Good Sports

As athletes claim a larger chunk of the entertainment world, there is a plethora of sports biographies.

Typically, sports biographies fall into two categories of uselessness: takedowns (e.g., A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez) or tell-alls (Jose Canseco's Juiced). However, recently there have been a few that break those predictable, banal parameters--either because of the subject or the story or both. Wil Haygood's Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Knopf) unpacks the life of the boxer many experts consider, pound for pound, the greatest ever.

Former Boston Globe scribe Haygood (In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.) masterfully contextualizes Robinson's world and lucidly presents his relations with other great talents of his era, including Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and Miles Davis. It should go without saying there is an abundance of attention paid to the incomparable six-slugfest conflict with the Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta (protagonist of the Scorcese film). Robinson's life and times deliver a great story, and Haygood makes the hermetic world of boxing accessible for everyone.

LeBron James and his co-author Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) avoid the chest thumping and preening to which an N.B.A. superstar who was nicknamed King James and who collected $90 million in sneaker endorsements before he ever laced up as a pro might seem susceptible. If you don't follow professional sports or basketball, you may not know James. That will no doubt change next spring and summer when the countdown begins for his looming free agency and he chooses the team and city that will provide the venue for his accumulation of another gazillion dollars. At any rate, Shooting Stars (Penguin Press) is an unexpected paean to friendship, teamwork, and sports camaraderie as LeBron recounts the struggle and ultimately the triumph he and his friends experienced en route to a youth basketball national championship.

Tennis great Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography (Knopf) has crossed over from a sports book to a general bestseller (currently in Amazon's top 10) and appears to have been reviewed everywhere. And for good reason: his struggle with various demons, many caused by a harrowing upbringing and his articulate revelations about drugs and his feelings about the sport that provided fame and fortune are expertly rendered by his Pulitzer Prize-winning collaborator J.R. Moehringer. While Agassi's confessional is deserving of the attention being heaped on it, it does raise the question of the alertness (or lack of it) of the (sports) press. Agassi was out there for more than 20 years, hiding in plain sight and no one ever raised or questioned him about the variety of issues with which Agassi reports he was bedeviled. One does wonder how that could be.

And with the release of The Blind Side, the movie based on Michael Lewis's book The Blind Side, I expect an exponentially greater number of people will be made aware of this amazing story. Michael Oher, a Memphis, Tenn., ghetto kid who is essentially homeless and parentless is adopted (in every sense of the word) by a wealthy white family and ends up going to college on a football scholarship. Lewis discovered the story and ably reported it and the filmmaker--along with Sandra Bullock as the force-of-nature matriarch of the foster family--delivers a heartwarming rendition.
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