Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Are you on a team?

Playing on a team this fall? Check out these sporty reads!
Go For the Goal: A Champion's Guide To Winning In Soccer And Life by Mia Hamm
Summary: Go for the Goal is not only the inspiring story of how a tiny suburban sprite became a global terror with a ball (and the world) at her feet--it's also a step-by-step or dribble-by-dribble guide for any kid with the all-American dream of making the team and becoming a champion.
Mia Hamm, star of the U.S. National Soccer Team, Olympic Gold Medalist, World Cup champion, and five-time National Player of the Year, has a simple take on her talents that also explains her success: "Many people say I'm the best women's soccer player in the world. I don't think so. And because of that, someday I just might be." That's what's so appealing about Hamm as a role model, and it's the inspirational message at the heart of her autobiography. But Goal is only in part about herself--"There is no me in Mia," she suggests. Sure, she tells the story of the Army brat who rose to international stardom, but her book is really a pep talk and soccer instructional aimed at the hearts of the countless young women hoping to fill her enormous cleats. Mixing anecdote and opinion--she insists Kristine Lilly is the best player in the world, period--with lots of solid coaching and practical advice, Hamm breaks the game down into its essential skill components (trapping, passing, dribbling, shooting, heading, goaltending) and then addresses both the mental and physical aspects of the game in prose that talks up--not down--to her target readers. Photos (some to teach, some clearly to wow), diagrams (x's and o's of drills and plays), and tips from her teammates (Michelle Akers says, "There is a difference between a finisher and shooter.... The players who score tons of goals are the ones who can not only shoot but finish with deadly accuracy") help her cover the field, and Hamm scores additional points with the same contagious spirit she demonstrates every time she puts on her uniform.

Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four by John Feinstein
Summary: An in-depth portrait of the NCAA Final Four competition is presented from the perspectives of schools, coaches, and players who have made it to college basketball's final weekend, in a collection of dramatic and inspiring stories that also includes accounts by officials, referees, and scouts.
For sports-challenged individuals, the Final Four is the culmination of the NCAA men's college basketball season and the number-two American sports event, trailing only the Super Bowl. The four best teams from an initial field of 64 meet on semifinal Saturday to decide the participants in Monday's championship final. Feinstein, arguably the best book-length sports journalist working today, employs the 2005 weekend as the catalyst to discuss the history of the event, the key people, and, most significantly, the effect that involvement in the Final Four has had on participants' lives. The book is centered almost exclusively on the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East Conference. Feinstein's jingoism translates to lots of Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, and Syracuse, with scant attention to the rest of the country with the exception of UCLA and coach John Wooden. That caveat aside, this is a terrific book. Feinstein goes behind the scenes to examine such matters as the often-controversial selection marathon, and the sometimes-petty rivalries between coaches. The anecdotes are entertaining, and the insights into the tournament's logistics fascinating, but what will linger most are the remembrances of players, especially those who ended up on the losing side. The best books take us to places we've never been and let us feel what life there is like. Welcome to the Final Four, courtesy of John Feinstein.

Counting Coup : A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry Colton
Summary: Profiles a Montana high-school girls' basketball team--made up of Crow Indian and white girls from a rural town--that carries on its shoulders the dreams and hopes of a Native American tribe during their winning season.
Review: Colton arrived in Crow, Mont., ready to write a book about a season of boy's high school basketball in the Crow Indian community. But when he saw graceful Sharon Laforge shooting hoops, he was drawn to her athleticism and fascinated by the dichotomy between her on-court focus and her off-court distractedness. To get closer to Laforge, Colton tracks her senior year on the Lady Bulldogs, from the first practice through tournament play. He rides the team bus, assists at practice, wins a spot as an "honorary seventeen-year-old girl," and is eventually adopted into the tribe by Laforge's family. In Laforge, Colton finds a young woman in distress; as she attempts to fulfill her own and her family's hopes, she struggles with the uglier legacies of her community: alcoholism, domestic abuse, abandonment, shortsighted tribal politics, fierce racism and misogyny. In search of a happy ending, Colton follows as Laforge sticks it out with her abusive boyfriend, raises two boys and struggles toward her high school and college degrees. To his credit, Colton effectively employs his position as an outsider to explore the group's culture, and his long-term perspective allows him to convey the drive Laforge needs to survive. However, by centering his focus on one person, he misses opportunities to reflect on larger questions. (In particular, he seems unaware of Ian Frazier's writing about Sharon Big Crow, a basketball star and hopeful who juggled similar pressures on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota.) Nonetheless, Colton's love of basketball and caring insights deliver a sad but ultimately hopeful sort of Hoop Dreams, complete with the struggle for maturity, a community's collective dream and the athletic grace that can momentarily hold the world at bay.

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