The new edition of the anthology The Best of American Sports Writing is a welcome pleasure for our reviewer, who writes about cricket and covers sport for Australian radio. Not only do this year’s essays offer revealing views of sport’s place in American life, they also stir memories of his own childhood in South Australia.
Some of my friends in Australia say they can’t wait for the annual thud on the door step of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – the fat yellow book that arrives just as the footy season gets into stride. It’s seen as the cricketing Bible, traditionally full of statistics and but now more appealing for the articles, certain to be erudite and entertaining. I love Wisden, but come October there is another, lighter thud on the door mat that I welcome.
I first heard of the annual anthology The Best of American Sports Writing through my Adelaide-based friend Nick Moschetta. Nick always had a keen eye for sport beyond his local environment. That was how he came to love cricket. Nick had Italian heritage. For an Italian kid growing up in South Australia in the 1970s to like cricket was an anomaly. All the “wogs,” as they were disparagingly called, loved soccer – or so we Anglo kids thought. Nick took to cricket and its history like they were part of his being. His dad didn’t like it. Nick didn’t care, he still played. During the 1970s and 80s we both played at the Kensington Cricket Club in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs.
Nick went on to become a Physical Education teacher, a job where his love for a wide range of sports could be demonstrated. He enjoyed the folklore of sport as much as the playing of it. Nick tells a great story about sport in a way of taking you on a long journey where you aren’t sure exactly where you are going, until you arrive and then it’s crystal clear. When we met up again in our thirties, I found that that the journey was worth it.
That’s how I felt about The Best of American Sports Writing when Nick introduced me to it 15 years ago. Each year the collection tells stories that reflect some microcosm of American society through the lens of sport. This year’s edition is no different. You get articles about a one-legged wrestler, a seemingly indestructible fishing guru with hidden depression, the sports bra (cleverly titled “You can only hope to contain them”), gangsters and NFL players, the real reason behind the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match, and fake dead girlfriends of football players.
All the stories are worthy of reading in their own right – clear, concise, economical with words, and transcending sport. One of Australia’s most lauded writers about sport, Martin Flanagan (brother of Man Booker Prize-winning author Richard), once wrote that he sometimes found American sports writing too hyper-charged. In journalistic terms, he was trying to say that the writing was sometimes “too gonzo for gonzo.” I tend to agree with him. But there’s none of that in this collection, or indeed in most of the previous editions of the anthology.
Flicking through this year’s collection, the first story I wanted to read was Jay Caspian Kang’s article about boxing promoter Don King. Even growing up in Adelaide back in the 1970s, we all knew of Don King. The tidal wave of boxing interest that Muhammad Ali had created reached the sleepy southern Australian city as if it was part of the mainstream sporting scene. I knew of Ali’s titan clashes with Joe Frazier and George Foreman. One day in primary school my teacher, Mrs Bell, even announced that Ali had defeated Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila.” We sat and watched some highlights of the fight on television. We’d listen as Ali’s theme song, “Black Superman,” with the lyrics “float like a butterfly sting like a bee,” bounced out of our portable radios as we lay in the backyard sunbaking. We loved the hyped commentary and would mimic Howard Cosell’s accent.
When we watched boxing on television on there was always one man lurking in the background. We later discovered that his name was Don King. As kids, we loved the way his hair stood up as if he’d received an electric shock. He seemed to know everyone and walked around with this sense of confidence – as if he owned the joint. And boy could he talk, like verbal diarrhoea. We wondered who he was and why everyone seemed to gravitate towards him. He was everywhere.
For me, Jay Caspian Kang’s look at the life and times of King is like going back to my childhood and seeing him from another angle. We’d heard he was a crook and exploited the boxers under him, but this was a portrait of King in the age of Twitter. Ironically, in an age built for narcissism, the man who was once everywhere is now, well, not really anywhere.
Kang begins his profile with this scene:
In the back room of Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, Don King picked at a pastrami sandwich with his fingers. He had just been asked a question about his electric hair and, for the first time in a day filled with radio and television interviews, King paused before he spoke. A cautious look crept over his graying eyes. As he silently deliberated between several well-worn origin myths about the height of that hair, King tweezed a scrap of pastrami between two well-manicured fingernails and dragged the meat through a puddle of deli mustard. “My hair is God’s aura,” King explained while chewing.
Despite the divine manifestation of his famous hair, the 81-year-old Don King we meet in the essay is in decline. Although he is loath to admit to it, King is on his last lap of boxing promotion. Like the Wizard of Oz in his castle, he has words but not much else. He takes comfort in his rooms full of memorabilia, including photos with presidents and celebrities. For King, the past is alive. It’s just that the present is a little dull.
In the profile, Kang cites Jack Newfield’s speculation, in his book The Life and Crimes of Don King, that if King had gone straight after the Ali-Foreman fight, he could have become one of the great black role models in contemporary history. But King didn’t. He continued to rip off his boxers, and lie and deceive those he did business with. For one who had the lofty dream when he was young of becoming a great lawyer like Clarence Darrow, King was really just a bully who couldn’t answer a straight question. As Kang notes, “It’s almost as if the man dislikes the act of giving a straight answer so much that he’s figured out a way to play a puzzle game that would make Baudrillard swoon.”
Baudrillard was a foremost French theorist. Yes, I had to look him up – another benefit of reading The Best of American Sports Writing.
Kang sums up his subject with one of the most pertinent lines in the essay: “For Don King, everything is strategy and payback.” All those years ago in Adelaide, Don King looked to our young eyes as someone worthy to be on the same stage as Ali. Reading about him now, I learn that he is a great disappointment – all hot air and not much substance, a waste of talent. Perhaps that is King’s biggest crime. He was a man with so much to offer, but he delivered so little to those he represented.
I rang my friend Nick the other day to see if he had bought this year’s edition of The Best of American Sports Writing. He was out at the cricket club. He’s back at the Kensington as a team manager, no doubt trying to educate the young blokes that sports is more than what happens on the field. I reckon he might even be telling them the odd story or two about how sport is just one part of life. He might even recommend they read the 2014 edition The Best of American Sports Writing 2014. I hope he does. Like all good journeys, it’s worth it.
Mariner Books, 2014. 416 pp. ISBN: 9780544147003
Barry Nicholls is a presenter on ABC Radio in Western Australia and host of the program 110%, which looks at the history and literature of sports (you can listen here to his interview last year with Glenn Stout, managing editor of The Best American Sports Writing series). Barry is also author of the memoir You Only Get One Innings, among other books. He is on Twitter at @.