Sports Biographies

by

By: Rachel Buck
Sports Information Assistant

Now that it is basketball season I will be spending a lot more time on the bus, traveling with our women’s team to all of its away games. That time on the bus allows me more reading time than my usual hour or so every night before I retire to bed, so I tend to cover a few more books during basketball season.

And while this affords me to continue to put a dent in one of my personal goals to complete a list of the top 100 novels ever written (a list one of my college friends gave me when we graduated and a challenge we have undertook together), being around a sports team also leads me to read more sports-based biographies.

Working in sports information, I have the opportunity to get to know the players I work with on a daily basis more personally than fans, given the access and amount of time spent in such a small group. And that is one part of the job that I’ve always enjoyed…anyone can look at a website and spew stats for a player, but I think it adds another interesting layer to get to know a person, what drives them and see other special interests that not many other people get to see.

Which is why I also love reading biographies. It sounds weird, but biographies often help to give a human element to my favorite sports personalities. Often we see our favorite stars just as that: head coach, all-star right wing, gold-glove shortstop; but we forget that they are humans too, often going through the personal struggles that so many of us experience.

While the list of sports biographies that I have read is extensive, below are some of the favorites on my list. Obviously open for comments, but this list represents some of the best books that capture coaches, players, fans and the human nature of some of my favorite sports personalities.

Al McGuire

1. Cracked Sidewalks and French Pastry: The Wit and Wisdom of Al McGuire – Tom Kertscher
When I think Marquette basketball two names instantly come to mind: Dwyane Wade and Al McGuire. McGuire is the namesake for the gorgeous arena where our women’s basketball and volleyball teams play, but his presence seems to be everywhere on the MU campus. A collection of his amazing common-sense attitude paired with his amazing knowledge and love of basketball, I read this book in one sitting. You get a sense of the man, his impact on the MU community and of course the city of Milwaukee. Especially infamous with the Marquette student population at Real Chili, to this day after bar close (well, I guess anytime, but it seems to be more prevalent at 3 am) you can go to the restaurant on Wells St., sit in the same spot McGuire did and recite his famous quote “if the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili is good.”

2. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi – David Maraniss
Much like the book on McGuire, the novel gives a setting to Lombardi, his personality and his time in Green Bay. Not growing up a Packers fan, I still appreciated the book, and the way it is put together. It is more about the man and what made him special than his football accomplishments, and that is always a refreshing change from the usual banter of a coach and his on-field success rather than what makes him, him. It also paints a picture of small-market Green Bay, and what the organization and Lombardi meant to the people of the town, especially as the NFL was in its infancy as a sports powerhouse in the USA.

3. Home Ice – Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds – Jack Falla
This book reminds me so much of home and how much hockey means to people in the upper Midwest and Northeast (where the author is from and his reflections are based). Growing up in the Midwest, my hometown had five outdoor and two indoor rinks and numerous lakes, ponds and rivers that people would meticulously groom from the first freeze to make a great skating surface for shinny hockey. A great collection and reflection of skating with family, friends and the love of the game that shows it doesn’t necessarily need to be played on a perfectly groomed sheet to be fully appreciated.

Travis Roy

4. Eleven Seconds:  A Story of Tragedy, Courage and Triumph – Travis Roy
An emotional story of the author who, while playing UND, skated through a check he was trying to finish and crashed head-first into the boards, leaving him a quadriplegic just 11 seconds into his first collegiate game at BU. It is an amazing story of his recovery, with candid accounts of the successes, struggles and everything involved in overcoming an injury. Where many people give up, he continues to fight and work hard everyday to regain some normalcy, all while still loving the game that nearly ended his life.

5. Catcher in the Wry – Bob Uecker
Obviously a homer pick, but it is a book that truly captures everything that makes Uke, Uke. From his days in the minor leagues to his broadcasting career and all of his time with the Milwaukee Braves/Brewers organization, it is a great memoir from a man who quipped that he “made mediocrity famous”.

6. Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby
I loved this book because it captured what it really means to be a fan. A great image of the extremes that some fans go for their team, even though he bases the book around his love of Arsenal, you don’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate. I was able to identify how I act with many of the same mannerisms he did in regards to my favorite teams, and how that truly becomes part of a person’s identity, whether others around them fully recognize it or not.

If you liked the movie, you'll love the book!

7. The Natural – Bernard Malamud
Also a good movie, but like most movies based on a book, the movie does little justice to the actual print. The book takes you a little deeper, darker and covers the trials and tribulations of Roy Hobbs in more depth. While watching the movie I felt like I could cheer for Hobbs to not succeed, the print connected me more with Hobbs, and I found myself hoping that he would be able to overcome his struggles and really become “the best player ever”.

8. They Call Me Coach – John Wooden
I couldn’t do a list without a John Wooden book. An amazing look at an extraordinary man, it covers not only his time at UCLA, but also his playing career and life off of the court. Wooden is open to giving his own opinions about the NCAA and how it could be improved, in addition to his coaching philosophy and how he groomed young men to be not only athletes, but also contributing members of society. Amazing life lessons that he taught people who crossed his path are easily accessible and applicable to everyday life (as my friend described it, almost like a self-help book in disguise, mixed with sports).

9. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education – Murray Sperber
This book is a discussion of how athletics often gets in the way of academics, especially at a Division I level. He paints a vivid description of how big-time schools often use athletics to increase its applicant pool, but then neglect those students when it comes to their undergraduate education. Students graduate with a degree, but don’t necessarily receive the quality education they could have, instead being sold on the “experience” of college while the school funnels tuition money toward graduate programs and continued marketing to promote athletics as the reason a prospective student should attend the university. The book is a great snapshot of big-time athletics, even with the author’s limitations on content (which he states in his forward, due to publisher restraints).

10. The Courting of Marcus Dupree – Willie Morris
The history and sports nerd in me enjoyed this book because the focus of the novel is not only on a young man, how he played football and his path to becoming a college player, but it also touched on race relations in Mississippi. It was amazing to me how one state, especially one that was so racially divided at one point in history, clamored to one young African-American player as its star, unifying sports fans of all races. ESPN recently made it into a 30 for 30 film, and while it was captivating, it really didn’t do the book justice (glad I read the book before the feature was released).

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