Monday, June 6, 2011

Fathers, Sons, and the Art of Sport


Fathers and sons have long bonded over sports.  I remember playing catch with my dad for hours.  Sure, I never fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional ballplayer, but a part-time blogger is almost as good, right?  So, with Father’s Day coming up, several sports memoirs have hit the rack in recent weeks.  No one should act surprised.

The Happiness of Pursuit: A Father's Courage, a Son's Love and Life's Steepest ClimbDavis Phinney says he’s won more professional cycling titles than any other American.  But that helped not one whit when, at only forty, the first Parkinson’s tremors halted his post-professional entrepreneurial career.  The Happiness of Pursuit details, in an unusual convergent fashion, the career that led him to the top, and the sources of strength guiding his decline.

Phinney’s father, an engineer whom he calls Damon, resisted his son’s career in “mere” athletics—until young Davis proved he had the grit to outpace seasoned professionals on road and track.  But Phinney didn’t realise how much he learned from his father until cancer started eating Damon’s body.  Damon’s refusal to let cancer run him is an inspiring tale in its own right.

But determination runs in the family.  Just as Phinney’s body crashed, his son Taylor discovered he, too, had meteoric cycling talent.  Phinney might have let the disease steal his ability to walk, talk, and care for himself; but his son needed him.  So he dug deep, found the humor and grace to keep fighting, and sat in the stands when Taylor raced in the Beijing Olympics.

You or I might feel resentful, losing our bodies to a disease that usually afflicts men two decades Phinney’s senior.  But he unlocks the passion and grace to keep living.  Now an advocate for Parkinson’s victims, he’d be a hero even if he hadn’t raced in the Los Angeles Olympics.

Basketball Junkie: A MemoirChris Herren fell faster and harder than Phinney, and worked even harder to pick himself up.  Herren was only sixteen when Bill Reynolds’ Fall River Dreams made him a celebrity, hastening his decline into self-destruction.  Basketball Junkie describes how far Herren fell, and how he found spine enough to reclaim his life.

When the mills left Fall River, Massachusetts, only the high school basketball team unified the community.  Chris Herren scored over 2,000 points in his high school career, and was courted by America’s best universities.  But he never wanted to play; his father and community chose basketball for him.  So he fled his success by drinking and drugging his body into submission.

From high school, through college, the NBA, and a steady decline into minor league ignominy, Herren used drugs to assert his autonomy against a succession of dictatorial father figures.  Jerry Tarkanian and Pat Riley became Herren’s appointed “bad fathers.”  And when Herren married and started a family young, his drugs punished his life’s final father figure: himself.

Herren’s writing style runs rocky—by his own admission, he was an indifferent student.  But if dedicated readers persevere through the occasionally distracting English, Herren tells a sober, affecting story of struggle.  And more important, he provides hope that, although a young man begins a spiral of self-destruction, he can still reclaim control and rejoin the human race.

Driving Lessons: A Father, A Son, and the Healing Power of GolfSteve Friedman didn’t overcome disease or drugs.  He just found himself facing fifty, looking in the mirror, and realizing he needed to better understand the man he’d come to resemble: his father.  Driving Lessons describes Friedman getting to know his father through golf, the one skill his dad most wanted to teach, and Friedman most dreaded to learn.

Come on, men, you know it: we hope to be half the man Pop was, even as we fear living his faults and repeating his errors.  No matter the age, nobody makes a man feel ten feet tall, or smaller than a bug, like his father.  Friedman feels both as his dad teaches him to chip from the green.  A simple three-day golf holiday walks Friedman down a highly conflicted memory lane: joys and disappointments, hope and disappointment.  His parents’ love, and his parents’ divorce.

In a personal e-mail, Friedman told me that “Rodale publishing asked me expand a magazine article I had written for Travel & Leisure Golf about seven years ago,” and you can tell.  Know before buying that this is a very short book for its price.  But it’s also compact and tightly knit, telling an engaging story in a voice any grown son will immediately recognize.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call my dad.  We have some important catch to play.

Also in this review: Bill Reynolds, Fall River Dreams.

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