A Collection About Athletes, Loss, and Absent Parents
We hold up people who become famous for something (even if it’s just for being famous) as being better than us regular folk, and often the case can be made that those who reach the heights of their chosen profession and do so in the public eye deserve our acclaim. Often, we associate athletic gifts with character, success with contentment, and fame with happiness. But that’s not always the case. Indeed, it’s rare to read a profile about a happily content celebrity unless they’re selling something. The truth is that the people with God-given gifts are often themselves anything but gods.
Wright Thompson, a long-time sportswriter for ESPN: The Magazine, has collected his work and called it The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business. But an alternate title could be Fathers and Sons. The ways in which athletes either miss their parents when they’re no longer there, or how they fail their own children when they become parents themselves, acts as a running theme uniting the pieces, which Thompson acknowledges in his introduction. Not every piece involves issues of parentage, but the ones that resonate the most (Tiger Woods doing Navy SEAL training, Michael Jordan uncertain of his post-playing life as an owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, Dan Gable wondering what his obsession with college wrestling has cost him in terms of his relationship with his daughters) do.
With a great eye for detail and a remarkable awareness of his subjects’ moods, Thompson crafts these narratives of men who either tasted the glory of athletic success and found it not as nourishing as they thought it would be or who found their chance at glory slipping away with each successive year, until they were left uncertain of themselves and their place in the world. The uber-NBA coach Pat Riley, for instance, is one of the winningest in his sports’ history, yet the uncertainty of whether to stay in Miami as general manager or to engineer a return to Los Angeles eats away at his soul. Thompson notes that Riley had the option once to walk away on top after the second of the two championships the Heat won with LeBron, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh. He chose to return, however, like an addict unable to shake the habit.
Dan Gable’s story is truly horrific; someone murdered his teenage sister while he and his parents were away from the house. The repercussions of that tore apart his family and led him to pursue wrestling as atonement for grief and guilt. And the most compelling piece in The Cost Of These Dreams, and one of the longest, concerns Tiger Woods.
Long believed to be the most dominant figure in sports, much less golf, Woods struggled after the death of his beloved father to come to terms with that pain. He sought relief through affairs, prescription drugs, and intense training with the Navy SEALs, his father having been in Special Forces during Vietnam. He let his golf skills atrophy as he played soldier in the desert, further proof that all the success he found as the undisputed best golfer in the world gave him little comfort in the wake of an emotional loss. Thompson’s own highly personal tour of the Masters at Augusta, in the wake of his own father’s passing, further amplifies the golf and fatherhood theme.
From a mysterious boxer who’d be lost to history save for his one match with Muhammad Ali, to the turbulent tale of the Ole Miss football team’s undefeated season in 1962 amid the Civil Rights movement landing on its doorstep, to the sad story of a former college basketball player’s last days in the jungles of Brazil, Thompson pens stories about men who must struggle with their natural talent and with their personal demons.
Far from being a mere collection of previously published articles or a “rah-rah, go team” sort of sports book, The Cost of These Dreams is in the best tradition of writers like David Halberstam, who treated sports with the same gravity that he treated other aspects of American life. Wright Thompson shows that the pain is essential to the pleasure of victory, because the echo of defeat still resonates in what comes after the ticker-tape parades.
(Penguin, April 2, 2019)