With the new year approaching, let’s reflect and think about the things that made 2022 special.
In sports, it’s not just the amazing games and athletes that provide us daily entertainment and special moments to marvel at and celebrate. We also find exceptional storytelling in the books that will resonate far beyond their publication dates.
As we count down to the end of the year, we can think about — and maybe put on the 2023 reading list — the books that added something special and unique to our understanding, knowledge and appreciation for the games we love.
This is by no means a definitive and exhaustive list, but here are one writer’s thoughts about some of the best that 2022 had to offer.
“THE LAST FOLK HERO: THE LIFE AND MYTH OF BO JACKSON,” by Jeff Pearlman
Pearlman, the New York Times best selling author, is required reading for anyone interested in great sports biographies.
His previous subjects include the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Brett Favre and Walter Payton, along with exploring the deeper meanings and context around both the Lakers Showtime and later Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Shaq dynasties. He’s also explored the rise and demise of the USFL, the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990′s and the 1986 New York Mets, among others.
In “The Last Folk Hero”, Pearlman transports us back to the early ‘80s through the early ‘90s, when a force of nature in the form of the rarest athletic prowess captured the nation’s attention in ways that no other athlete has, before or since. Bo Jackson was not simply a Heisman Trophy winner who excelled in the National Football League and in Major League Baseball, but rather one of the greatest subjects around the vast expanse of the “What if?” discussion.
Had he not sustained a debilitating hip injury, which took him off of the trajectory of being a Hall of Famer in both football and baseball, what would his ultimate legacy have been?
If you were around at the time, you’re familiar with the popular ‘90s Nike “Bo Knows” ad campaign. But during his heyday, we never really knew Bo at all.
After reading this exhaustively detailed and researched book by one of America’s best and foremost sports writers, you certainly will now.
“PATH LIT BY LIGHTNING: THE LIFE OF JIM THORPE,” by David Maraniss
Shortly after Maraniss’ exploration into the life of the man who is considered, along with the previously mentioned Bo Jackson, to be among the greatest athletes ever to live, the Banner sat down with him to discuss this very important work.
“For serious students of the intersection of sports, culture and the larger segments of society, ground zero of that pursuit is an exploration of the life of Jim Thorpe, a Native American man considered by many to be the greatest athlete who ever lived,” I wrote.
“In “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” author David Maraniss — one of the great biographers of our time — sheds light on the life and legend of Thorpe in ways that are remarkable and sobering. It’s a true treat for longtime Thorpe enthusiasts and a new generation who are learning about one of America’s most celebrated indigenous heroes for the first time.”
“Thorpe was an archetype, a gifted athlete, and a stereotype, the romanticized noble Indian,” Maraniss wrote in the book’s preface. “He was the foundation story of American sports.”
Thorpe’s story transcends his mind-boggling athletics exploits, Olympic gold medals, or his time playing Major League Baseball and professional football in the league that would later become the NFL. It’s an honest examination of America at the time, seen through the lens of a remarkable and flawed man.
“BLOOD IN THE GARDEN: THE FLAGRANT HISTORY OF THE 1990S NEW YORK KNICKS,” by Chris Herring
As a long-suffering New York Knicks fan, this one is personal for me. And if you enjoyed watching pro basketball in the ‘90s, regardless of your favorite team or geographical ties, this read will be personal for you, as well.
It was an era dominated by Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls dynasty. Hakeem Olajuwon and his title-winning Rockets teams held the flame of hoops excellence aloft during Jordan’s foray into minor league baseball before his eventual return and the resulting strangulation of the rest of the NBA.
But among the most memorable cast of characters in the league at the time were the Knicks, with head coach Pat Riley and players Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and John Starks.
Despite not winning a world championship in the decade where they brought a scintillating sense of hope and a rugged aura back to Madison Square Garden, the squad came tormentingly close in 1994, in addition to a surprising run to the ‘99 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs during the strike-shortened season, which gave us our first true glimpses of the man who would later assume the title of the world’s best player: Tim Duncan.
Pat Riley might have cultured his image with his Armani suits and and as the photogenic man who coached the Magic Johnson-led Showtime Lakers, but Herring delves deep into the forces that forged him as a blue collar kid who was regularly beaten up by neighborhood bullies in his hometown of Schenectedy, New York. His Lakers teams assumed the personality of Magic, but his Knicks squads personified who Riley really was at his core, a fighter who molded a team in his own image around the underappreciated underdogs who orbited around Ewing — Starks, Oakley and Mason among them.
“TRUE: THE FOUR SEASONS OF JACKIE ROBINSON,” by Kostya Kennedy
No singular figure is more important in the history of baseball than Jackie Robinson. And his impact extended way beyond the diamond.
Kennedy takes an unconventional approach in the telling of this story, which is refreshing because so much has been written and said about Robinson since he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. The manuscript focuses on four distinct years in Robinson’s life starting in 1946. when he first began playing in the all-white minor leagues with the Montreal Royals. The story arc proceeds to 1949 when he captured the league’s Most Valuable Player award in only his third season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. From there, it jumps to his final season as a pro in 1956 and culminates in 1972, the year of his death.
We’re now 75 years removed from Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, so the timing is perfect for a fresh examination of the man, his times, his impact and what he means to us a society that his still struggling, in many ways, with racial reconciliations and equality.
“RISE OF THE BLACK QUARTERBACK: WHAT IT MEANS FOR AMERICA,” by Jason Reid
Fritz Pollard. Willie Thrower. Sandy Stephens. George Taliaferro. Marlin Briscoe. James Harris. Eldridge Dickey. Joe Gilliam. Those names might be obscure to many, but like the aforementioned Jackie Robinson, their contributions to today’s sports and societal landscape, though not well known, are monumental.
The story of the Black quarterback did not begin in 1987 with Doug Williams winning MVP accolades in Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos, where he passed for 344 yards and four touchdowns. The legacy of what we’re seeing today in the remarkable exploits of NFL players such as Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith, Justin Fields, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson began germinating decades prior.
“American sport has always been a window into the complexities and contradictions of race in American life ― and this is especially so with football,” wrote Eddie S. Glaude, Chair, Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. “In many ways, race haunts the sport still. Jason Reid’s magisterial book chronicles the breaking of a particularly thick glass ceiling in the sport around the position of the quarterback. You will be amazed at what was assumed about ‘the black quarterback,’ at what these men had to endure and overcome, and how all of that laid the foundation for the extraordinary success of Black quarterbacks today. If you were a fan of Doug Williams or Warren Moon or a fan today of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, you will love this book. And if you want to better understand the vexed racial history of this country through the sport you love, you will find so much between these elegantly written and powerful pages.”
- “Black Market: An Insider’s Journey into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball,” by Merl Code
- “The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II,” by Buzz Bissinger
- “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original,” by Howard Bryant
- “Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski,” by Ian O’Connor
- “Swagger: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs―A Memoir,” by Jimmy Johnson and Dave Hyde