Thinkpiece Thursday: On Athletic Autobiographies

Over at Sports Illustrated, there’s an excerpt from Bobby Orr’s new autobiography, Orr: My Story. I haven’t read that book yet, so I’ll leave my thoughts on it for another day.* But it got me thinking about autobiographies of famous athletes and especially why so many of them, well, just aren’t that good. What gives?

*: A stray thought: did Orr decide to write the book after reading Stephen Brunt’s biography about him? As I remember, Orr didn’t want to participate in that book, but I can’t remember why.

The easy answer is something about confidence. Right now, I’m reading a book about the 90s Dallas Cowboys and just finished a chapter about Emmitt Smith. He started his career as a pretty humble man, claims Jeff Pearlman, but as his star rose and he catapulted to fame, his ego grew to the point where he routinely ignored fans and acted like a jackass. In other words: his confidence rose and grew into arrogance.

That happens to most athletes, who are as susceptible to the trappings of fame as anyone. And, as the easy answer would go, it’s why most athletes aren’t good at writing about themselves: they’re self-assured, brash and confident and not very interested in looking at themselves or their motivations. But there’s a couple flaws to this argument.

The first is that almost every athlete’s autobiography was actually written by someone else. Wilt Chamberlain’s first book (the underrated Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door) was more or less written by David Shaw; Shaquille O’Neal’s first book, the quickie cash-in Shaq Attack, was written by Jack McCallum, who’s since written some great books (related: my review of his 2012 book Dream Team). I can only think of a few athletes who’ve written their own books and generally, they’re actually pretty good.

Bill Bradley – Life on the Run

One that immediately comes to mind: Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run. Written a long time ago, back when he was more known for his basketball career, not his political career, it’s a first-hand account of the NBA at an interesting time, before the ABA expanded the talent pool dramatically and before drug scandals brought the league to it’s low point. The travel was gruelling, the money wasn’t anywhere like it is now and yet the appeal was the same. It’s a great read; it’s one of the best basketball books ever.

Another great one: Jim Bouton’s Ball FourFor years I’ve had a soft spot for this book and I’ve read it more than a few times. His is more of a diary than an autobiography, but I think it fits in here. It recounts just one season in the big leagues, where he bounced from the moribund Seattle Pilots to Houston. He writes about living the life of a big leaguer, an account as honest as it is hilarious and profane. He writes about “shooting beaver” with the Yankees, when players would scope out attractive women in the stands. He tells of a prank where a guy shoved popcorn in his foreskin. He writes about boozing, drug use and being bored a lot. It blew apart more myths than any sports book before it and even 40 years after it’s publication, it’s as readable as ever.

The Game – Ken Dryden

Finally, there’s what I consider the best sports autobiography ever: Ken Dryden’s The Game. It’s more or less about his final season as a goalie, but touches on other parts of his life and reflections on the game. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise hat Dryden wrote one of the great sports books, too. He was a man who did things differently than most athletes. He started his career with a hot streak in the 1971 playoffs, going 12-8 as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. He actually won the Conn Smythe Trophy the year before he named Rookie of the Year. Only a couple seasons later, he took a year off to clerk at a law firm and earn his degree. And after winning his sixth Stanley Cup ring in 1979, he walked away from hockey. In his concise, fluid prose, Dryden covers his unconventional career with an assuming modesty; he never comes across as brash or arrogant, although maybe a little stiff at times.

Like I said, I haven’t read Orr’s book yet, but I don’t really expect it to compare to these three. Still, based on the excerpt I did read, it seems better than your run-of-the-mill one, too. Hope the rest of the book holds up.


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