about a celebrity whose life had been in the public eye for 25 years. It was a story about memory, seeing potential before it is realized and the enduring connection between Bryant and the coach who stashed away the footage.

  • Jack Harris

    Why this story stuck with me: I think the best sports stories tell readers something about the world around them. Jeff Grosso’s story was a perfect example of that, revealing much about one of Southern California’s important sub-cultures, the pitfalls of addiction and difficulties in overcoming it, the joy of fatherhood, and the fragility of life.

    This piece hit home with the skateboarding community — especially those of his generation — but you didn’t have to be a skateboarding fan to connect with, or learn something from, the story of his life.

  • Steve Henson

    Why this story stuck with me: The story came about because I responded to a random email from Buddy Salinas’ grandson that would have been easy to ignore. One conversation with Buddy and I knew a compelling story could result. This reminded me that aiming high on a story that at first blush might not deliver anything can pay off.

  • Dylan Hernández

    Why this story stuck with me: Told you so.

  • Ryan Kartje

    Why this story stuck with me: Grief is such an inexplicable and fiercely individual process, and no story I’ve ever written has illuminated for me the complexities of that than this piece on the death of former USC football player Chris Brown. When the Browns invited me to their ranch in Temecula last summer, the family was still very much in the process of grieving his sudden, tragic death. But many of them opened their hearts to talk about Chris and the deep sorrow they were dealing with, in hopes of offering a window into Chris. Each of them handled that process completely differently, and their process taught me more than I ever expected about grief and the love of a parent for a child.

  • Gary Klein

    Why this story stuck with me: As the Rams beat writer, I spend a lot of time writing about high-profile personalities such as Matthew Stafford and DeSean Jackson. So, the opportunity to cover the Tokyo Olympics presented a new opportunity and challenge to write about men and women in various sports, including long jumper Tara Davis. But this profile of anime-inspired 800-meter runner Isaiah Jewett, and how he tries to emulate superheroes, stuck with me.

    And it generated a lot of feedback from readers, who were inspired by Jewett’s journey. In the Olympic semifinals, Jewett tripped and fell, but the sportsmanship he demonstrated by helping another runner to his feet and crossing the finish line together embodied the Olympic spirit and turned out to be one of the Games’ most memorable moments. COVID-19 restrictions for athletes prevented Jewett from traveling to Tokyo’s Akihabara district, the center of the anime universe. On my last day in Tokyo, this navigationally challenged reporter somehow figured out the subway system and went there to see it for myself. Because I was inspired too.

  • J. Brady McCollough

    Why this story stuck with me: The reporting doors didn’t exactly swing open for this profile of former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, whose remarkable rise from his personal rock bottom in 2015 to the new Texas head coach in 2021 deserved further reflection. Sarkisian nor his family would talk with me for the piece, but the sources who were willing to speak helped to tell a story that shed light on the tough decisions he had to make to move his life forward.

  • Jeff Miller

    Why this story suck with me: This story is an example what’s possible when a family is willing to cooperate in a very difficult time. Colt’s parents, Terry and Betsy, were unbelievably gracious with their time and honesty during the reporting for this feature. Their cooperation is why this story impacted so many people. I truly believe others were helped because of them.

  • Thuc Nhi Nguyen

    Why this story stuck with me: While most met Nia Dennis for the first time in 2021, I had watched her compete at UCLA for the past four years. The history helped while writing my favorite piece of 2021 as I took a deep dive into Dennis’ viral fame. My previous relationship with her, her family and her team allowed me to reveal parts of her routine and career that I couldn’t have found if I had just met her, especially because, believe it or not, Dennis was a painfully shy freshman. In the end, the story showed the growth of a young woman, her strength and the power of her voice. And a Twitter shout out from Magic Johnson was fun too.

  • Bill Plaschke

    Why this story stuck with me: I loved the strength of Josh Morales, the Loyola High School football player who endured weeks of isolation in caring for his COVID-stricken parents while also being afflicted with the virus. When Los Angeles teams were allowed to start practicing again in the spring, the senior was one of the first ones on the field in celebration of the end of his nightmare. I wrote about his inspirational journey, and purposely ended the story by relaying Morales’ dream to attend USC. I was hoping to attract the attention of someone from the university who might be perusing his application. A few weeks after the story ran, he received a letter of acceptance that included a full-ride scholarship. His text of gratitude, however unwarranted, is something I will cherish forever.

  • Bill Shaikin

    Why this story stuck with me: My favorite piece of 2021 reflects the impact a newspaper can make in its community -- local, state, national or world. When I called MLB to ask about the possibility that the league might consider moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta because of Georgia’s new and restrictive voting laws, the league was basically like, “Do what now?” Within 36 hours of our story posting, Dave Roberts told me he would consider not managing in the game, and union chief Tony Clark told the Boston Globe the players would welcome a conversation about it.

    One week later, MLB moved the game from Atlanta. In a sport that moves slowly in all that it does, the speed was breathtaking. It all came from a national conversation started by the Los Angeles Times.

  • Eric Sondheimer

    Why this story stuck with me: For years I’ve wanted to experience Texas high school football since reading “Friday Night Lights.” This was my chance to take in the whole experience, from the BBQ to the fans to the football. I learned everything is definitely bigger in Texas.

  • Broderick Turner

    Why this story stuck with me: By diving into the meeting involving LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook that led to this offseason blockbuster trade, it showed our readers and fans how players can exert their power in the NBA and form alliances. The details of the power meeting was fascinating. (Editor’s note: They were.)

  • David Wharton

    Why this story stuck with me: Olympic divers experience many of the same injuries that affect athletes of more traditional contact sports, and the pain begins before they hit the water.

  • Dan Woike

    Why this story stuck with me: When someone trusts you to tell their story and by doing so, they’re willing to be as vulnerable and honest as possible, it can kind of scare you as much as it excites you. That’s how I felt writing about Vin Baker, someone who gave me hours of his time in interviews that happened over the course of two separate NBA seasons. I was sot of paralyzed with the depth and twists in Vin’s story, from All-Star to alcoholism to Starbucks barista to preacher and back to the NBA. When I finally sat down to write, the Bucks trailed the Suns 2-0 in the NBA Finals. I viewed Vin as the perfect comeback story. Four games later, his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, capped one with him on the bench.

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