5 lessons from the Best American Sports Writing stories of 2013

Eleven years ago, a book about journalism, writing, and storytelling blew my mind.

I was, at the time, a senior in the journalism school at Northwestern University. I loved to read, and I loved to write, so naturally I found my interest piqued when I noticed a certain anthology at the bookstore: the 2002 edition of Best American Sports Writing.

Upon reading the first two articles, I had received enough inspiration to fuel me for the rest of college.

The Best American Sports Writing anthology is a collection of the top written sports stories of a given year, selected by a guest editor noted as a prominent sports journalist. In 2002, that editor was Rick Reilly, and he wrote in his introduction a 10-step advice column for how to become a better writer. I still look at it today when I am in a rut, and I even referenced it this past week in my “3 Great Stories” column.

Following Reilly’s intro was the book’s first selection, an article by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke entitled “Her Blue Haven”. You can still find it online today.

The article details Plaschke’s correspondence with an LA Dodgers blogger who has cerebral palsy; she writes her blog entries with a head pointer because she cannot harness her hands well enough to type with her fingers.

It is, to this day, one of my all-time favorite stories.

Plaschke writes the piece with such heartfelt emotion and craft, and he greatly benefits from telling the story from a first-person perspective. I was so moved by “Her Blue Haven” that I actually e-mailed Plaschke to thank him for it.

“The story touches me as a human being,” I wrote, “but it also gratifies the part of me that believes sports can be more than just scores, highlights, and recaps.”

While I no longer exclusively cover sports, I still order the Best American Sports Writing anthology every year. And when I complete it, every year, I feel inspired as a journalist.

Here are five of my favorite pieces from this year’s edition, along with the lessons I learned from them:

THE STORY: “Introduction”, by J.R. Moehringer (guest editor)
THE LESSON: Remember the seriousness of your stories.

Guest editor J.R. Moehringer makes an interesting point in his well-written introduction to the anthology. He finds himself trying to explain why he takes sports — and sports writing — so seriously, and eventually he crystallizes his viewpoint:

“It’s more fashionable these days to take nothing seriously … If some fans are too serious, some sportswriters are too cynical; they treat their subject with a strange amalgam of avidity and mockery. Cover the games, analyze every atom and particle of the games, but never miss an opportunity to assert their unimportance, to rip all the money and the narcissism. … I can’t give in to irony and cynicism, not all the way, and when asked to serve as editor of this marvelous anthology, I can’t approach the task with anything but great seriousness.”

In one sterling paragraph, Moehringer puts forth a clarion call for journalists of all stripes. So often, journalists are expected to be above the fray and remark on the news from a position of distance. Yet we cannot forget the importance of the stories we cover, and in an era when reporters are bombarded with similar ideas and pitches for stories, we must try that much harder to find what makes each one special.

THE STORY: “The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador”, by Karen Russell (GQ)
THE LESSON: Develop your characters, but also develop their environment.

I don’t know much about bullfighting.

I’m guessing most readers of the magazine GQ know even less.

Such is the challenge facing Karen Russell as she spins the story of a matador whose left eye gets gored out by a bull. Most of us in the U.S. do not understand the allure of bullfighting; beyond that, many Americans believe it to be barbaric, uncivilized, and unethical to the animals.

Thus, if Russell wants to get readers to care about this story, she needs to enable them to understand — and appreciate — the environment in which it takes place.

She does.

Russell describes the world of bullfighting, as well as its many conflicts of interest and opposing viewpoints, with vivid imagery and poignant emotion. She paints a portrait of a world in which a matador can suffer such a gruesome, life-threatening injury … and then work his way back onto the bullfighting circuit.

By the time I finished this article, I had not necessarily changed my opinions or bedazzlement about bullfighting. But, I felt, I could absolutely understand this matador’s mindset, and that enabled me to be blown away by his story.

THE STORY: “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever”, by Michael J. Mooney (D Magazine)
THE LESSON: Make every detail count.

Of all the stories I read in this year’s anthology, Michael J. Mooney’s tale of a Texas bowler’s biggest night pulled me in the fastest.

Why? Because Mooney, in a few short paragraphs, hit me with about six sucker-punches of details.

“When Bill Fong approaches the lane”, Mooney writes, “he wants to become a robot.” When the bowling ball nears the edge of the lane, “it veers back toward the center, as if guided by remote control.” Fong’s teammates are “still discussing a night two years ago.” And Fong himself? According to Mooney, he “thinks about that moment — those hours — every single day of his life.”

Mooney does such a great job setting up his story — Fong’s one-night run at a perfect 900 — because he embraces the details with which we can all connect. He breaks down Fong’s matches frame by frame, and yet he never seems to get repetitive or boring. He finds the standout moments at every turn, which enables him to truly sucker-punch the reader with the way his story ends.

I won’t give it away. Just read the article … and soak in the details.

THE STORY: “The Legacy of Wes Leonard”, by Thomas Lake (Sports Illustrated)
THE LESSON: Do your research.

I once met Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake, and he spoke about his love and admiration for fellow long-form sports journalist and SI staple Gary Smith.

I too admire Smith’s work and am constantly reminded of one of his biggest rules of writing, as echoed by Reilly in that 2002 Best American Sports Writing intro. Smith, Reilly said, never writes a story until he has interviewed 50 people about it.

That is a great rule for those who get the time to practice it. When I read stories by Lake, I imagine he probably adheres to it.

Lake contributes a touching story about a star high school athlete who dies on the basketball court from a previously undetected heart condition. That student’s name is Wes Leonard, but Lake does not just tell Leonard’s story; he devotes just as much attention to the athlete’s best friend and on-field rival, Xavier Grigg. After Leonard dies, Grigg is faced with heart-rending decisions about whether to continue the basketball season, mourn his friend, or somehow do both.

Lake, I can almost guarantee, did not originally plan on focusing his story on these athletes’ friendship. A journalist needs to make the calls, do the research, and interview as many people as possible until he or she finds the perfect angle through which to tell the story.

That’s one of many steps needed to produce work as powerful as this.

THE STORY: “The Gym at Third and Ross”, by Bill Littlefield (wbur.org)
THE LESSON: Great stories don’t necessarily fit the typical story shell.

Back in May, I did an in-depth story for WXIA-TV about Atlanta Braves rookie catcher Evan Gattis. I was proud of of the finished product, but along the way I went through a surreal road-trip experience in trying to learn Gattis’ story.

So I wrote about it.

A lot.

Check it out.

No one asked me to write six pages about the journey behind my on-air package, but I recognized an opportunity to tell a different, perhaps equally powerful story. That’s how storytelling works: sometimes you just need to get it out there, regardless of medium.

Such is the case here, where Boston radio host Bill Littlefield goes on the road and finds himself with a story that does not fit his usual format. So he blogs about it, detailing his experience meeting an eclectic Pittsburgh boxing gym manager who, through the gym, keeps at-risk individuals off the streets.

For sure, this could have been a powerful radio story as well. But I think it works best exactly as it is — a first-person recollection of a vulnerable, poignant experience.

It is a reminder to journalists everywhere to find unique vehicles to tell their stories.

FOR MORE LESSONS LEARNED: 5 lessons from the NPPA’s best video stories of 2012
FOR MORE LONG-FORM SPORTSWRITING: The search for Evan Gattis, and the journey of journalism

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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