What follows, in no particular order, is my best work from the past year. But first, some thank-yous:
Larry Burke at Sports on Earth, for letting me explore. Elizabeth Hudson at Our State, for good ideas and enthusiasm. Monte Burke at Forbes, for reaching out. Paige Williams at Nieman Storyboard, for shining a light. Roland Wilkerson and Gary Schwab at the Charlotte Observer, for saving me a guest room. Jena Janovy and Jay Lovinger at ESPN, for opening the door.
Thank you, also, to all of you who read my stories and passed along kind and thoughtful words. Thanks to family and friends. And thanks most of all to Alix Felsing, not only the love of my life but a damn good coach, in writing and everything else.
Even when athletes seek out the camera and are in our faces all the time, it’s hard to say we know them. Sometimes beneath the surface is just more surface. But we really don’t know Tim Duncan. He keeps his life off the court private. He turns down most endorsements. He declines soul-searching interviews. The vast majority of what we know about him, we know from watching him play basketball. More than any other modern athlete, Tim Duncan is what he does.
No NFL player — no pro athlete of any kind — had come back from three ACL tears on the same knee. There was no point in thinking about it.
Then he thought about it.
He thought about all he had gone through that everyone knew about. He thought about the one thing almost nobody knew about.
The next morning, he showed up at Panthers practice. And he got ready to start over again.
In an hour or so, here in Tennessee, they will demolish Arkansas State 4 games to 1 to win the Music City Classic. Just after the trophy ceremony, UMES bowler Megan Buja smiles and touches her nose. The other players frantically do the same. It turns out this is like calling shotgun in reverse. Last one to touch her nose has to pack the crystal bowling pin in her luggage. Coach Frahm loses.
I’ve gone to bed a thousand times – ten thousand times – believing I would start getting in shape the next morning. Sometimes I hang in there for a while. I’ve always backslid. There are a lot of reasons. Here’s the one that makes me sound a little crazy.
I worry that when I lose all this weight, I’ll also lose some essential part of myself. I worry about the good parts going with the bad parts.
Most people who know wrestling consider it one of the best matches of all time. It wasn’t the sweaty ballet you normally see in a great wrestling match. There were no graceful moves or daring stunts. There was just the dark drama of two guys full of hate beating the hell out of each other. The I Quit match is great because, after a while, it felt real.
“You know what?” George says, dealing the cards, never looking up. “I had that same situation one time. Except it wasn’t for 50 bucks like you guys are playing for. It was for $600,000.”
My first drive at Augusta National went maybe 200 yards into the right rough. It did not bonk off the pro shop, hit a tree, kill a squirrel or get lost in the woods. This is how I define a successful golf shot.
In Atlanta, many people define their lives by the Perimeter, the I-285 loop that circles the city. You hear people talk about Inside the Perimeter or Outside the Perimeter as separate countries. Part of that is racial, but it’s also cultural and philosophical and a bunch of other -al words. Outside the Perimeter is a sea of Home Depots and brick houses with bonus rooms. Inside the Perimeter is where you find organic Thai food and you might have more than the average number of piercings. I know people Outside the Perimeter who never go Inside the Perimeter except for sports. Now the Braves are moving Outside the Perimeter. That’s a huge cultural shift.
So it turns out the narrator is sort of a bad guy, right? He just murdered another man in a jealous rage. But by now, because of his love for Felina, you care about him even if you hate what he’s done. Empathy for your subject is essential. Your main characters don’t have to be heroes. But you have to see the humanity in them somewhere. Sound familiar, Walter White fans?
That’s what makes stories matter: when you read or watch or hear a story about a total stranger, in a completely different world, and you recognize that story as your own.