The juggernaut business built around elite sports can sometimes overshadow a more humble but common experience of athletics: Many people interact with sports at some point in a personal way.
Sometimes, it can be a quick realization that a game for whatever reason just doesn’t quite fit. But often, individuals find that the right sport, no matter what the level, can become an important lens through which they test themselves and relate to others.
This theme has been echoed in some of the biggest sports moments of 2022, including the retirements (and unretirements) of star athletes, scandals in football, basketball, soccer and elsewhere, and the harsh spotlight and pressure of major events like the Beijing Olympics and the World Cup. It is also seen in many recent sports books, with offerings on the World Series, reflections about and sometimes by star personalities, and new looks at seemingly well-known moments and sports.
In LOST IN THE GAME: A Book About Basketball (Duke University, 206 pp., paperback, $22.95), Thomas Beller conveys through a collection of essays the intense, often internalized dynamics of playground basketball, where he used impromptu games to test his strength and emotional mettle.
“That I kept going back to the court as a kid might be a story of masochism or of willpower, but the element I am most interested in is the story of basketball’s mystical, spiritual allure — basketball as a drug, as a safe space, as a unique experience of time,” Beller writes.
The essays, most of which appeared first elsewhere (including two in The New York Times), bounce around several levels and include reflections on current N.B.A. players as well as first-person stories about Beller’s interactions enriched by his own life circumstances. (He is the author of four other books, among them one about J.D. Salinger.)
Beller glimpses Bol Bol, or so he thinks, at the Newark airport as he escorts his 14-year-old daughter to an unaccompanied flight to summer camp. He also outlines the seemingly casual but “byzantine rituals” of pickup hoops: “This is not a gym.”
Because the essays appear together after being written separately, some cameo themes and people inevitably repeat (Beller, for example, is reminded at times of going to school with Michael Diamond, better known as Mike D of the Beastie Boys). There are also some notable absences, including the women’s game, which perhaps falls outside Beller’s experience but nonetheless would offer a ripe setting for his strong storytelling and insight.
In what may be the book’s most moving chapter, Beller encounters his former coach at Vassar College, Denis Gallagher, while working as an accredited journalist at a Knicks game for the first time.
The chapter includes a postscript in which Beller reaches out to Gallagher anew 17 years after first writing about him. The passage of time helps Beller see more of Gallagher’s perspective in his pursuit of full-time status at Vassar.
Beller also apologizes for a missed layup in a key game, which carried with it the lifelong stress of blundering a point-blank, deceptively easy shot. “I still feel bad about it,” Beller tells Gallagher, who says that he doesn’t remember the moment. “So don’t lose any sleep over it!” Gallagher responds.
Kelcey Ervick’s graphic memoir, THE KEEPER: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives (Avery/Penguin Random House, 324 pp., paperback, $27), is a tribute to the dreams she had as a girl and a consideration of how they evolved as she grew up. The backdrop, now obvious to Ervick as an adult in a way it wasn’t when she was young, is the passage of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that pledged equal access for women in education.
The most publicized result of Title IX has been the growth of women’s interscholastic sports, although that history is certainly not as rosy or straightforward as some administrators would claim. Still, soccer for girls and women has seen explosive growth in the past 50 years, and Ervick shares how that influenced her life.
Ervick played on a youth travel soccer team, the Cardinals, who traveled from Ohio to numerous states for tournaments. As the team piled up wins, it drew attention and with it a male gaze from journalists.
“‘Who will be the first to get pregnant?’ ‘Who will be the first to get married?’ ‘Who will have the most kids?’” Ervick writes, adding in a parenthetical, “These are the questions they asked the best girls’ soccer players in the nation.”
She allows, however, “Not one of us said: Are these the same questions you ask the boys’ teams?”
Throughout the book, Ervick wonders how she might have been treated differently as a young man rather than a young woman, and refers to her diary and reflects on her friendships to look back on her life choices.
Because Ervick tells her story graphically — her comics have appeared in The Rumpus and The Believer — it reads at a brisk pace, though readers will certainly want to linger on the beautiful depictions of birds, people and scenes from her life. She weaves in historical context in graceful and necessary ways, allowing readers to understand the origins of Title IX and some other influences in her life.
She also reflects on the craft of her distinctive position — the keeper tasked with preventing her opponents from scoring.
“Decades later, I would realize I received more preparation to be a keeper than I did to become a mother,” Ervick writes.
In the autobiography WILLIE HORTON: 23: Detroit’s Own Willie the Wonder, the Tigers’ First Black Great (Triumph Books, 219 pp., $30), Horton frames his career and life around the significance of race, as a favorite son of the Michigan city that made him a star in the 1960s and ’70s.
Horton, working with the longtime sportswriter Kevin Allen, gives a new dimension to other ballplayers around him, as well as the fellow Black players who preceded him.
“In that era, Black players endured taunts, threats and isolation, just to be part of a group that acted as if it didn’t want them,” Horton writes. “They did it because they loved the game — and because they knew that a Black man should have the same right to live his dream as a white man has.”
Horton’s relationships — with family, with teammates and with leaders of the Tigers organization — add depth to an athlete known for his powerful bat and his leadership, including in 1967 when he made a futile effort to ease riots in Detroit, which had surfaced amid racial and economic tensions and resulted in 43 deaths.
“Thoughts were whirling in my mind and I just wanted to be able to do something to help,” Horton says.
Two forewords include some overly flowery praise from former teammates. The memoir (portions of which previously appeared in the 2004 book “The People’s Champion”) is much more poignant when Horton discusses his own interactions, without exaggeration. At its best, it challenges his readers to consider his experiences with racism during his playing career and beyond, including, he wonders at one point, as a coach.
He managed a team in Venezuela and coached in the majors, but was never asked to manage an M.L.B. club. He felt that clubs knew his work, so he didn’t send out résumés.
“Even if I had rapped on some doors, would I have been given fair consideration for a manager’s job? It’s hard to say,” Horton writes. More recently, he says, clubs have interviewed nonwhite candidates, but, with a few exceptions, “they aren’t hiring them.”
Oskar Garcia is a deputy sports editor at The Times.