At least twice a day, a high school or college student sends me an e-mail asking for advice -- they want to write about sports some day, they don't know how to go about it, and they're wondering if I can help. And I never know what to write back. How can you answer a question like, "I want to write a sports column, tell me what to do?"
Last weekend, I thought of an answer.
Just a quick back story: I probably own 800-900 sports books that I've been reading and collecting ever since I was old enough to read. The lamer ones are at my dad's house and my mom's house. The best ones came to California with me. And when we moved a few months ago, five boxes of the best and most relevant sports books ever written were dumped in my new garage -- taped up, stacked on top of one another, sitting in the dark.
Well, I was working on a book, and we had a baby, and it took a few months just to settle into the house, and two weeks ago, everything calmed down enough that I could head into the garage, carry those boxes out and unstack them in two living room bookcases. But as I was unstacking them, I realized something. Here was my answer for those aforementioned e-mails. The main reason I became a sports columnist was because I loved these books, because I read them and kept reading them. For instance, you know David Halberstam's book about the 1980 Trail Blazers, "Breaks of the Game"? To me, it's the perfect non-fiction sports book -- he gets to know the players, delves into their psyches, and inadvertently takes a snapshot of a troubled league at its most critical point, the 1979-80 season, when the NBA was in danger of crumbling and Bird and Magic saved the day. Since I love the way it's written, I try to read it once every two years. It's like taking a grad school course: Here's how you write a sports book.
And there's a lesson here. You don't just start writing a sports column, just like you just don't start recording music or writing poetry. Different people affect you along the way, and they inspire you, and you try to emulate them, and eventually, if you know what you're doing, you absorb the best of different people and come up with a style of your own. I was fortunate enough to grow up reading Ray Fitzgerald and Leigh Montville in the Boston Globe -- two of the best sports columnists ever -- as well as Peter Gammons, Will McDonough and Bob Ryan. And those guys were living in my newspaper every day, writing about my favorite teams. Not to sound like Joe Theismann, but you think that didn't affect me? You think I would be doing this for a living without those five guys? No way.
The same goes for my favorite sports books. You can't learn how to write unless you're constantly reading, just like you can't learn how to play music unless you listen to hundreds of different albums, or you can't learn to speak a second language unless you actually go to a foreign country and practice it. For whatever reason, many aspiring sportswriters either don't understand this, or they dismiss it altogether. In fact, I've had conversations at bars with younger people who have approached me, asked me for advice, and when I ask them what their favorite sports books are, they give me the Peyton Manning Face. I'm always astonished by this. How can you aspire to become a sportswriter without reading as many different styles and perspectives as you can?
So I'm here to help. Every Tuesday, I'm recommending a classic sports book in this space. Sometimes I might just write a few sentences about the book. Other times, I might write an entire column about the book. But you're getting a new book every Tuesday. Each one will be worth your time, whether you're an aspiring sportswriter or you just enjoy sports and are always looking for something to read.
This week's book: "Wait Till Next Year," which was co-written by William Goldman (the acclaimed screenwriter) and Mike Lupica (a columnist for the New York Daily News) about everything that happened in the New York sports scene in 1987. Lupica takes the reporter's side, Goldman takes the fan's side, and they alternate writing chapters about the Mets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants and everything else.
I don't even like the New York sports teams. You know this. But I have read this book at least 10-12 times over the past 17 years, and only because it's well-written and ages surprisingly well. For instance, I re-read the book two weeks ago. The Gooden/Strawberry stuff still holds up. So does the section on the NFL strike (imagine if that happened now?). The Hubie Brown chapter is funny to read in retrospect. Goldman's rant about a devastating Mets collapse in St. Louis isn't just entertaining, it's creepy to read i(because the game happened on September 11th, which he keeps referencing throughout the column). Not only does the Larry Bird chapter still hold up, but Goldman's overall premise -- that Bird was the best player in basketball, hands down, and that everyone would forget this years from now because they would be seduced the Best Player Du' Jour -- is one of the best and most salient points in the entire book.
As much as I like Lupica's contributions, Goldman is the one that takes the book to another level. The ultimate fan, he twists things around and looks at things from a non-traditional way -- like the chapter on Gooden's drug suspension (which ranks among my favorite things I have ever read about sports), or the chapter about how sports is really air (I won't spoil it for you, but it makes sense after you read it). Would you be reading my column on ESPN.com if it wasn't for this book? Honestly? I don't know. Goldman's chapters made me think, "Why don't more people write about sports from a fan's perspective?" And every time I read the book as a struggling writer, that question nagged at me -- it seemed like there was a different way to approach sportswriting, that you could care about sports, have your little biases, live and die with your teams and still write about everything. Seventeen years later, here I am. Coincidence? I don't think so.
Here's what kills me: When I was writing this little piece, I planned on sticking the Amazon.com link for "Next Year" at the end of the post, so it would be easy for people to purchase the book. Much to my surprise (and dismay), it's out of print. Unbelievable. One of the best sports books ever, a book that still holds up to this day, with two name authors ... and it's out of print. Sure, you can find used copies on eBay or Amazon or you can locate an old copy in the library, or maybe even grab one in the right used book store (like the one on Newbury Street in Boston). Other than that, you're out of luck.
But if you care about writing about sports for a living, you need to find books like "Wait Till Next Year." Need to read them. Need to re-read them. Need to figure out what worked and didn't work. Need to learn your lessons and move into the next one.
That doesn't guarantee you can do this for a living ... but it's a pretty damned good start.