The SportsThink Weekly Review: Great Americans Edition!
July 2, 2020
Welcome to this special edition of the SportsThink Weekly Review! Fortuitously, issue #4 coincides with the 4th of July holiday weekend in the US, so this week’s newsletter is a bit different. While I normally limit myself to sharing the best writing on sports I’ve read in the past week, I’m casting a wider net this time around. Below you’ll find a collection of thoughts, reads, and videos representing a dozen-ish American sports people and writers that are near and dear to my heart. Some are household names, others maybe not as much. At the end, you’ll also find 20 of my favorite pieces of American sportswriting from over the years. Get ready to load up that iPad and enjoy these stories wherever the holiday finds you.
But first, if I may, a few words on this country of ours.
As many of you know, I am the proud child of immigrants, a first generation Turkish-American. But mostly I’m an American. A story, toward that end: Around the time I was 7 or 8, I cajoled my parents into taking me to Cooperstown, NY and the baseball Hall of Fame, a place that borders on holy ground in my worldview. A waitress at a diner asked “where you are from?” and I was quick to respond: “THESE two are from Turkey, but I’m an American!” We laughed on that one for a long time.
In the decades since, I’ve gotten that question a lot: “oh, where are you from?” If it’s asked with an undertone of judgment, I offer the frustrating answer, “Manhattan Beach, California.” If asked with genuine curiosity, “well, the name is Turkish…” I’ve seldom dealt with any real negativity or suspicion in regards to my identity and background. There have been occasions: guarded interactions at bars in the south, my freshman roommate who admitted he expected me to show in some sort of Islamic garb (ha!), a few years post-9/11 where every return through US customs brought a few too many questions and a dose of harassment. To be honest, I’d long since stopped noticing until I got married; now Katy (with the burden of this ridiculous last name) points out that some folks’ curiosity is not necessarily generous.
Given the moment we’re in, it’s hard not to reflect on matters of identity and how we all fit into the American experiment. I’ve had a couple friends ask for my take on things as “minority” American. This throws me off. The government says I’m white and most of my life has certainly felt that way, but maybe that’s just because of where I’ve lived and the circles I’ve been a part of. I had a teammate in college, Tresor Gopaul, a New Jerseyite of Trinidadian heritage put it this way, “You Turkish? You black.” We’d laugh about this, but I guess there’s some truth in it too, that many of us on the margins of racial or ethnic difference navigate a certain amount of ambiguity as Americans. But above all, that’s what we all are: Americans.
And maybe that’s what has been so frustrating for me about the past few months. It feels like we are collectively paying the price for generations of amplifying our differences, of reframing the collective potential of the nation in decidedly individualistic terms, of placing “me” above “we” in how we think about our democracy, rights, and liberties. I’m bothered that we struggle to accept some limits on our behavior for the greater good, even more bothered that many of us are continually failed by systems meant to serve and provide opportunities for all Americans. But what can we do? I’ve still got a lot of growing to do in this life, but in recent years I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea that most things are out of my control and that I need to put my energy toward being the best that I can be. So I’ll keep listening and learning. And voting. I’ll keep picking up litter when I go for a walk. I’ll keep trying to be nice and not interpret ignorance or stupidity as malice. I’ll keep wearing the mask. I’ll keep trying to be the best teacher, friend, father, husband, and son that I can be. I’ll keep the faith: when the horrors of the healthcare, justice, or education systems bring me down, I’ll think of baseball, Diet Coke, Loretta Lynn, McDonald’s fries, and the Bill of Rights. I’ll think of those who came before and those yet to come. I’ll remember that when all is said and done, it’s really good to be an American. Thanks for reading and happy 4th.
Some Great Sporting Americans
Like most folks my age, Hunter S. Thompson landed on my radar with the 1998 film version of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read the book and quickly became lifelong devotee. Thompson was a vexing figure, brilliant and cantankerous and pretty flawed. He was a journalistic outlaw and most American one at that. He wrote about a lot of subjects, especially politics, but he began his writing career as a sports journalist and he remains one of the greatest in the genre. Here’s the perfect, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” In his twilight, he wrote a sporadic column for ESPN’s “Page 2,” all of which are archived here. You can feel the old man’s decline in these columns; they are inconsistent at best. But there were some brilliant ones, like this one and this one. Check the dates on those and they feel damn near prophetic. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes he was still around, if only to provide us with Dr. Thompson’s diagnoses of our current symptoms.
Speaking of those columns, some years ago I wrote a paper about them and presented it in a special session dedicated to Thompson’s sportswriting at the annual meeting of the North American Society for Sports History. To introduce our session, I tapped Terry Todd, who graciously accepted and we left it at that. He didn’t ask to see our papers or gather any of the background, as someone in this position normally might. I even foolishly feared that he might have forgotten about it. Silly me. In front of a packed room in Berkeley, CA, Doc (as he was often called) stood up, donned a pair of pitch black aviator shades and began with a story of drinking heavily with Andre the Giant. As only he could, he brought the story around to Thompson, the New Journalism, and a few other things. By the time he was done, he had blown through his allotted time (and then some), captivated the room, and set such an insanely high bar for me and my co-presenters, that I barely remember delivering the paper. I think it was well received.
(art by Amir Shocri, who pulled this off on incredibly short notice)
We lost Doc a couple years ago and there’s rarely a week that goes by that I don’t think about him. Doc was a pioneer in strength training and strength sports, and so, so much more. There will eventually be a book written about the man (there MUST be), but this obituary gives you a starting point for a great American life. He was a coach, athlete, mentor, professor, and a masterful writer. We’ll be collecting some of his greatest hits in an upcoming edition of the journal Iron Game History (which he co-founded), but for now, here are two of my favorites from Sports Illustrated: his awesome tale of Andre the Giant, and one close to my heart on the Turkish-Bulgarian “pocket Hercules,” Naim Suleymanoglu.
I wouldn’t know Doc if it weren’t for his wife Jan, my academic mentor (and boss!), and a damn fine American in her own right. Oh, and she was the first woman ever known as “The Strongest Woman in the World.” Today, she is the world’s preeminent historian of all things strength. She had the decency to bring me to Texas 12 years ago and I wouldn’t be writing this now if it weren’t for her. I hope I’ve done justice by her faith in me. Jan often sets the tone in her undergraduate classes by sharing of video of her pulling big weight on the Carson show, but I’m sad to say I can’t find a link…but here she is talking Johnny throw his own attempt the lift.
And here’s Sarah Pileggi’s great piece from 1977, “The Pleasure of Being the World’s Strongest Woman.” Jan has also established a partnership with Rogue Fitness, resulting in some fantastic documentaries on the history of strength sports, most of which are on Netflix. You can learn more and see some trailers here.
Late on May 15, 2003, I was pulled over by a state trooper on Rt. 80, somewhere in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. I was on a cross-country trip home with Jeff Pickett, whom I’d picked up in Boston. I drive like a grandmother, so if I was speeding, I’d wager I was barely doing so; I reckon the California plates got us profiled. The full story is a good one—and maybe one I can share later if there’s interest—but there’s one moment I’ll never forget. The trooper was straight out of central casting: thin mustache, wrought-iron posture. As he examined my California license, he looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Tolga, you know you speak better English than most folks born around here.” It was hard not to laugh, but somehow I held it in (as did Jeff, riding shotgun). I'm still not sure if he meant my English was good for a Californian or for someone with a weird name.
I don’t think much about my English, what with being born in the USA and all, but I’m told that I barely spoke the language when I started preschool. I think I’ve done alright with it since then. I mostly credit all the reading, but in recent years I’ve come to realize some credit also goes to two men: Chick Hearn and Vin Scully, the longtime voices of the Lakers and the Dodgers, respectively. I spent SO much time listening to these two, not realizing till later on in life just how lucky I was to be born into a market with two of the greatest to ever call a game. Both were masters of the language in their own way, suited to the rhythms of their respective sports. Hearn brought a sharp wit and entire lexicon of Chickisms to basketball. (My LA people reading can likely hear him right now: “this game is in the refrigerator, the door’s closed, the lights are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the jello iiiiiisssss jiggling.”) Scully, for his part, was the consummate storyteller, seemingly never sharing the same tale twice. His cadence was magical, synced perfectly to the summer-time pace of the national pastime.
There’s certainly things to read about the two men, but it’s even better to listen and watch. Here’s a compilation of Chick Hearn’s great calls.
And one for Vin Scully.
And since I can’t help myself, here’s Vin calling the greatest Dodger moment in my lifetime.
And his goodbye from a few years back, you’ll need to provide your own tissues.
We can’t think about Independence Day without thinking about the men and women of the American military. The occasion offers me a chance to remember my late grandfather-in-law, Colonel Dillon Snell. A career Army man, he received three Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts while serving his country in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam; he was a kind and gentle soul and it was an honor to get to know him in his final years. He even got to meet his great-grandson Gus on a couple occasions and I cherish the photos of those visits.
I also think of Nate Boyer, whom I first encountered when I was a teaching assistant at UT. I was grading papers on the subject of logical reasoning and encountered one that was different than the rest. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but there was something along the lines of “let’s say you’re approaching a building held by insurgents…” I realized then that the older dude in flip-flops in the back of the classroom might be an interesting character. That was an understatement: the man was a decorated Green Beret. Since then, Nate has become pretty familiar to sports fans, first as a walk-on special teams player for the Horns who got a brief NFL shot, but more importantly as an essential voice at the intersection of race and sports. His Open Letter to Colin Kaepernick is essential reading, a letter that eventually led the QB to shift his protest from sitting to kneeling, inspiring a movement and a very necessary national conversation that continues to unfold. Read the letter, it’s great. With everything going on in the news, Boyer’s been making the media rounds again, but he’s always busy; these days he’s an actor and philanthropist, amongst other things. For more on Nate’s story, I like this LA Times profile.
Of course, it would be a crime to forget Pat Tillman when thinking about sports and the military. This isn’t a totally feel-good holiday read, but it’s an important one. At least save it for another day. For a lesser known tale of sports and service, there is Moe Berg, the catcher who became a spy. Another good one here.
The recent surge of athlete activism has me thinking about Kaepernick and Boyer, but also of those who blazed these trails. By the time I was growing up, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had become sporting heroes, but that was a far cry from the reception they received when they took to the podium with the black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Much has been written about the two men, who suffered greatly for their stand, but I really like this analysis by Andrew Maraniss of how the media shaped contemporary narratives.
Such was the noise surrounding Smith and Carlos, that many at the time didn’t pay much attention to the protest of Wyomia Tyus, a legend in her own right. A product of the legendary Tennessee State Lady Tigers track and field program, Tyus was the first sprinter (male or female) to win back to back Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters. A real badass. She seems to finally be getting her due, thankfully.
Tyus’ story serves as a reminder of how far women’s sport had come by the 1960s, but also how much ground was still to be covered (and we’re not there, yet). The story of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon is another great, inspirational American tale. Here’s a brief look at how she broke the rules and made history. And here’s a nice video version:
I wouldn’t be writing any of this if it weren’t for my parents and their own American dream. So my final tribute is to my father, Huseyin Ozyurtcu, a great American and a bit of sportsman himself. He grew up playing soccer in Istanbul, at a time when the game was particularly violent and rough. He took the field and the wrestling mat as an East Aurora (NY) Blue Devil in 1969-70, during a high school exchange which strikes me as the most important experience in his life. He coached me exactly one time, with Bulent Basol, on the fierce 1988 Blue Jets of AYSO’s Region 18. Their wives had signed them up; Huseyin hated that our assigned practice time conflicted with Monday Night Football. After that, he drove thousands of miles across the southland, taking me to whatever basketball, baseball, or soccer game was on the docket. His years logging similar miles in the freight-forwarding industry begat an encyclopedic knowledge of neighborhood restaurants and we always ate well post-game. He became a pretty good American sports-dad, learning to shout “good-eye!”, usually at the appropriate time. After my mom passed away in 1997, he somehow managed to grow his business internationally while single-parenting, often flying home from Europe on a Friday to watch me give up a dumb goal or three on the weekend, only to be back on plane Monday morning. After college, when I asked if I could leave work early to coach high school soccer, he gave me the green light and made it to most games, offering strategic insights during halftime. When I wanted to study sports for a living, he said go for it. He remains a truly awful partner for watching games, changing his allegiances every few minutes. But he also remains an amazing father and is warming quite nicely to grandfatherdom. Love you man.
And finally, a greatest hits of American sportswriting, the first inductees into Tolga’s Hall of Fame, if you will. Presented in no particular order, without comment; stories that have each moved me in their own special way. These are long reads, perfect for a day off. Some are inspiring, some are tragic, but I think all are great. It was hard to stick to 20, even harder to not repeat favorite authors (and I broke this rule for Bill Finnegan and Craig Stecyk, no apologies). Note: some of these sites have monthly limits on articles. If you can’t access them, just send me an email and I’ll get you a copy (tolga @ sportsthink.net)
From The 21st Century
Jack McCallum, The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw (SI, 2012, basketball)
Chuck Klosterman (on another great game lost to history), 3 Man Weave (Grantland, 2011, basketball)
Chris Ballard, The Courage of Jill Costello (SI, 2010, rowing)
S.L. Price, The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa: Hope and Despair in a Pennsylvania Mill Town (SI, 2014, football)
David Roth, The Downward Spiral, (the Baffler, 2018, football)
Patrick Hruby, The Drugs Won: The Case For Ending The Sports War on Doping (Vice, 2016, doping)
Bret Anthony Johnston, Danny Way and the Gift of Fear (Men’s Journal, 2010, skateboarding)
Jeanne Marie Laskas, G-L-O-R-Y! (GQ, 2007, cheerleading)
Dan Jenkins, Golf in the Geezerdom (Golf Digest, 2007, golf)
From the 20th Century
(note: many of these are compiled in the Best American Sportswriting of the Century, which is not a bad book to own)
George Plimpton, "Hut-Two-Three . . Ugh" A writer proves to be a Paper Lion at QB (SI, 1964, football)
John Papanek, A Different Drummer: Getting Inside the Mind of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (SI, 1980, basketball)
Gay Talese, The Silent Season of a Hero (Esquire, 1966, baseballl)
Tom Wolfe, The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! (Esquire 1965, NASCAR)
Brad Darrach, The Day Bobby Blew It (Playboy, 1973, chess)
C.R. Stecyk, Aspects of the Downhill Slide + the “Dogtown Articles” (Skateboarder Magazine, 1970s, note: the link takes you to all the articles, you’ll need to enable pop-ups to read them. formatting isn’t great, but these are a treasure!)
Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence (SI, 1969, fishing)
Frank Deford, The Boxer and The Blonde (SI, 1985, boxing)
John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are (The New Yorker, 1965, basketball)
Paul Solataroff, The Power and The Glory (The Village Voice, 1991, bodybuilding)
If you’ve made it this far: thank you again for reading. Time is our most precious resource, I so appreciate you giving me some of yours. Please consider sharing the newsletter if you’re enjoying it thus far!