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I’m a sucker for sports history. It doesn’t even really matter the sport – I generally lean toward the Big Four, but honestly, any discussion of the athletic past will work. I have my sporting foci – baseball and football foremost among them – but as a general fan, I can derive joy from coverage of just about any athletic endeavor.

The moral to the story is simple: With the right pairing of subject matter and author, a work of sports nonfiction can really sing.

Longtime Boston sports journalist Leigh Montville is one of the best to ever do the gig, with a decades-long body of work covering some of the most iconic moments in American sports. His latest book is “Tall Men, Short Shorts – The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter” (Doubleday, $29), a look back at the series that would ultimately mark the ending of the lengthy Celtics NBA dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. A series that saw a certain bright young man – just 24 years of age and setting out on what would become an iconic career as an ink-stained wretch – crisscrossing the country as part of the now-legendary NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.

It’s also a wonderful bit of autobiographical writing, a reflection on the beginnings of a storied career. Those moments of memory and memoir are what elevate this book from what would be a perfectly adequate work of sports history into something more, a wry look back from someone who understands that the person he once was had a lot to learn.

Published in Sports

For many high schoolers, interscholastic athletics are a highlight of their young lives. The joy of competition intermingles with the many lessons that can be learned on the playing field – lessons of determination, of sportsmanship, of the value of hard work – and sports become an integral part of the overall school experience.

But those opportunities don’t always get extended equally.

“Changing the Game,” a documentary currently streaming on Hulu, takes a look at three individuals who are dealing with the struggles forced upon them due to their respective identities. These three young people are transgender, attempting to navigate high school sports in a landscape where different states have different rules and different attitudes about how (or even if) transgendered kids are allowed to compete.

The film, directed by Michael Barnett, follows these three athletes through their sporting journeys. Each of them is faced with prejudices regarding who they are and questions about the fairness of their presence, even as we see the support systems at work around them. It’s a thoughtful and well-executed piece, an at-times heartbreaking examination of the politicized chaos drummed up by fear and lack of understanding that also finds time to celebrate the victories of its subjects, both on and off the field.

Published in Sports

Like the vast majority of you, I’m looking forward to putting 2020 in the rearview mirror. Still, there are certain things that warrant looking back upon.

Every year, I make all sorts of sports predictions. And every year, I use this year-end edition of The Maine Edge to hold myself accountable for those predictions. It’s not quite as robust a collection as you’ve seen in the past, of course.

For instance, the CFL cancelled its entire season, so there was neither a season prediction nor a Grey Cup pick. And when MLB began its truncated season in late July, I held off on a preview, largely because I questioned whether the season would actually reach its conclusion.

Even so, we’ve got a few predictions that we can look back on. As usual, I got some right and some wrong – par for the course, really. We’re doing things a little differently this time through – I’m offering up my championship game/series predictions for examination first, followed by a look at my NFL season picks.

Published in Sports

We’re living in the age of the superteam in the NBA. While the league has always been star-driven, the necessity of those stars has never been more apparent. If you want to win a ring, you NEED at least two top-tier superstars. These days, assembling those dynamic duos or titanic trios involves players actively recruiting one another, with stars seeking out paths to play with other stars that they like and/or admire.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Two decades ago, we watched the most talented pairing in the league rise to dizzying dynastic heights even as they were engaged in an ongoing and off-putting internal fight.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) dives deep into the eight-year stretch – from 1996-2004 – where two of the greatest basketball players of not just their generation but of all time team up to bring a string of titles to the Los Angeles Lakers even as their own interpersonal antipathy rages and boils beneath the surface. All while a renowned and legendary coach largely removes himself from the fray, content to let it work itself out.

It is a magnificently and meticulously detailed work, one featuring deep-dive interviews with all manner of people connected to that tumultuous time in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s an unflinching and often unflattering portrait of the men who led L.A. to the top of the mountain; frankly, learning the extent of the chaos renders the championship victories all the more impressive.

Published in Sports

It’s hard to believe, considering the current state of things, but the 2020 NFL season is ready to kick off. In fact, by the time you read this, the first game – the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans on Sept. 10 – may have already taken place.

There’s no way of knowing how this season is going to play out. With the shadow of the coronavirus likely to loom large over the entire year, making predictions about outcomes is even more of a fool’s errand than usual.

Lucky for you, I am that fool.

I will make my usual predictions with regard to how I believe the season will play out. And as usual, I anticipate being wildly off-base with a significant percentage of these predictions. I have a long and storied history of middling picks, after all – why expect anything different this time around?

And so, here you have it – my monkey-dart-throwing attempt at prognostication. Ladies and gentlemen, your sure-to-be-inaccurate 2020 Maine Edge NFL Season Preview.

(y = division winner; x = wild card)

Published in Sports

They say that history is written by the victors. But so too are the victors most often the ones written into history.

That fact is even truer in the sporting realm than it is elsewhere. By its very nature, sport is concerned with winners and losers. And while those who win are celebrated and lauded in the years that follow, their victory burnished by the sheer volume of memory – what of those who fall short? What of those who reach the pinnacle, only to be stopped just short.

“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard” (Penguin, $17) is a collection of pieces devoted to looking at those who never quite reached the top of the mountain. Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas – both of whom also have work included within – this assemblage of essays spans more than a century of athletic near-misses.

All told, there are 22 pieces here, 14 of which are previously unpublished. Every one of them is devoted to exploring what it means to lose, to be beaten. The reasons behind their shortfalls vary – some are faced with legendary opposition, while others simply deal with a bad day or bad luck – but all of them find ways to reflect the impact of almost. Some of these stories are funny, while others are sad and still others inspire, but all of them together paint a portrait of the truth behind loss. It’s a compelling journey through the competitive landscape, with all manner of sport and athlete represented.

Published in Sports

The world of elite competitive sports is a fascinating one, studded with stars and fantastic feats. We watch and we marvel and we revel in the incredible athleticism that plays out on the fields and in the arenas that make up the grandest stage. We LOVE sports.

But there’s another side to that love affair – a side that can be unpleasant, harmful and, sometimes, utterly horrifying.

“Athlete A” – a documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, currently streaming on Netflix – tells a story that reveals just how dark the dark side of sports can get. It’s the story of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, in which team physician Dr. Larry Nassar took advantage of his position to abuse hundreds of girls over the course of decades – and in which the leadership of USA Gymnastics attempted to cover it all up. The film walks the viewer through the investigation, led by reporters at the Indianapolis Star, while also engaging with some of the first women to go public with their allegations of abuse.

Watching this film isn’t always easy – there are some gut-wrenching moments that will land hard no matter how much you already know of the story. But “Athlete A” is important filmmaking, a cinematic document of a story that forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror of our fandom. It’s a reminder that a win-at-all-costs mentality can be dangerous – because some costs are devastatingly, unconscionably high.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a sport of interlocking contradictions. It is a team sport built on a foundation of individual battles. It is rigidly structurally defined initially – three outs, nine innings, nine players – while also being utterly open-ended – there’s no clock and extra innings could technically extend to infinity. It is many things in one and one thing among many.

And so, obviously, the game makes for a wonderful framework in which to discuss Buddhism.

That discussion is at the center of Donald S. Lopez’s new book “Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings” (St. Martin’s Essentials, $19.99). Dr. Lopez is considered by many to be this country’s preeminent public Buddhism scholar, having published a number of books exploring Buddhist concepts in accessible ways. However, this latest offering might be the most accessible yet.

Lopez has been entangled with the study of Buddhism, first as a student and then as a professor, for half a century. However, his connection to baseball – specifically, his beloved New York Yankees – extends even long, all the way back to his childhood. By bringing his two passions together, Lopez is able to use each to build upon the other, creating a thoughtful and wryly funny book that entertains even as it enlightens.

Published in Livin'

Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with his new book “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

By walking us through the conscious and unconscious influences that impact how baseball works, Law gives us a new perspective on the intricacies of the sport – a perspective that matches the more data-driven and analytically-inclined model followed by 21st century practitioners of the game.

Published in Sports

Anyone who has been paying attention to baseball over the past half-decade is aware that the game has never seen this many home runs. Single-season records for homers has been broken and broken again, both by individual teams and by the league as a whole. More than ever before, the long ball has become the central part of the game.

There are a number of factors that enter into this. Analytically-inclined executives have made their way into positions of power in front offices all across the sport. Changes to the ball itself have undoubtedly played a significant part. Strikeouts no longer carry the stigma that they once did.

And then, there is the evolution of the swing itself.

It’s that last notion that Jared Diamond, national baseball writer for The Wall Street Journal, addresses in-depth with his new book “Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s a deep and broad exploration of those coaches on the fringes whose refusal to be bound by the status quo led to brand-new thinking about how we swing the bat, as well as the players who made (or remade) themselves into explosive hitters by accepting some unconventional wisdom and thinking outside the box.

Published in Sports
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