The cost of greatness
Earlier this summer I challenged myself to read three books in genres outside my comfort zone: self-help, fantasy and sports. It was an attempt to read beyond my usual orbit and possibly, discover new ways of looking at the world. Strangely, I started with sports, THE COST OF THESE DREAMS by Wright Thompson.
Sports stories have long explored mythical themes: ambition, the fleeting nature of fame, the drive and obsession to overcome perceived weakness, the quest for greatness and immortality. They follow a familiar arc and are often compared to America’s vision of itself.
Wright Thompson is a respected sports reporter for ESPN. I’d never heard of him. In his preface, he says the book is a self-examination and an effort to see “what can be learned from reading about sports”. It seemed a good enough reason for me to read it too.
Neither my husband nor I are sports fans in the typical fashion. When he sits down to watch a sporting event, it’s usually something obscure like sailing or car racing. Only major finales attract his attention, usually when they’re associated with beer at a party. They attract my attention even less. You can explain football to me - many have tried – but it might as well be nuclear physics. That’s just how my brain works. Picking up Thompson’s book was a huge stretch. My expectations were low.
So, what a surprise to find I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t just the writing - although crisp, compelling and masterfully crafted - don’t begin to do it justice. The book is a collection of previously published stories, ranging from individual athletes and coaches (most I’d never heard of), a memorable sporting event in the context of racial upheaval, the meaning of a city’s sports team in times of trauma, and of course, the personal cost of achieving greatness.
In ‘Michael Jordan Has Not Let the Building’, Thompson captures the superstar’s struggles to come to terms with an aging body, harnessing his rage, and the truth about his own mortality. The mysterious disappearance of a Brazilian basketball star is highlighted in ‘The Last Days of Tony Harris’ and the surprising (to me) obsession with U.S. Navy SEALS is examined in ‘The Secret History of Tiger Woods’.
Others in the collection describe the difficulties and challenges of older coaches, wrestlers, and baseball players, while some of the longer stories depict meaningful seasons/games after Hurricane Katrina and Chicago’s long-time losing streak. The losses and victories of their home teams take on mythical proportions.
My attention waned during descriptive play-by-plays. It was just like when I see games on TV - a bunch of guys running around a field bashing into each other chasing balls. Reading it was more of the same but without the beer and chips. The stories would certainly have more resonance if you were familiar with the athletes and their careers.
But when Thompson wrote about the individual struggle, the stories came alive. Each story is written as a kind of love letter to a faded sportsman. Some of these men - and they’re all men - have brushed against fame and come up short. They live on the fringes of no one’s memory, lost and forgotten, a footnote in a newspaper story from years ago.
Others - who’ve become household names - share the same sad loneliness borne out of being famous but unknowable. To them, success is perfection, anything less is failure. They struggle to fill the hole in their life and to find meaning without their sport. Thompson writes, “[they] face the reckoning that all young and powerful men face, the end of that youth and power, and a future spent figuring out how those things might be mourned and possibly replaced.”
Another common theme is the search for a father’s love and approval. Many had absent or neglectful fathers and still long to hear they’re loved. Others, such as Tiger woods, grieve the loss of their father so deeply, they become unmoored, unable to play again at previous heights. If this seems sad, it is. But it’s also an ode to the sports reporter’s art and a celebration of true greatness and the high price that it exacts.
The book is full of rich characters and vivid detail, intelligently written. But will I start reading more sports stories? Not likely. I’d have to start watching it too to get to know the players and understand the games. That’s not likely either. But if you or someone you know is an avid sports fan, this book would make an excellent gift.
Next up, another giant stretch outside my comfort zone – fantasy.
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