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The SportsThink Weekly Review #28
2020 Wrap Up and Holiday Reads Special Edition
Hello and welcome to the twenty-eight edition of the Weekly Review! Doing things a bit differently this time around, as this will be the final issue of 2020. I’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming on Friday, January 8th.
Reflecting on 2020: Guilt and Gratitude
I’ve been wrestling with some guilt lately. I don’t need to say much about what has gone down on a global scale this year: if you’re reading this, you’re lucky enough to have lived through it. But here’s the guilt: looking back, I’ve actually had a really good year. We moved into an amazing new house and the process of selling the old house was as painless as one could hope for. We’ve made more friends in our neighborhood in two months than in the 12 years at the old place. The Lakers and Dodgers both went all the way. I earned a promotion at UT. In the midst of pandemic anxiety and doom-scrolling, I started two new online projects, the blog and this newsletter, and they have been reasonably well received and quite satisfying to work on. (OK, life got the best of me and the blog has been dormant since early November, but I’ve got some plans to re-work it in a more manageable way starting next month.) I’ve built some new friendships and had the opportunity to connect more deeply with some old friends than I had in a long while. My students held it down and did great work during a semester that objectively sucked. I’ve enjoyed watching my son grow into a three-year-old micro-human, as magical as he is frustrating. Most importantly, my family and friends have stayed healthy.
It has been hard to wholeheartedly celebrate these things given what’s going on in the world. I’m not the wisest person around, but I’m well aware that we are only partial masters of our own destiny, that much still depends on luck—fortune, kismet, whatever—and the kindness and grace of others. Hence the guilt. But also, guilt is useless; it doesn’t do anyone any good. So I’m trying to focus on gratitude, for all of the above and more. I’m thankful for my health and small successes, thankful for the health and successes large and small of those I love and care about. And I’m thankful to those of you who open these emails and share some of your precious time reading what I’ve got to say and (hopefully) enjoying what I’ve got to share. I hope you’ll stick with me into 2021 and beyond and I hope that the holidays and the new year bring you much to be thankful for.
That said, here’s a bit of a different take on the Weekly Review. I hope you enjoy it.
The Four Best Things I Wrote This Year
The Power of Sports and Memory On the occasion of my first dad-at-practice experience and the unexpected emotional fallout. More personal than I usually get online, but the compulsion to write this one was strong; maybe the first time I truly understood what writers mean when they say they just “had to” write a piece.
The Pandemic as Accelerant: Some Thoughts on the Future of Sports From May. At this point, I’m 5 for 5, although I don’t think these predictions were that bold.
Why Are We Against Doping? (Part I) and also Part II Statistically speaking, the most popular posts on the SportsThink blog. If I may, I think I did a good job synthesizing a perspective that has evolved over a decade of classroom discussions on the subject.
The SportsThink Weekly Review, Great Americans Edition I think it’s pretty safe to say that this was the best issue of the newsletter thus far. A lot of personal takes and stories, but also a ton of things to read and watch. Revisit this one if you’ve got some time to read in the coming weeks.
My 10 Favorite Sports Reads of The Year
I didn’t go back and count every single one, but I’ll conservatively estimate that I shared around 150 sports reads since launching this newsletter in mid-June. In no particular order, these are the top 10ish sports things I read this year. Presenting with the original newsletter verbiage, additional comments in italics. (As usual, although some of these were published this year, the only requirement is that I read or re-read them this year.)
The Hero of Goodall Park: Inside a true-crime drama 50 years in the making by Tom Junod, via ESPN. Only tangentially a sports story, but I expect that this will be on many year-end lists (deservedly so). Make time for this one and then hug a loved one. I guess it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if I put it it on MY year-end list, but hey.
An Ocean Separated Them. A Surfboard Connected Them. by Greg Bishop, via SI. I’ll defer to the tagline here: “An unlikely tale about an Ohio mechanic who lost his cherished board on one side of the Pacific and a teacher from the Philippines who found it on the other.” Great story. SI has supposedly “died” several times over the past couple decades, but I regularly turned to their “Daily Cover” feature this year, which was consistently great.
The Remarkable Life (and near death) of Boxer Christy Martin by Allison Glock, via ESPN. 2 warnings: this one starts with some very graphic descriptions of violence and is very long. But totally worth it. A fascinating story, heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. All the way back STWR #2, which had some really good stuff, including…
Fertitta Family History by Henry Abbott, via his TrueHoop newsletter. A mafia meets sports story…what’s not to love? Issue #2 also featured…
Roger Federer As Religious Experience by the late, great David Foster Wallace, via the New York Times Magazine. This is a throwback to 2006. I’ve been updating some class syllabi and revisiting some favorites; this might be in my top 5 favorite pieces of sports writing of ALL TIME (and I can’t think of the other 4 right now.) It’s just one quotable/thought provoking line after another, e.g.: Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. (having included italics in the original, I now need the brackets. Is it cheating to include an all-time classic in my year-end list? Maybe. Please read this if you haven’t already.)
As The Border Bled, Juárez Watched The Game It Waited Nine Years For by Roberto Jose Andrade Franco, via Deadspin. If you only read one this week, this should be it. Beautifully written, at once heartbreaking and inspiring. From August of last year, but I re-read it this week following the announcement of the shortlist for the Dan Jenkins Medal For Excellence in Sportswriting. All of the nominees are great, but this would get my vote if I had one. Roberto didn’t win for this one, but he should have.
I still read books and you should too. There was something about the pandemic that triggered nostalgia and I found myself digging into books on my first sporting love, baseball. (Or maybe it was just a good year for baseball books?) I absolutely loved Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home, which is easily my sports book of the year. Here’s my long-ish review, which also features Asher Price’s lovely book on Earl Campbell (and is probably the 5th best thing I wrote this year). Eric is also one of my most frequently shared authors and I think everyone should subscribe to the excellent Sports Stories newsletter he writes with Adam Villacin. Rounding out my trio of baseball books are Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League and Brad Balukjian’s The Wax Pack, two rather different books that somehow share much in common. Here’s my review of those two.
Consumed by Grayson Schaffer, via Outside. An intense story of whitewater kayaking, from 2011. “I ask myself, Are you ready to die? I give it some serious thought. I believe I am. I look back on my life, and I feel satisfied.”
Understanding Craig Stecyk, by Joe Donnelly, via Longreads. My current academic project is a social/technological history of the skateboard park boom (and bust) of the 1970s. Yes, this research is as fun as it sounds. Great piece from Donnelly exploring the work and legacy of the man arguably most responsible for the rebel spirit of the skateboard lifestyle as we know it, artist and all-around visionary, CR Stecyk III. I’m still working on the skatepark paper….
The Bizarre Case of Braden Holtby Being Stuck at the Border Because of His Pet Turtles, by Hemal Jevari, via USA Today. I think they are actually tortoises, but there’s not much else I can add to this beautiful headline. Short and sweet. Let’s not forget how weird this year was.
Picking 10 was tough! And I already cheated by recommending 3 books at number 7. If you need more, the entire newsletter archive is always a click away.
I think I actually get more feedback on the non-sports reads I share…not sure if this is a good thing for a sport-centered newsletter, but I aim to please! I started sharing these in issue #5 and have sent out upwards of 50 since then. Here are a few favorites:
The dark side of the South’s Mexican combo-plate dream by Gustavo Arellano, via the LA Times. Murder, enchiladas, and more. Great read.
In Praise of Aphorisms by Andrew Hui, via Aeon. Hui asks, “what if we see the history of philosophy not as a grand system of sustained critique, but as a series of brilliant fragments?” Good stuff, with plenty of Nietzsche.
Caruso, Crooners, Ice Cube by Paul Orlando, via 3 Quarks Daily. On how technological change shapes the music we hear.
The Deck is Not Rigged: Poker and The Limits of AI by Maria Konnikova, via Singularity Hub. On poker as the gold standard for developing artificial intelligence. The author’s recent book, The Biggest Bluff, is also quite good.
Is Jay J. Armes For Real? by Gary Cartwright, via the Texas Monthly. A throwback to 1976, profiling the self-proclaimed “ world’s greatest private detective.” Wild stuff. A massive read that moves fast.
And some non-sports books I enjoyed this year, buy them locally if you’re able:
chef David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach was heartfelt and entertaining, it made me more self-aware of my various shortcomings (in a good way, I think)
two retro crime thrillers that you’ll blow through in a couple days: Lou Berney’s November Road and David Baldacci’s One Good Deed
I’m not much of a sci-fi guy, but found Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem to live up to the hype and then some, even I couldn’t wrap my head around all of the physics
James Nestor’s Breath and David Epstein’s Range were the best popular science book I’ve read in a long while
Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express is an awesome and accessible take on many old philosophers, one I’ll be borrowing from in my classes for a good while
Tweet of the Year
It’s been over two months and I’m still laughing at this.
As always, thank you so much for reading. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re having trouble accessing any articles, happy to send them directly your way. And, if you’re enjoying the newsletter, please consider sharing it with someone else who might like it, I’d really appreciate it.
See you next year,