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GREAT SPORTS BOOKS

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As a welcome distraction from events of the past few days, we thought we'd toss a few of our favorite sports books out there and see what stuck in the minds of our readers. We have to do this since Brian seems to have cornered the market on happy internet kitten therapy in the wake of a loss.

Kittens can only do so much, especially when you've just punted one off a bridge following a loss.

Sports books, on the whole, have really neglected college football: they generally come in one of two less-than-satisfying categories, the glossy coffee table book (Southern Fried Football by Tony Barnhardt, for example,) or the panegyric variety (just about any book ever written about Vince Dooley in our local bookstores, the quotable Spurrier, or Bruce Feldman's Cane Mutiny.) There are a few exceptions, of course--Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, our favorite hands-down in terms of writing and capturing the gestalt of college football, or John Feinstein's A Civil War, a moving portrait of the Army/Navy rivalry. But for the most part, we tried to shy away from the twin poles of huge, photo-stuffed drink coasters and ball-sniffing coach worship manuals and focus on good writing and good stories, even if they don't involve God's Chosen Sport. Extra points were awarded for quality gossip and personal anecdotes.

1. The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn. The saddest book we've ever read. Seriously. Sadder than Anna Karenina. Sadder than Hamlet. Sadder than Old Yeller getting shot in a rewritten version of the film by Shane, who's then shot by Jack Palance, who then pulls the plug on Hillary Swank as a paralyzed boxer before running over Walt from The World According to Garp. Beautiful, too: baseball, sex, death, age, and a paralyzed, tragic Roy Campanella. This and Kahn's article on Roberto Clemente following his death are the Serena Williams Golden Ass Standard for sportswriting.

2. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. We saw it up close and personal this weekend, and all we can say is that Warren's accuracy in depicting football-mad Alabama fans is sniper-scary. That he managed to be funny at the same time is a testament to his prowess as a writer.

3. A Handful of Summers, Gordon Forbes. A little book, and that's why we loved it in spite of the fact we couldn't give two shit nickels about tennis. Forbes toured on the international tennis circuit in the 50s and 60s when tennis players were less test-tube prodigies with zero personal skills and more rank amateurs too strange to survive in any other environment. A delightfully--note that short books always get called this--humble account that never loses sight of how brief and sweet any athlete's stay in the limelight is. The manic-depressive Swede who works out differential equations in his head before matches was our favorite character in a book full of memorable ones, including the guy most peg as the best ever, Rod Laver.

4. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger. Another scarily accurate one where the writer disappears about three sentences into the story of Odessa, Texas' high school football team. If you grew up around the glory/illness that is high school football, you might get shudder-inducing flashbacks. If you didn't, you'll wonder if you live in the same nation as these people. Either way it's a brutally honest piece of work that's almost too real to reread.

5. Annapurna. Maurice Herzog's account of the first ascent of an 8000 meter peak is a study in brilliant idiocy: a squad of French guys wandering around the Himalaya for a few weeks in no particular direction, getting their shit jacked by locals multiple times in the process, surviving on nothing but chocolate, speed, and condensed milk in a tube, and alternately going snowblind and falling into icy Himalayan streams before somehow mustering the strength to knock off an unholy bitch of a mountain behind the superhuman efforts of one Lionel Terray. (You are not a man. He is, and this book is proof.) Herzog and others lost limbs to frostbite, and in one particularly memorable passage describes opening the door to their carriage on the way back to Kathmandu and watching their black, rotting, amputated toes rolling out of the door and into the road. A great study of extremity that refuses to stoop to the vulgarity of explaining the whole affair past a single justification: glory.

6. When We Were Kings. Yeah, it's a movie. So what? You think we're going to put The Fight on here and give Norman Mailer props? Hell to the no. There's nothing a book could have had that this film doesn't deliver. Don King in a dai-shiki. Norman Mailer and George Plympton drunk off their asses ringside. James Brown delivering the most incomprehensible minute of gibberish ever recorded prior to Eric Dickerson's stint as a sideline reporter. George Foreman pounding a hole in the heavy bag. A crowd of ecstatic Congolese running behind Ali on a training run. An eyerolling Miriam Makeba looking possessed on stage. Mobutu Se Se Seko, who though now rotting in hell, did at one time sport a mean leopard print hat and white suit like no other. The crowd screaming "Ali, boom-ah-ye, Ali, boom-ah-ye." A mind-boggling event captured in exhaustive but never exasperating detail. Perfect down to the hilarious pic of an afroed Mailer and drawn-looking Plympton standing agog after the knockout punch.