Tag Archives: sports


Ron’s #34: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’m not even a real runner. My friend recommended this book to me two years ago, and told me that it was a story of a tribe of excellent runners in Mexico. I thought it sounded interesting, but never rushed to read it. When I was in the States this summer, Born to Run came up again and again in airports, bookstores, and my conversations. I thought it was time to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

My friend was right that there is a tribe of super-runners in the book, but that is far from the whole story. The frame story of the book is the author’s experience with runner. The book begins with his visits to several doctors to find treatment for his many running injuries. He is told many times that running is bad for us, and that we all are injured. His only solution, he was told, is to quit running or get a few cortisone shots to relieve the pain. McDougall was not ready to give up on his sport, so he began a search to run better.

Throughout the book we meet the Tarahumara runners from Mexico, a cast of characters involved in ultra-running (any race more than a regular 26.2-mile run, usually 50 to 100 miles), and the strange, elusive Caballo Blanco, a white man from Colorado who lives among the Tarahumara. Much of the story is the background on the runners: Barefoot Ted is a character too wildly obnoxious to be a real man; Billy and Jen the surfer/runners, and Scott Carrier, the vegetarian super-runner from Seattle. Caballo attempts to bring all of these superathletes together for a 50-mile race in Tarahumara country.

Born to Run is even more than a fascinating story of an impossible race with superheroes. As McDougall continues to find out how to run better, he offers a history of running, running shoes, and the Nike marketing machine. Along the way, he preaches on the benefits of barefoot running, and how modern running shoes actually cause us injury. You’ve no doubtedly have seen those silly Vibram Five Finger shoes. Those skyrocketed in popularity in response of this book. Around where I live, people wear them seemingly as a fashion statement (a poor one at that!). However, this book made an excellent case for barefoot running, and I’ve been looking online for a pair.

McDougall offers us a book that defies to be labeled as one type of book. It’s part biography, auto-biography, magazine reporting, science journal, sport history, and man-vs-nature story. He does all of these well.

Do yourself a favor and read this book, regardless if you like running or not. Just try to leave your Five Fingers in the closet unless you are running.


Jim’s #19: Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz & Jon Wertheim

I got the idea for this book from Mark’s previous post on it.  I liked it for all the reasons he liked it.  Sports is often defined by statistics.  We determine who goes to the Hall of Fame in the various sports with objective, measurable data playing a huge role.  As a huge sports fan, I know a lot of the cliches that surround our favorite past-times and the unexplainable but undeniable forces that go along with it as well (like home-field advantage, momentum, or the curse of the Cubs).  Turns out that none of these items are all that unexplainable after all.

And that’s what was so interesting about this book.  I felt like a lot of what I knew about sports was turned on its ear.  I’m now going to have to fight spouting facts to other sports fans when they start declaring that Dwight Howard is a more effective shot blocker than Tim Duncan.

I was an altogether enjoyable book to read as a sports fan.  I even found myself laugh out loud at Barnes and Nobles when I read that the attendance at Wrigley Field is affected more by beer prices than it is by the Cubs’ winning percentage.  The book also confirmed my strategy at Black Jack, though I’m not ready to bet our house downpayment on it :)


Mark’s #8 – Scorecasting:The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim (288 pages)

Scorecasting is a book that I think was written for somebody just like me. I love sports.  I have a degree in economics.  I’ve been a basketball coach. As a pastor, I love studying human behavior and psychology.  Mix all those things together, and you get this book.

Throughout the book, the authors look at many assumptions we make about sports, and then tests those assumptions against the statistical evidence.  For example, they did find that, as many of sports fans have believed, referees tend to ‘swallow their whistles in late game situations.  The reason is because, psychologically, referees don’t want to be the ones who determine the outcome of games.   Other chapters address issues such as why coaches make decisions that reduce their team’s chances to win (i.e., loss aversion),  that offense wins championships too, why a Tim Duncan blocked shot is more valuable than a Dwight Howard blocked shot, why a superstar on your team is better than a well balanced team, what’s behind the home field advantage (hint: it’s the refs), and much more.

If you like to analyze the why and how of sports, I think you would enjoy this fun read.


Ron’s #3: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

For good reason, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand landed on many Best of the Year lists in 2010, including on Mark’s. I’m not sure I would have picked this up otherwise; I like World War II books as much as the next guy (if the next guy in question also likes World War II books), but this is focused on one man. And it’s 500 pages. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to commit.

I’m so glad that I did. After a few pages, I knew that I would love this book. Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, a hooligan-turned-Olympic runner-turned-pilot-turned-prisoner of war-turned- unbroken and hopeful man. That’s a pretty good one-sentence summary of the book, just in case the publisher is looking for a subtitle for the forthcoming paperback version. I liked Louie instantly; he was a troublemaker tough-guy, but found his escape from his California town by running. Introduced to the sport by his brother, Louie runs in high school, college, and then in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he met Adolph Hitler.

His life changed soon after as the story follows Louie into his new career as an AAC bombardier, until he crashes in the Pacific. Louie and two others survive at sea for over forty days without provisions (with a troubling scene about a lice infestation in his newly grown beard). If the story ended here, it would be a powerful journey. However, it does not. Much of the book is his horrid treatment in several prisoner of war camps in Japan. Just when I thought all the evil happened to Louie, there is a new chapter of horror.

The title is perfect to describe Zamperini. This man personifies courage, resilience, and hope in ways I have never seen. There were times I gasped aloud to read his ordeals. The squalor and suffering only provide a backdrop to allow Louie’s courage and character to shine brightly.

I hesitate to say to much to avoid taking away the suspense as you read it, but allow me to say that Louie continues to sink lower into despondency and hopeless until God intervenes. In literature, it’s called deux ex machina; in life, it is called redemption.

This book also has much to say about the many Japanese atrocities in World War II, whether it is in prison camps, Pearl Harbor, or Nanking:

The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED. What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.

This gives a more complete picture of the behavior and the attitudes of Japan, and why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were last resorts. Japan was on par of the atrocities committed by Hitler and Germany, and the two countries had more in common during treatment of people during the war than they differed. This concept certainly is not in our modern psyche. It is accepted (and often applauded) to denigrate Germany, but it is labeled as racist if we criticize Japan.

In addition to the highlighting of a great man and as a history lesson, Unbroken is simply excellent prose. Hillenbrand has a poetic style of writing even the cruelest events.


He felt as if he would faint, but it wasn’t from the exertion. It was from the realization of what he was.

One engine, for reasons known only to the plane, was thirstier than the others, so the gauges had to be watched constantly

There was one perk to life in the barracks. The bathroom was plastered in girlie pinups, a Sistine Chapel of pornography.

But it was good to feel oriented, to know that they were drifting toward land somewhere out there, on the far side of the earth’s tilt.

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.

Whether or not you are a fan of war accounts, go read this book. Like me, you will be mesmerized with Louie Zamperini for good reason. He is a man who stands above other men, and his story demands to be told. The more like Zamperini we are, the better the world would be.


Mark’s #40 – When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson (368 pages)

If you’re a fan of the NBA (as I am), then this would be a good book to read for you to learn how and why the NBA is so popular today.  If you’re a fan of either the Lakers (as I am) or Celtics, then this is a must read.

When the Game Was Ours traces the rise of two of the greatest players in NBA history – Bird and Magic.  Though their personalities were different, (with Magic being the outspoken man with the smile that fills a room, and Bird being the introverted, beer drinking, poor kid from French Lick, Indiana) both men shared a passion and dedication for the game of basketball that may be only matched by two other great NBA players in history – Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant.

These two rivals began squaring off and pushing one another to greatness from their early days in College. In 1979 they met in the NCAA championship game, where Magic got the best of Bird and a championship for his Michigan State team.   The following year, both men went to the NBA.

This book was not only a biography of these two men, it was also a personal journey down memory lane for me.  As a child of the 80′s (born in 1975), my earliest memories of basketball revolve around loving the lakers and hating the celtics.  As games and events were retold, I found myself reaching back into my own childhood memories of these events

By the end of the 80′s, Magic Johnson would win five NBA Championships to Bird’s three NBA Championships (yes! Lakers!).

Beyond the games, shots made and missed, and the epic battles, this book was a great inside look at the men and their lives.   I was once again impressed with their competitive spirit, passion, and commitment to excellence that is so rare today, save Kobe of course.  These men hated losing, and thus they despised, yet respected their biggest rival.

Larry and Magic are also almost exclusively responsible for resurrecting the NBA, which was suffering from low ratings and a bad public image before their arrival.

The other thing that is perhaps most impressive about both men is their ability to dominate and control the game while only taking 8-10 shots – something Jordan could never do.  Larry and Magic were the consummate team players.  If it had not been for their rivalry, they each could have one 7-8 championships (Jordan had no real rival in the 90′s)

Perhaps the most engaging part of the book was the detailing of Magic’s HIV virus, it’s impact on him, the game and really the world.  Magic has been a great catalyst in the world to bring about HIV education and public knowledge.  Unfortunately for him, and for the Lakers, when he reported this to the world, the ignorance of the other players, and even his teammates forced him out of the game he loved.  A year later he tried to make a comback, but during a preseason game he got scratched on his arm and started bleeding.  The crowd went silent, and the opposing team did not want to go back on the court. Saddened, Johnson was forced to retire again… Five years later he made one more comeback at the age of 35…Unfortunately, his younger attention hungry teammates did not embrace him well… he played only a dozen games before the end of the season before he retired.

I believe Magic Johnson is the best and most complete basketball player of all time… and this book only helped to confirm that conviction.

Let me conclude with just one stat line from one game:

Game  6 1980 Finals versus the 76′rs (as a rookie filling in at center for the injured Kareem Abdul Jabbar):  45 points, 15 Rebounds, and 7 Assists.

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