2017 In Review

The best sports books of the year

December 21, 2017

Does a great sports book have to transcend sports? The answer is subjective. One man's meditation on human frailty is another man's analysis of a batting slump.

The selections below of our favorite sports books of the year speak to the disparate tastes within the hallowed halls of The Loop. Golf is in our DNA, but we also love basketball and hockey, memoirs and fiction. There was no set criteria, other than it had to be a book from this year, and it had to have at least a foothold in sports.

Oh, yeah, it also had to be really good.

The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup

By John Feinstein

Regardless of whether your team won or lost at Hazeltine, there’s plenty of juicy material to enjoy here, gleaned from extended interviews with figures big and small. For all the drama on the course—and there’s plenty of that—Feinstein’s best material is from inside the team rooms before, during and after the competition. Examples? Tiger Woods letting his guard down, Matt Kuchar busting chops (among other parts of the anatomy), and Phil Mickelson trying—and repeatedly failing—to escape headlocks from a bemused Dustin Johnson during the post-match revelry. The Europeans eventually joined the party, and before it was over, a lot of toasters turned to toast. But Feinstein’s readers will walk away the way the victors and the vanquished did: smiling. —Mike O’Malley

The 1997 Masters: My Story

By Tiger Woods (with Lorne Rubenstein)

Released 20 years after Woods’ mind-blowing 12-stroke win, there would have been plenty here had it been just Tiger placing that historic victory into athletic and sociological perspective. Even if you saw it happen live, you’ll learn the stories behind the stories, but my favorite chapter is Tiger talking about the considerable course changes to Augusta National. He’s candid. “It wasn’t as much fun to play anymore,” he says of the changes before the 2002 Masters, and he gives thumbs up and thumbs down on other alterations in the so-called Tiger-proofing. There’s also this warning on the iconic 12th hole, and why it would be sacrilege to adjust its 155 yards: “The day the hole is lengthened to, oh, 200 yards,” he says, “will be the day I quit playing the Masters.” Tiger is planning to be at Augusta in April 2018, and it sure would be fun to read a sequel 20 years later. —MO

Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer

By Tom Callahan

Arnold Palmer: A Life Well Played/My Stories

By Arnold Palmer (with Dave Shedloski)

Media types haven’t been winning many popularity contests lately, but Arnold Palmer liked writers. Good thing for Tom Callahan, and for us. The longtime Golf Digest contributor had one of the best vantage points to follow Palmer’s career for almost 50 years, and he captured intimate vignettes of the man beyond the game, including a conversation just months before Palmer’s death in 2016. Particularly moving are behind-the-scenes memories from some of the game’s biggest names. And in a separate send-off, Shedloski collaborated with Palmer to document recollections of Arnie’s historic footprint. The King’s voice still resonates. —MO

Stick a Fork in Me

By Dan Jenkins

I’ve been reading Dan Jenkins for more than 50 years and editing his Golf Digest stuff for almost half that time, and what always impresses me is his ear for dialogue. In the wrong hands, conversations in novels don’t sound like anything you’d hear in real life. Tone deaf, as he might put it, perhaps adding a salty adjective. But Jenkins knows how to talk and write Texas, and it’s evident again in this novel about a good ol’ boy trying to hit the ejector seat from his job overseeing a major-college sports program. In addition to the Know-Nothings, Point-Missers and Time Bandits, Jenkins dreams of eradicating the Booster Club Pests and other virulent forms of campus life, including political correctness. Oh, and there’s a love story. Jenkins can do that, too. —MO

Sting-Ray Afternoons

By Steve Rushin

You can’t get much more middle America than the Rushin family of Bloomington, Minn., in the 1970s. Sports was an obsession, and so was the television spewing jingles that remain seared into memory almost five decades later. This is a tale of growing older but never quite growing up (that’s a good thing), and you’ll laugh—hard—at the missteps along the way. Life isn’t always a lot of laughs, though, and Rushin covers that, too. Proving once again that there’s nothing more poignant than a funny man who turns serious. It’s all pleasantly familiar. This is Rushin’s memoir, but you’d swear he’s writing about you. —MO

Ali: A Life

By Jonathan Eig

As one of the greatest sports figures in history, Muhammad Ali has been written about at length, to the point you’d think there wouldn’t be more to say. It turns out for best-selling author Jonathan Eig, there was 623 pages more to say. Eig approaches the late icon through the many avenues that defined him; as a boxer, as an ego, as a poet, as a "new kind of black man," as a public figure, as a member of the Nation of Islam, as someone beloved, as someone feared, as a man refusing to serve in Vietnam, as a husband, as a competitor, and as a champion. Eig takes the time, and pages, to extensively explore who Ali was in a way that hasn’t yet been done. It turns out there was more to say about Ali after all. —Keely Levins

Game Change

By Ken Dryden

A deep dive into the untimely death of journeyman NHL defenseman Steve Montador sounds dreadfully depressing, and to be clear, parts of Game Change, written by Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, are incredibly sad. But the book is also a fascinating look at the pressures facing a professional athlete, a rich portrait of a complex and beloved teammate, and a persuasive argument for why the CTE crisis in hockey and football can't be glossed over much longer. As with The Game, his seminal first-person look at life with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden’s skill as a storyteller often obscures the fact that the guy writing is also one of the greatest hockey players who ever lived. —Sam Weinman

Beartown

By Fredrik Backman

One of the few works of fiction on our list is another book offering a nuanced look at hockey, and the passions it inspires. Bear Town is translated from Swedish, but its portrayal of a hockey-obsessed culture could easily be mistaken for rural Alberta, suburban Twin Cities, or anywhere in between. The plot centers around a local junior team, and the disproportionate importance placed on it by the town elders. When news of a crime spreads through the community, it creates fault lines that feel eerily similar to today’s pitched political climate. To say anything more is to give too much away, but the end product makes you love sports and resent parts of it all at once. —SW

Golden Days

By Jack McCallum

The premise seems like a stretch: using the parallels between the 1971-'72 Los Angeles Lakers and 2016-'17 Golden State Warriors as a chronicle of NBA history and American culture, with Jerry West—who played a pivotal role for both teams—serving as the prism. And yet, because it’s McCallum, the sport’s principal storyteller, the symmetry is effortless. Tales involving Wilt Chamberlain and owner Jack Kent Cooke border on the fantastical, and, despite the wealth of coverage the Warriors have received over their incredible three-year run, McCallum’s able to mine angles and tidbits to frame them in a fresh light. Moreover, he couldn’t have picked a better conduit than West, a tortured soul who’s so human it hurts. For the NBA fan old and young, Golden Days deserves a spot in the stocking. —Joel Beall

Basketball (and Other Things)

By Shea Serrano

Forget “Bird or Magic?” or “Which was the best team in NBA history?” Serrano tackles the basketball questions you never knew you wanted to ask but desperately seek the answers to, such as “What player would you want as a survival leader in a Purge-like scenario?” and “What is the most disrespectful dunk of all time?” Serrano’s quick wit, creativity and historical knowledge takes this seemingly-contrived framework and makes it one of the most original reads of the year. Even his non-hoop related rants and tangents (hey, other things IS in the title) manage to stay relevant to the basketball discussion at hand. Like a LeBron James coast-to-coast throwdown, you’ll devour this so quick you won’t know what hit ya. —JB

The Big Chair

By Ned Colletti

This is not so much a book as it is a late-night barstool chat. For one who played things close to the vest throughout his career, former general manager Ned Colletti gives a refreshingly candid look at the machinations and chaos of a Major League Baseball front office. Given his run-ins with dozens of eccentric figures throughout his career—most notably, Yasiel Puig, Tommy Lasorda and Frank McCourt—Colletti’s not short on stories that border on the apocryphal. Yet Colletti’s civility is never lost, empathetic to these much-maligned souls without employing revisionist history. Most important, Colletti is brutally honest about his successes and failures, displaying a modesty that’s all too rare to his profession. Forget love of baseball; the only prerequisite you need for The Big Chair is a thirst for an amusing raconteur. —JB

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