The best sports stories are like Muhammad Ali's left jabs: Powerful and precise, they straighten you up and open your eyes. As they describe athletes' lives and performance, great journalists show us what human beings can be and how failure and sin plague us all. Here are six worthwhile books from the past year (warning-the first three include some locker-room profanity):
In Born to Run (Vintage) Christopher McDougall sets out to answer a simple but persistent question: Why does my foot hurt? Nearly 80 percent of runners are injured every year, regardless of ability, weight, age, or any other factor. This is not despite the development of high-tech running shoes, he argues, but because of it. McDougall then searches for the secrets of the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe of Mexican Indians who can run and run, gliding like ghosts through desert canyons in blistering heat shod in sandals cut from old tires. McDougall credits their endurance to evolution, but as the story climaxes in a private 50-mile race between the world's best ultrarunner and a handful of Tarahumara, it's clear that we were not just born to run, we were designed for it.
No one is designed for the abuse some teens suffer from greedy and ambitious youth basketball coaches and parents. Play Their Hearts Out (Ballantine) is George Dohrmann's compelling account of how Joe Keller recruits and promotes "the next LeBron" on his elite summer team-and how Demetrius Walker had no chance to live up to the hype. In a moment of candor, Keller admits that if Demetrius, who regarded him as father, mentor, and coach, did not make the NBA, "then all this would have been a waste of time. Demetrius would have been a bad investment." Except for two Christian coaches and some parents, almost everybody in the book uses basketball to chase what they really want.
Whatever Mickey Mantle wanted in life, The Last Boy (HarperCollins) shows how hard he tried to find it. Jane Leavy traces The Mick from his Oklahoma upbringing through his alcohol-soaked glory days as a Yankees outfielder to his inglorious career as a philandering peddler of his own memorabilia. Leavy describes Mantle's extraordinary talent and cultural impact, and also shows how a superstar's lifestyle allowed Mantle to avoid growing up. Many sportswriters ignore religious questions, but Leavy describes how a former Yankees teammate and his wife, Bobby and Betsy Richardson, led Mantle to Christ days before he died of cancer in August 1995. Mantle finally realized, said Betsy, "that he doesn't have to perform to be loved."
Scorecasting (Crown) analyzes some of sport's most interesting questions and unchallenged assumptions. Economist Tobias Moskowitz and journalist L. Jon Wertheim provide fascinating explanations for home field advantage, why football coaches should almost never punt, and why Chicago Cubs fans should blame themselves for the curse. Scorecasting never mentions faith, but many of its observations illuminate biblical truths about human nature.
NASCAR star Michael Waltrip comes up short in a superficial memoir of how he ended his O-fer streak-462 starts, zero wins-in the same race in which his friend, racing legend Dale Earnhardt, died in an accident at the 2001 Daytona 500. Fans will enjoy In the Blink of an Eye's (Hyperion) insider details, but Waltrip's good ol' Southern boy persona wears thin. His occasional professions of Christianity contrast with lines like: "There was only one person capable of pulling me out of where I was. That person was me."
In contrast, quarterback Drew Brees displays a refreshing humility in Coming Back Stronger (Tyndale), his easy-to-read memoir of recovering from a shredded throwing shoulder to lead the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory in 2010. The key quote in this inspiring story from a sincere heart: "If God leads you to it, he will lead you through it."
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