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Sporting what-ifs - ‘Upon Further Review’

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Sports fandom is a funny thing. Not only do we love talking about what happened in a given game or season or career, but we also love asking questions about all those things. Specifically … what if? What if something changed fundamentally about the games that we love? And what if those changes resulted in more changes and those changes led to still more changes and so on?

That’s the guiding force behind “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History” (Twelve Books, $28). Assembled and curated by Mike Pesca, this collection of essays takes a look at what might have happened if certain aspects of the sports world had played out differently. Some of them address the topic at hand with scholarly seriousness, while others work with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but all of them are engaging looks at diverging potential paths through sports history.

Bear in mind, these aren’t necessarily pieces about merely changing outcomes of specific games; the reality is that most individual contests (even championships) don’t matter in the grander scheme. A different victor would rarely have the sort of broad impact that Pesca wanted these essays to explore.

And broad impact is what we get. Across these 31 essays – written by all manner of experts and luminaries – we’re granted an opportunity to witness some compelling alternate histories play out.

The very first essay sets a serious tone. We hit the ground running with Leigh Montville, who writes about the possible repercussions of Muhammad Ali receiving his draft deferment. Instead of a cultural icon, perhaps Ali goes on to simply be a great boxer. Yes, he wouldn’t have had those lost years of his prime, which could have resulted in a more impressive record. But Ali’s struggles were what made him into such a giant societal figure. He’s a top-notch fighter, not a legend.

Another fascinating what-if comes from Shira Springer, who extrapolates what might have been if the United States had ultimately boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympics on both individual and societal levels. Still another – written by Mary Pilon – wonders about a world where Title IX never was.

There are a couple of essays that discuss potential reinventions of football – one discussing how things might have changed if the game had been changed earlier, another about if the game was created today. Baseball is well-represented as well. A couple of favorite writers of mine – Ben Lindbergh and Will Leitch – penned essays; Lindbergh’s was about MLB beginning steroid testing in 1991, while Leitch’s wondered what baseball would be like if played just one day a week.

While individual contests aren’t a focus, there are a couple of what-ifs along those lines as well. What if Bucky Dent hadn’t hit that homer in 1978? What if Tom Brady never took over for Drew Bledsoe? What happens to the merger if the Jets lose Super Bowl III? What if Team USA hadn’t won the 1999 Women’s World Cup? What if Buster Douglas hadn’t defeated Mike Tyson? What if Billie Jean King hadn’t beaten Bobby Riggs?

And then there are the straight-up goofy ones. Noted sports weirdo Jon Bois has a great piece about the basketball being bigger than the rim. There’s a fun and funny alternate history revolving around the Olympics never dropping Tug of War. There’s a story about the 2017 Golden State Warriors time-traveling to play the NBA’s great teams and a great one where Game 7 of the 2016 World Series turns into every sports movie ever made.

Speaking of basketball, there’s a great series of injury what-ifs. The best of them are probably Bob Ryan’s musings on a healthy-kneed Bill Walton and Claude Johnson’s deep dive into how fixing a single errant pass in the late 1940s could have completely altered the NBA landscape.

And those are just some of the what-ifs at play.

“Upon Further Review” captures the sense of inquiry that comes with being a sports fan. Sports impacts society to a much greater degree than many people realize; some of these essays illustrate that reality beautifully. Others are wonkier, focusing more on how changes might affect the sports themselves. Still others are gleefully absurd, recognizing the inherent irrationality of sports fandom while still celebrating it.

It's a collection of top-tier writing talent here, covering a wide array of subjects. Even the most casual sports fan will find essays that engage and excite. Football, basketball, baseball – they are certainly the sports that receive the most attention. But hockey, boxing, soccer and the Olympics are represented. Even horse racing and chess get their due. It’s a broad swath of sports fandom being addressed.

“Upon Further Review” is a smart, thoughtful book. Every one of these 30-plus essays is worth a look; every reader will likely find themselves drawn to a different favorite, but they all have something meaningful to offer – even if it’s just a laugh. Sports are a vital component of our cultural fabric; it’s a lot of fun to wonder at the different ways those threads might have been woven together.


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