When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play football. I craved it so much that when I would get taken to garage sales I realized one of the best ways I could find my fix of football was to cruise the used books. I began my understanding of the sport that made me feel alive through stories of players from before the Super Bowl. I would learn about athletes long past while my love for sports blossomed around the moments of my youth. Thinking of those days I decided to put together a list of books on black athletes that have inspired me in honor of Black History Month.
Half of my family is from New York, and I was raised with uncles that insisted I cheer for teams like the Yankees and Giants. Fortunately, for me, my youth was filled with the Giants teams of the Bill Parcells era which included players like Lawrence Taylor. A Hall of Famer, and generally considered to be the greatest defensive player of all time. LT was a force of will. He wore dangly earrings with his initials LT in a pattern that looked like lightning and he had lightning in his veins. He was also one of the athletes that began the conversation in earnest about mental health and drug addiction. I was such a fan that when his book “LT living on the edge” came out I begged my parents to buy it, and I read it over and over until the cover fell off. The stories he told of his youth were the first time I saw myself in a professional athlete. Over time LT has been the subject of other books that you can also get on Amazon. If you can find "LT Living On The Edge" in your local used bookstore, I highly recommend it, but "Once A Giant" is a great alternative.
There’s something about the spectacle of the Olympics. Knowing the whole world is watching. Especially in sprint events when the focus will be narrowed to just a few seconds I remember the power and grace of Gail Devers, running and hurdling. She made such an impression on me that I have worked her into one of the sayings that I use anytime I’m struggling, “if they hadn’t put so many hurdles in front of her, Gail Devers wouldn’t have won all those gold medals.” A total force of nature, this Olympic gold medalist has been the subject of multiple so you can hear her story through multiple lenses. I suggest “Gail Devers my life in story: Stronger,” and for the young readers in your life check out “Gail Devers (overcoming adversity),” or “Gail Devers: a runner’s dream”
There are a few athletes whose accomplishments and mere presence strike awe the way that Will Chamberlain did. Of course, growing up in Lawrence, Kan., I was aware of Wilt from his time at KU but the impact he left transcended the basketball court. A man who became a celebrity in his own right off the court, I remember being a big kid as a child and being awestruck with him standing next to Conan the Barbarian. How could a human being be so big and athletic? A fascinating figure not only for his accomplishments, but also how he carried himself off the court and stood for what he believed in. Wilt is the subject of at least 11 books, so you’ll never run out of stories that will leave you astounded. I suggest starting with “A View From Above” by Wilt himself, “Wilt, Ike, and Me” by David Richman this is the tale of Wilt moving in with 76ers team owner Ike Richman and his 16 year old son (the author). And if you want a book about the great rivalry of Wilt’s career you’ll want “The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball” by John Taylor.
The godfather of the player empowerment movement, I didn’t learn about Curt Flood until I was an adult. Flood was an all-star infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, who fought being traded to Philadelphia all the way to the Supreme Court. In a time before free agency when players were expected to shut up and play ball, Flood withstood the slings and arrows of angry America as he advocated for athletes to be granted the right of agency in their careers. Even though professional sports in America, still have conscription, drafts and players must earn their agency by doing their time, Curt Flood opened the door that today’s players are still pushing open. In recent years, athletes have been afforded agency through NIL, the transfer portal, and increased leverage in collective bargaining, and all those athletes owe debt of gratitude to Curt Flood, a man who paid a price so that we may all be a little more free, a man who stood in his conviction that “a well paid slave, is still a slave.” Read more of his amazing story in “A Well Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports” by Brad Snyder, “One Man Out: Curt Flood vs Baseball (Landmark Law Cases and American Society)” by Robert M Goldman, or “Stepping Up: the Story of All-star Curt Flood and His Fight For Baseball Players’ Rights” by Alex Beith and Tim McCarver.
One of the things I’ve come to admire about sports is how it can reach in to our past, and remind us of how we got to where we are today. Not only are the stories of these athletes stories of their own personal perseverance they are stories of the perseverance of a peoples.
We celebrate our history with national holidays and honorary months but too often we look past the fight to the destination. We enjoy and revel in the successes without acknowledging the tragedy and pain endured to get there. Another thing that I’ve come to appreciate about sports is how just and fair they are compared to the societies in which they take place. Hopefully by learning this history, and being reminded of these struggles, it gives us strength to continue the fight started by so many who have come before us. Here’s to hoping we can focus on the TEAM victory in those moments of personal difficulty.