What does great sportswriting look like in 2016? Meet the man who decides.
Rick Telander admits he has an addiction.
"I read three to four hours each day," Telander said. "Sometimes as much as eight hours. I can’t stop myself. I am addicted to the English language."
Naturally, Telander jumped at the opportunity to be the editor of "The Best American Sports Writing: 2016." The annual anthology, overseen by series editor Glenn Stout, should be a must-read for every sports journalist — and for people who simply love to devour quality writing. To borrow from Telander, this book is addictive.
Telander’s work has been represented in several of these volumes through the years. His distinguished career included a long run at Sports Illustrated before becoming a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. His book, "Heaven is a Playground," documenting the culture of street ball in New York in mid ‘70s, ranks among the all-time best in sports.
So yes, Telander knows a thing or 10,000 about putting together words. Yet even he admits to being blown away at the process of selecting 22 stories from the 100 or so candidates compiled by Stout.
"Every one of those 100 stories could be in the book," Telander said. "Someone could have edited this book and not picked any of the stories I did."
Indeed, Telander selected a rather eclectic group of stories. You won’t find any entries on Peyton Manning or LeBron James, and nothing on the Super Bowl or World Series. That’s never what these books have been about.
Instead, Telander chose pieces that "get to the essence of the human struggle."
"I wanted something where sports merely was a vehicle to tell these stories," Telander said.
There is a remarkable piece by Sam Knight of The New Yorker on the torment of the world’s best snooker (a form of pool) player. Telander couldn’t believe Stout found a first-person story in The Sun by a rower who does a brutal takedown of her over-the-top college coach. It is written under the pseudonym of Henley O’Brien.
"So gripping," Telander said.
Telander actually called Chris Wiewiora after reading his "Board in the Florida suburbs" story in The Atticus Review. The compelling piece documents how skateboarding helped give direction to his scattered young life.
"I felt like ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ where Holden Caulfield just wanted to talk to the authors," Telander said. "When I called him, he almost broke down. It’s a great thing to be able to embolden and encourage people who have a love for writing."
Of course, the book includes stories from the staples; Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine and The New York Times. Telander loved the ESPN Magazine story by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham; a highly detailed account of how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dealt with the New England Patriots’ issues with "Spygate" and "Deflategate."
"It was good old-fashioned gumshoe work, going to talk to people who don’t want to talk," Telander said. "Nobody wants to do that kind of work anymore."
"Best Sports Writing" wouldn’t be complete without an entry from Wright Thompson. His ESPN The Magazine story, "The greatest hitter who ever lived on," examines the relationship Claudia Williams had with her father, Ted Williams. Thompson practically puts the reader in her home with his detailed reporting and excellent writing.
Telander, who knew Thompson as a college student, says he is "the leader in longform sportswriting."
"When people were wondering how he got be with Michael Jordan on his 50th birthday, I said, 'You don’t know Wright,'" Telander said. "It’s like he’s a parasite with the way he embeds himself with a subject. His passion and intensity for what he’s doing, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything equal to it."
Telander, though, said all the writers in the book have a common thread; hard work and an ability to make their prose flow.
"These writers are so gifted," Telander said. "They make it look so easy, and it’s not easy."
Editing the book proved to be an inspiration for Telander. Now in the twilight of his career, he said the stories reminded him of what it was like to be "young and full of energy."
"All these stories took vitality, perseverance," Telander said. "They all had the sense of possibility."
Telander also is heartened to see longform journalism continue to thrive in Best Sports Writing. He worries that the younger generation is missing out in the 140-character landscape. He wishes more of them had the same addiction to reading that he does.
It isn’t just young people. Everyone should hear this sermon from Telander.
"If people live in the Twitter world, I feel sorry for you," Telander said. "You won’t live a fulfilled life if you don’t read (the types of stories in the book). There’s the beauty of pacing and a certain kind of art that can’t be done in 140 characters. Ask yourself, can’t you stop for 10-15-20 minutes to read? Not only to be entertained, but also use a part of the brain you don’t use on Twitter."
"It’s like we’re all constantly juggling balls. Well, put down the balls, sit in a chair and read. You will be fulfilled."