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Halberstam elevates sports to lit in new book

"Everything They Had" (Hyperion, 448 pages, $24.95), by David Halberstam: even if you have no interest in sports you can enjoy Halberstam's graceful writing about them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Everything They Had” (Hyperion, 448 pages, $24.95), by David Halberstam: even if you have no interest in sports you can enjoy Halberstam’s graceful writing about them.

Halberstam, who was killed in a car crash last year at age 73, won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1964 for his coverage of the Viet Nam war, and was nominated as a finalist this year in the history category for “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.”

He elevated any subject he tackled—war, politics, history and sports—with his eloquence and ability to find what was not obvious.

No one was better at combining narrative storytelling with reporting. His books read like good novels. Who else could have made it impossible to put down a book on a baseball team from decades past or a group of rowers trying to make the 1984 Olympic squad?

He works that magic in “Everything They Had,” a compilation of articles he wrote for other publications.

Halberstam covers the expected, such as baseball, football and basketball, and the esoteric—fishing, fencing, fitness—and why people are interested in sports beyond the betting line.

In the “Sports as a Window of Social Change,” he talks about his dual roles as serious writer and sports writer, saying that although the worlds rarely connect, “sports has been an excellent window through which to monitor changes in the rest of society. ...”

He also sees sports as a way the nation has bolstered a short history and ongoing search for an American culture.

In “Baseball and the National Mythology,” he points out that “Washington is not the ideal spot for Camelot, and our politics are more given to venality, drudgery, boredom and frustration than to beautiful people and soaring ideas, so it is not surprising that we turn to sports for our myths.”

In writing about Michael Jordan at the peak of his career, Halberstam watches as he handles a crowd waiting for him to leave a hotel and board the Chicago Bulls bus. He describers Jordan as being in “Michael Mode,” smiling, signing autographs and moving quickly through the sea of loving fans.

“I have not seen fame like this in almost 30 years,” Halberstam writes, comparing Jordan to Elvis Presley, John Kennedy and Mick Jagger.

Then Halberstam goes on to point out that almost 45 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league sports, Jordan became one of only two black American athletes (the other was Magic Johnson) who had become true crossover heroes, beloved by both black and white fans.

“Everything They Had” is a book to savor and to which to frequently return.