Longreads Best of 2016: Sports Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in sports writing.

* * *

Erik Malinowski
NBA/features writer at https://twitter.com/erikmal.

The Art of Letting Go (Mina Kimes, ESPN The Magazine)

Whereas another writer might’ve taken this story’s central question—how (and why) Koreans have elevated bat flips in baseball to an art form that deserves celebration—and answered it with condescension or (at best) superficiality, Kimes goes above and beyond, taking readers on a swirling journey across South Korea, through stadium dugouts and Seoul’s inner-city neighborhoods, to produce a compelling narrative that is part sports, part travelogue, and as illuminating a culture piece as you’ve read all year. Between Kimes’ words (which are a masterclass in scene-setting) and the wondrous illustrations of Mickey Duzyj (who was along for the reporting), this was a story I kept seeing in my head all year long.

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN The Magazine)

Bill Kennedy was living his childhood dream of being an NBA referee when his world was upended last December: A star player yelled two anti-gay slurs at him during a televised game. Kennedy’s open secret—that he was, in fact, gay—was now quite public and on its way to becoming a national story.
With empathy and a deft touch, Arnovitz details what happened that night, what preceded it, and (perhaps most importantly) what followed in the months ahead, as Kennedy’s coming out became a national story and sent the veteran referee on a personal journey that was decades in the making. (The kicker, which takes place at New York’s LGBT Pride March, is stirring and sensational.) When this new season tipped off, Kennedy became the first openly gay player or referee to appear in an NBA game. What Arnovitz so brilliantly conveys is the scope of all that had to happen for that moment to finally become real.


Jason Diamond
Sports editor for Rolling Stone; author of the memoir Searching For John Hughes.

What the World got Wrong About Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Jay Caspian Kan, The New York Times Magazine)

I’ve always been obsessed with Kareem, so when I saw that NYT Mag had a piece on him I expected some deep profile with him saying a bunch of things, sharing secrets learned over his life and career, and stuff of nature. What Jay Caspian Kang gave us was sort of the “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” of 21st century sports reporting. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t really say much, but the piece was really deep and profound. I get students asking me from time to time about pieces that I really like or think that they should study and I’ve been pointing them to this one for the last year now.

Michael Jordan has not left the building (Wright Thompson, ESPN The Magazine)

As somebody who grew up in the Chicago burbs in the 1990s, I thought I’d read everything good about Michael Jordan until I read this piece. It really sums up Jordan the man, long past his playing days, still the insanely competitive prick he’s always been, but I’d describe this as a deep look at what god does after he’s retired. It’s great all the way through, but that last paragraph still gives me chills.


Kate Fagan
Columnist at espnW and author of the forthcoming book from Little Brown, What Made Maddy Run.

After The Process: Meet Sam Hinkie 2.0 (Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated)

I love the insight, and ideas, in this catch-up with former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie. It’s really not a sports story at all, but a story about a guy in between, trying to figure out what’s next.

Gridiron Gangster: How a Vigilante Gambler Took Down an Alleged Crime Boss (David Amsden, Rolling Stone)

I love any sports story that somehow dovetails with mystery. And Rolling Stone lived at that intersection with this piece by David Amsden.

The Art of Letting Go (Mina Kimes, ESPN The Magazine)

I’m trying not to be an ESPN homer, but we have an incredible stable of writers. And if you’re not reading Mina Kimes, what are you doing with your life? Here she produces with a quirky story about … bat flipping in Korea.

Mamba Out (Ramona Shelburne, ESPN The Magazine)

Ramona Shelburne had the best year of any sportswriter. I’m just going to pick one of her pieces from this year, but I could easily have picked half a dozen. In April, Shelburne someone managed to put out the definitive piece on an athlete, Kobe Bryant, who has been under the microscope for two decades.


Barry Petchesky
Deputy Editor at Deadspin

The Best African American Figure Skater in History is Now Bankrupt and Living in a Trailer (Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post)

A redemption story is difficult to write without slipping into cliché and trope, but a downfall story is an even greater challenge. This feature on Debi Thomas matter-of-factly handles her comedown from Olympic glory to poverty, professional failure, and mental illness without overplaying the pathos, because real life is dramatic enough, and without trying to crowbar in any greater meaning, because real life needs no narrative. Terrence McCoy lets Thomas tell her own story, supplemented and often contradicted by the factual record, and if there’s any hope to be found here, it’s that she’s allowed to appear happy. This story is never mocking, but never unquestioning either: McCoy remains at an arm’s reach that doesn’t insult his subject or his readers. Because this is not the second act of a play, and there is no reason to bet on a redemption.

Why Are So Many BASE Jumpers Dying? (Andrew Bisharat, National Geographic)

Despite an unfortunate headline, Andrew Bisharat’s story doesn’t pretend to offer a concrete answer to a question with so many variables. Instead, by coming it at from every conceivable angle, he provides readers a double service: He gives a thorough overview of the world of the increasingly less obscure sport of wingsuiting, and he sheds light on the internal and external pressures that are pushing jumpers further than many of them are prepared to go. Explanatory enough for an uninitated reader yet wonky enough for an enthusiast, this is less an investigation into a recent spike in deaths than it is a comprehensive portrait of a niche sport trying to figure out where it’s going next.


Stephen Tignor
A senior writer at Tennis Magazine and Tennis.com, and the author of High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry.

Too Fast to Be Female (Ruth Padawer, The New York Times Magazine)

Padawer’s piece, which was written during the lead-up to the Summer Olympics in Rio, lucidly recounts the ever-confusing and less-than-glorious history of sex testing in athletics. While I write about sports for a living, this was a subject that I knew little about. At the same time, it spoke to larger current issues surrpunding the complexity of gender differences, and our evolving attitudes toward them. What exactly divides men from women? What, if anything is essential, to either? Why is male excellence in athletics celebrated while female excellence is suspect? I came away from the article with a new perspective on all of these topics, and I’m guessing most readers would as well.


Don Van Natta, Jr.
Senior writer at ESPN.

The Secret Life of Tiger Woods (Wright Thompson, ESPN The Magazine)

Tiger Woods’ spectacular professional and personal crack-up remains one of American sports’ most confounding mysteries. In this ambitious investigation of its myriad causes, ESPN’s Wright Thompson begins with the May 3, 2006 death of Earl Woods, Tiger’s best friend, life coach, mentor and father. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Tiger has carried his Dad’s death with him every day across a deeply disappointing decade.

What most impresses me about this magnificent portrait is that Tiger declined to speak with Thompson, a colleague and friend, or cooperate in any way with this project. But that didn’t matter. Thompson reveals the costs of Tiger’s obsession with the Navy SEALS, his pursuit, often awkwardly, of affairs with women and his profound feelings of loss and longing at the age of 40. And then there’s Michael Jordan’s assessment of Tiger’s chances for future greatness and happiness that’s so harsh you’ll likely need to read it twice.

Most of all, this is a master class in how we writers, with revelatory insights borne from relentless reporting, can still figure out a subject who wants nothing to do with us.

After the Process: Meet Sam Hinkie 2.0 (Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated)

“This story is about what happens after,” writes Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated. “What happens when you’re 38 years old and have already blown up a franchise and become both cult hero and cautionary tale. What do you do next?”

Good question. And Ballard manages to answer it, despite former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie’s reluctance, initially, to meet with him, followed by Hinkie’s stubborn attempt to reveal only what he wants to reveal. This story isn’t just a compulsively readable portrait of Hinkie’s bid to become someone else; it’s also a fascinating narrative of a man who declares his own hatred for narratives while resisting a writer’s attempt to build one about him. Thanks to Ballard’s exquisite story-telling, Hinkie, who was fired from his dream job eight months ago, helps us better appreciate the tricky process of reinvention. From beginning to end, it’s a story to marvel at—and, man, what a kicker.


Sari Botton
Writer, contributing editor to Longreads, editorial director of the non-profit TMI Project, and owner of Kingston Writers’ Studio.

Vertical Descent: Adventures in Synchronized Swimming (Elisabeth Donnelly, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Elisabeth Donnelly takes a look at the unique world of synchronized swimming. It’s an interesting time for the sport, as it’s just beginning to recognize men, like Bill May, one of the best in the world. Men aren’t allowed to compete in the sport at the Olympics–something many are hoping will change now that the Fédération Internationale de Natation, the official governing body for water sports throughout the world, has allowed for mixed duet competitions.


See more from our Best of 2016 series


from Longreads https://blog.longreads.com/2016/12/16/longreads-best-of-2016-sports-writing/

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