The best sports books rise above the immediate concerns of the game and deal with grace under pressure, the ability of any human to handle everything life can bring in the toughest of situations. Sports also often provide a specific context for broader societal concerns like race and gender, ethical behavior, and social justice. When you’re in the hands of a good sportswriter, it doesn’t matter whether you care about the sport or not: the stories are universal.
John Feinstein has proven over the years that he’s one of the best of sportswriters. Focusing mainly on basketball and golf, but with occasional forays into football, baseball, and tennis. Feinstein has published one quality book after another. It’s a tough field: time marches on quickly and while these books have staying power for the reasons I mentioned above, the sales go mostly to new books on hot athletes and teams. If you haven’t tried Feinstein’s nonfiction, start anywhere. A Season on the Brink, one of his early books about the inflammatory Bob Knight and Indiana basketball is a classic, as is A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour. Or try Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL. He also has a brand new book: Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball.
In recent years, Feinstein has turned more often to fiction for teens, mysteries and topical sports books. I just finished Foul Trouble, and it’s an eloquent summary of the intensity of the high school basketball recruiting process and the pressure on student athletes. The book follows Terrell Jamerson, a late-blooming top prospect who is facing a barrage of recruiters with only his coach and his point guard, the temper-prone Danny Wilcox, to help protect him. As recruiters try to get at Terrell through his friends and family to pressure him with offers of cars, girls, endorsements, and most of all, money, it’s hard to find a path that doesn’t lead to ethical failure. The novel is fast-paced, suspenseful, and lays the problems of the real world out clearly. It’s a perfect choice for the Guys Read book groups that I work to support, but it’s a slam dunk choice for adult groups too. Don’t overlook sports books, whether fiction or nonfiction, as a good alternative for book groups of all kinds.