10 sports books we loved in 2021
Two high school teams overcome unbelievable odds to play football. Women push through layer after layer of sexism to succeed. One pro league fights to finish a season inside a bubble amid racial unrest, while one coach most people love to hate keeps winning.
All those stories were highlighted by a group of talented writers who captured our attention and taught us much during the past year.
Take a closer look at 10 sports books we enjoyed reading in 2021.
“Rising from the ashes” is a common metaphor in the athletic comeback genre, but in this case it is literally the story of the Paradise Bobcats, most of whom lost almost everything in the 2018 wildfire that reduced 18,000 homes in the California town to smoldering ember. The role of sports is sometimes overstated in helping communities heal. Not here. Plaschke, for 25 years an L.A. Times columnist, begins the book by telling in harrowing detail the flight to safety, then turning to the rebuild, which finds its raw, gripping voice in the individual stories of more than a dozen players and coaches.
The Washington Post’s Kent Babb takes readers to a place it’s unlikely they’d explore on their own — the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers. Pairing detailed reporting with fluid writing, Babb introduces us to Ednar Karr High coach Brice Brown and the weight he carries beyond trying to win a fourth state championship. His players are growing up amid a gun violence epidemic, leaving him to not only coach football fundamentals but also how to deal with the strain of mental health challenges, a prolific drug trade and economic inequality.
Athletic activism has its antecedents in the 1960s, when tennis star Billie Jean King — who grew up on 36th Street in Long Beach — began her fight for gender, racial and economic equity that continues to this day. The 432-page book, co-written with journalists Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers, carries King’s unmistakably forceful and feisty voice and shares the author’s most personal struggles. Like Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, “Open,” King’s memoir is not only great reading but also an essential public service.
The Washington Post national basketball writer was one of a very few sportswriters who spent all 107 days in the pandemic-necessitated NBA bubble. It was a long, strange — if stationary — trip, 22 teams chasing a championship in effectively a high school gym environment. The Lakers would claim that title, which Golliver captures in great detail, but his ground-floor eyewitness to the real-world tumult of the summer of 2020, which included a work stoppage prompted by the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis., and player mental health being challenged by extended seclusion, is the true gold in the book. The NBA erected a bubble and it saved the season (and the Lakers’ 17th championship) but it did not seal off the real world from its occupants.
Mirin Fader couldn’t have timed an inside look into the improbable rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo any better, with the Greek sensation leading the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title in tandem with the book’s release. Fader is a gifted writer who shares vivid details about Antetokounmpo’s impoverished upbringing in Greece. His undocumented immigrant status blocked him from playing on top Greek club teams and he sold trinkets with his family on the streets as they struggled in the face of racism. Despite it all, Antetokounmpo fought his way to the NBA. While he remains hard on himself as he pushes to retain the opportunities he’s earned, the book is dotted with the Greek star’s humility and good humor that has made him one of the NBA’s most endearing stars.
Middle-aged sportswriters have made a cottage industry of infusing their work with references to John Hughes movies, Michaels Jackson and Jordan and the “Karate Kid,” to name a few. Few, if any, have turned them into a rollicking 336-page account of a decade that, truthfully, was pretty damn fun and hilarious. The prolific Wertheim, an executive editor at Sports Illustrated and author of 15 books ranging from children’s books to Al Michaels’ memoir, drills down on a summer that spawned outsized cultural personalities and moments alike, notably the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, still considered the gold standard of the modern Games.
You’ve likely heard of “A League of their Own,” a movie that captured the magic of a women’s pro baseball team that once thrived in the U.S. Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo deliver equally enjoyable stories of another remarkable professional women’s league that got little attention. They showcase the scrappy women’s pro football league that operated in the United States in the 1970s. The squads include the short-lived L.A. Dandelions, which was competitive but couldn’t overcome the geographic distance from other teams operating in other parts of the country.
Throughout his career, Wickersham, an ESPN writer, has brought a reportorial attention to detail that can make an NFL owners meeting read as absorbingly and entertainingly as the final minutes of a Tom Brady Super Bowl comeback. The Brady-Bill Belichick Dynasty is an irresistible canvas, and a forbidding one, for anyone setting out to tell the definitive story of the most famously secretive success story in NFL history. Wickersham delivers the goods with a Halberstamian level of original detail and insight. You might hate-read the book — because the Brady-Belichick Patriots tend to inspire that sort of thing — but you will not regret hate-reading it (unless, perhaps, you’re a fan of USC and/or the Chargers, both of whom had Brady in their grasp more than two decades ago, only to pass on him in favor of much, much less).
Julie Dicaro shines a spotlight on issues that are often ignored because they make both writers and readers uncomfortable. While so many of us love sports and see it as an escape, it’s important to acknowledge sexism, inequality and uneven accountability for athletes involved in intimate partner violence that sideline women. Along with her personal experience, Dicaro uses a mix of interviews and research to give readers a more complete picture of everything many women must overcome to enjoy any sort of affiliation with sports in America.
The former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated senior writer has made a successful second journalistic life as one of the sports world’s foremost biographers. The latest addition to the Montville oeuvre is more of an autobiography, the memoir of a 25-year Boston columnist thrust into the final days of the Bill Russell-led Celtics dynasty and its dominance of the Lakers. While Montville is a Boston guy, he brings a fresh insider’s eye to the Jerry West/Elgin Baylor/Wilt Chamberlain Lakers. These were the days when teams traveled commercial with the writers who covered them, when the biggest stars stuck around long after the final whistle to swap goodness with those same writers. Montville kept his half-century-old notebooks, for which readers are rewarded with the definitive account of a pivotal season in one of sports’ great rivalries, supplemented by the personal, often hilarious, memories of a generational observer of sports.
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