These compelling profiles transcend sports

I started thinking seriously about journalism as a career in eighth grade. Specifically sportswriting, thanks to a discounted subscription to Sports Illustrated courtesy of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I always read it from cover to cover, even the articles about sports I didn’t care about or people I didn’t know. That was how I learned to pay attention to bylines; whenever I found myself absorbed by a story I didn’t expect to be interested in, I figured the writer must be someone worth paying attention to. Frank Deford, Gary Smith, William Nack — I pored over everything they published, absorbing each of their stylistic quirks and the way they structured their stories.

The routine morning-after game recap was not the bailiwick of these professionals. They focused on exploring the human elements of sports that happen off the field. You don’t have to be a sports fan to find their work compelling, you just have to be interested in the human condition. Someone a couple of decades younger than me could easily substitute ESPN The Magazine and Wright Thompson into the previous paragraph and have the same origin story. Thompson started writing for ESPN in 2006 after an early career in newspapers and quickly made a name for himself as a master storyteller capable of revealing more about his subjects than they perhaps intended. But not in a malicious or mean-spirited way — Thompson doesn’t reveal what’s hidden so we can point and laugh, but rather so we can all nod in shared understanding.

Which brings us to The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, his recent collection of some of his most memorable articles from ESPN The Magazine (spanning 2007 to 2017). Glancing down the table of contents (a full list of the essays is at the end of this review) showed me some familiar names from the sports world: Michael Jordan, Bear Bryant, Muhammad Ali. But it also touched on some sports and athletes who I knew little about, like soccer legend Lionel Messi and college basketball star Tony Harris. Just like in the good old days, I read it from cover to cover, over a period of several weeks. While I found each of them compelling in their own way, some standouts for me were the profiles of Jordan and Messi — one man I thought I already knew a great deal about, and one who I barely knew at all. At the end of each, I’d learned something new about them and about the power of ambition and home.

As I mentioned, not all the essays are personality profiles. Some of the best use sports as a touchpoint to explore a larger or more nuanced subject. In “Shadow Boxing,” the focus is not on Ali but rather on the only one of the 50 fighters he faced in the ring who has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. Thompson spent months in Miami trying to find him among a community of forgotten souls who are just trying to get by, day by day. And “Ghosts of Mississippi” uses college football to explore the tumultuous year of 1962 at the University of Mississippi, where a football team vying for the national championship clashed with the violent resistance to James Meredith’s enrollment as the first black student at Ole Miss. Thompson used his familiarity with the culture (he grew up just down the road from Oxford) to look at the mass of contradictions that still exist in that place.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ll enjoy this collection tremendously. But don’t think you need to be an athletic supporter to find something to love inside these covers.

Table of Contents

  • Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building: What does a GOAT do at 50, when the competitive spirit is still willing but the flesh is weak? (2013)
  • The Last Days of Tony Harris: What drove the former college basketball star to his death in the Brazilian jungle? (2008)
  • Ghosts of Mississippi: In 1962, the Ole Miss campus erupted in violence over integration and swelled with pride over a powerful football team. That tumultuous fall still grips the state. (2010)
  • Shadow Boxing: Muhammad Ali fought 50 men, but only one disappeared. (2009)
  • Here and Gone: The strange relationship between Lionel Messi and his hometown in Argentina. (2012)
  • The Last Ride of Bear and Billy: 30 years after Coach Bryant’s last season, the man who knew him best struggles to remember. (2012)
  • Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner: A football coach tries to balance the kind of man he wants to be with the kind of man he is. (2012)
  • The Losses of Dan Gable: Wrestling’s most famous winner is taking on one final battle: to save his sport and all he’s ever been. (2013)
  • Beyond the Breach: A summer in search of saints, sinners, and lost souls in the New Orleans that Katrina left behind. (2015)
  • The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived On: Ted Williams’ ambitions shaped his legacy but wrecked his relationships. (2015)
  • The Secret History of Tiger Woods: The death of his father set a battle raging inside the world’s greatest golfer. (2016)
  • In Chicago, the Final Wait For a Cubs Win Mixes Joy and Sorrow: A city has waited 108 years. Now it must wait one day more. (2016)
  • Pat Riley’s Final Test: This was the NBA legend’s most difficult season in 50 years. So why, after nine championships, doesn’t he just walk away? If only it were that easy. (2017)
  • Holy Ground: Walter Wright Thompson died before he could fulfill his dream of walking Augusta National during the Masters. His son took that walk for him. (2007)

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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