The best books about sports are seldom just about sports. Instead, they tell stories about individuals who overcame enormous challenges to achieve primacy in an ultra-competitive, ultra-public setting.
Conflict reveals character, and sports is constant conflict.
Ever wonder where the word agony comes from?
It comes from the Greek word agon, meaning competition or contest.
If you’ve ever attended a close game or match, then you are in agony, just like the players.
That’s why we love sports.
I just read two sports memoirs and the parallels between those books are not hard to discern.
First is All In, by tennis legend Billie Jean King, and second is I Came As a Shadow, by legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson.
Billie Jean King grew up in suburban post-war Southern California and in a working-class family with little money for extras.
Hardly the sort of privileged upbringing we associate with tennis stars.
Instead, King tells the story of how she scrambled for every opportunity to improve her game and rise up in the rankings.
She didn’t go looking for social or political causes; those causes found her.
Specifically, she was outraged by the fact that women received only pennies on the dollar for winning competitions, compared with the men.
She also had to come with the growing awareness that she was gay at the time when being outed as a lesbian could easily have sunk her career.
The high-water mark of her story is the fabled match against former Wimbledon champion and outrageous male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, which put paid to the notion that women couldn’t compete on the highest stage with men.
John Thompson grew up in a working-class family in an all-Black neighborhood in Washington DC.
His Catholic nun instructors put him in the “baby row” of his elementary school class, giving him the message that he was stupid.
He was smart as hell; he just couldn’t read.
Thompson, like King, had to overcome a lack of money and opportunity to become successful at basketball, first as a player at Providence College, then as a backup with the Bill Russel-led mid 1960s Celtics, and then as a coach at Georgetown.
Although he would go on to coach Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson, the high-water mark of Thompson’s career was the NCAA finals in 1984.
Like King, Thompson became a trailblazer, an outspoken social critic, and a lightning rod inside and outside his sport.
These books aren’t about sets won or points made; they are profiles in courage and they remind us that hard-won gains only occur when courageous people step up.
King and Thompson, at first glance, have nothing in common: a petite white woman who doesn’t appear especially athletic, and a six-foot-ten Black man who did.
But don’t let the exteriors fool you.
Their hearts and souls are neatly matched.
Order both books and take a couple of journeys into the interior of two complex and fascinating human beings, a journey through a changing society where acceptance arrives but never easily or fully.
And yes, you’ll also get to read about sports.