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Three great new sports biographies - Issue 18
Reviews of three great new sports books published this week
A belated happy Halloween to all. It’s been a bit longer than planned since the last newsletter, but wanted to get one out today with publication of some great sports books in the last week. This edition will be looking at bios of Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson and a Messi/Ronaldo dual bio. There are also a number of other really interesting sports books being published today so check out the list of recent and upcoming releases below if looking for a new read.
The plan for the rest of 2022 is to share my thoughts on some soccer books being published to coincide with the World Cup, a round-up edition those books that slipped through the cracks this year and never made an appearance here, my (always popular) annual thread/post on the best sports books to look forward to in 2023 and a review of the year in sports books (spoiler - 2022 has been a ridiculously good year in sports books). Happy reading!
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Review of ‘The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson’ by Jeff Pearlman (2022)
Some books you just know are going to be great. Every sports book by Jeff Pearlman is a must-read for me ever since first picking up ‘The Bad Guys Won’ years ago. Pearlman writes as only a great storyteller can – witty, funny, informative, and always insightful. Ever since watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary You Don’t Know Bo I have wanted to find a great book on Bo Jackson. Combine great writer and great subject and you get a book even better than expectations. It is quite simply a joy, as entertaining and enjoyable a sports book as you will find.
For those of us too young to have seen him play, Bo Jackson is a figure who is shrouded by mystery. An athlete of near unlimited potential, college football superstar whose pro-career in both baseball and football lives on more in memories and snippets than in medals and trophies.
Pearlman has captured Bo through the eyes of those who witnessed his sporting feats. Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of people he brings to life Bo’s various triumphs and failures as well as capturing the lingering sense of what might have been. Pearlman leans in on the semi-mythological nature of Bo’s lingering fame – the fact that so many of his most outlandish moments came before the age when everything was recorded. While we video of so many of Bo’s enough remarkable feats to athleticism, the highlights of the book are those that only a lucky few saw and decades later still recall with awe.
The Last Folk Hero also captures Bo’s status as a pop culture icon. The level of fame he reached outstripped his achievements as a pro and his less charismatic personality. His uniqueness as an athlete capable of moments of unrivalled athletic ability created an aura and enthusiasm that
Bo himself remains something of a mystery. Unlike some bio’s this isn’t a forensic investigation of who Bo is a person. Instead it’s a retelling of the legend of Bo Jackson the athlete, the pop culture sensation, the icon. The parts of Bo we do see present a balanced view of a man living an extraordinary life. Pearlman captures moments of great heart and humanity as well as moments of arrogance and ego.
This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. It captures something wonderful about why we watch sport and why mere mortals want to see feats of seemingly superhuman athleticism. Read it, enjoy it and fire up YouTube along the way.
‘Messi Vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game’ by Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson
Everyone knows Messi and Ronaldo. Most readers of this review will know their origin stories, their achievements and their legends. Many, like me, will have been fortunate to see them both play in person. Some will have read bios of both or even previous dual-bios of the pair (like the enjoyable 2018 book by Jimmy Burns).
Given all that, I was a little hesitant to pick this up, but did so based on the quality of Clegg and Robinson’s previous book The Club which examined the business story behind the founding and success of the English Premier League. I hoped they would take a similar approach to examine the impact of Messi and Ronaldo on the sport off the pitch as much as on it and I was not disappointed. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read.
Messi v Ronaldo avoids retelling the details of the players careers in any level of detail. Instead it tells their story with a focus more broadly on how football and individual clubs evolved both as a sport and a business during their careers. It zooms in on the key actors – Jorge Mendes the agent, Messi’s own father Jorge, and Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez especially – looking at how they shaped the changing football landscape and how these changes arose because of, or were shaped by, Messi and Ronaldo themselves. Of most interest is the behind the scenes insights into how certain transfers happened or how people reacted to well known events.
Clegg and Robinson ultimately present the two players as hugely powerful entities in their own rights who impacted the entire operations of the clubs they played for. While they won buckets of trophies, the ultimately didn’t leave clubs in positions of long term strength and their enduring legacy may be their part in the rise of the idea that a superstar can be bigger and more powerful than any one club in the social media age.
The strength of the book is the author’s journalistic talents and their eye for telling a compelling story. It is clear a vast amount of research went into the book which ensures it is packed with insight. The ability to zoom in on specific moments or trends helps the book to avoid being a conventional (dual) biography.
Above all the book is exceptionally readable. While many of the broad strokes will be familiar to long time football fans, their is enough insight and new reporting here to interest anybody. Highly recommended for anyone looking to relive their glory days ahead of their swansong World Cup this winter.
'Barkley: A Biography' by Timothy Bella (2022)
Sometimes a new sports bio comes along and you wonder how come a great bio of that athlete hasn't appeared yet. As one of the more iconic figures in basketball both during and after his career, Charles Barkley has fascinated, entertained, annoyed and informed generations of basketball fans. While he wrote an autobiography, Barkley has admitted to never reading it and even claimed he was misquoted in his own book! This book is the biography that such an interesting figure merits.
Barkley (the book) is a conventional biography that explores its' subject's life in detail. The book is at its most interesting in telling Charles' childhood and college days and the struggles he overcame to find his purpose through basketball. It presents a balanced reflection of Barkley, the good and bad and looks at his career both on and off the court. It's packed full of interesting anecdotes and insight and delicately balances the dual aims of being short enough to remain entertaining while also being long enough to capture the fullness of Barkley's life.
Bella, a deputy editor at the Washington Post, was also the lead researcher for hugely successful biographies from from Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict - the excellent "Tiger" and "The System. Those books both stood out through the meticulous amount of research that went into them. Bella has clearly adopted a similar approach and I can't think of better praise than saying the book ranks alongside those other two as a really enjoyable sports book.
New Sports Books - What’s out recently or coming out soon?
🏈 The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II by Buzz Bissinger. The tale of an American Football game between college football stars who served in the Pacific during WW2. Really enjoyed this one. As good as you’d expect it to be.
⚽ How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers by Chris Evans. Will review this in my upcoming newsletter on World Cup books.
🏈My Football Life and The Rebirth of Chiefs Kingdom by Tim Grunhard with Carl Peterson. Autobiography from the former Kansas City Chiefs center. An interesting read that I’ll review in a future newsletter.
⚽The Roaring Red Front: The World’s Top Left-Wing Football Clubs by Stewart McGill and Vince Raison
Ed Sneider: The Last Sports Mogul by Alan Bass. Bio of the founder of the Philadelphia Flyers and legendary businessman.
🏈 The Idealist: Jack Trice and the Fight for a Forgotten College Football Legacy by Jonathan Gelber
⚽ Her Game Too: A Manifesto for Change by Matt Riley
⚽Men in Blazers Present Gods of Soccer : The Pantheon of the 100 Greatest Soccer Players (According to Us) by Men In Blazers
⚽Football Murals: A Celebration of Soccer’s Greatest Street Art by Andy Brassell. Loved this, review to come in a future edition.
⚽Away Days: Thirty Years of Irish Influence in the Premier League by Gareth Maher
🏀In the Blink of an Eye by Abdul-Rauf Mahmoud. Autobiography of the former NBA player who may be best remembered for refusing to stand for the US national anthem for social justice reasons back in the 1990s.
⚽Diego Maradona: The Last Interview and Other Conversation pub. Melville House. A series of interviews with the late, great Argentinian.
⚽Football in the Land of the Soviets by Carles Viñas. A look at the history of football in Russia from a champion of the sports radical history.
⚽The Rodfather by Roddy Collins with Paul Howard. After playing for 16 clubs and managing 12, Collins autobiography with the help of the excellent Howard promises to be interesting! (27 October)
A Miracle of Their Own: A Team, A Stunning Gold Medal and Newfound Dreams for American Girls by Keith Gave and Tim Rappleye. Story of Team USA’s 1998 Olympic upset victory in women’s hockey.
⚽New Kids in the World Cup: The Totally Late ‘80s and Early 90s Tale of the the Team that changed American Soccer Forever by Adam Elder (1 November)
⚽The Voyageurs: The Canadian Men’s Soccer Team’s Quest to Reach the World Cup by Joshua Kloke
🏀Spaced Out: The Tactical Evolution of the Modern NBA by Mike Prada. A look at how the 3 point revolution has changed basketball. (1 November)
🏈Five Laterals and a Trombone: Cal, Stanford and the Wildest Ending in College Football History by Tyler Bridges.
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next time!
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