Sports

The Four Most Inspiring Opening Paragraphs In Sportswriting, 2016

In a difficult year, sportswriting showed us truth and beauty. These 100 percent real paragraphs did it in ways we'll remember long after the calendar turns.

by David Roth
Dec 29 2016, 5:51pm

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The days are dark, now, cold and short. This is a difficult year bleeding out, the last dimming moments of it; it is hard to say that what waits on the other side of all this, on the other side of the transparently false dawn ahead, looks much brighter. But, in ways that are painful to talk about, this is always the way. It was like this last year, when we rounded up The Most Inspiring Opening Paragraphs In Sportswriting for the first time, too; closing time is never fun. But then, as now, there was a light in this narrowing dark: the pursuit of the truest and most perfect sports stories. This is a life's pursuit, and like all important jobs it is one that is never really finished. Next year, the battle will be joined again. For now, we rest our horses. But as we prepare to ride out again, let's remember the opening paragraphs from this year that moved us, surprised us, and inspired us. They're the ones that kept us reading. They're the ones that keep us going.

***

He's just not a big story guy. You understand. Nothing against stories, naturally, and nothing against the people who need stories to make sense of it all—the heroes and villains, the setbacks and showdowns and crucial moments. It's not that Joe Lacob doesn't appreciate a good story, or appreciate the stories that we will tell about his basketball team, the I-was-there-when legends and the looping Vines that will be how the Golden State Warriors are remembered years from now, when all this greatness seems a little too hard to believe."Stories are imperative, and I want to emphasize that," Lacob says as he watches what might yet turn out to be the best team in basketball history shooting around, hours before game time. "Narratives are so critical, and I absolutely respect the truth of that. But..."

But: but Joe Lacob is not a story guy, because stories aren't what made him rich, or put him in that courtside seat. Lacob is a data guy, a statistics guy. Mostly, Lacob is a results guy, and he finds his stories in there—buried, undiscovered, somewhere down there in the data concealed as numbers. That's where he found the investments that made him, and where he discovered the innovations that helped him hack the game and turn the Warriors into one of the great investments in all of sports—a legit 10x blockbuster, the league's truest killer app. The stories are for later, for everyone else to tell after the real work is done. Lacob doesn't mind telling them himself, now that we all know the end. "This is VC 101, really," he shrugs. "You look at the data. You really look at it and you look for what everyone else isn't seeing. And that was what we did. And what we saw was 'three-point shots are worth more than two-point shots.' And then we asked 'how long before everyone and their uncle figures that out?'" That's the story, that's the story of the man that owns the best basketball team on earth. But then, it's not a story at all. — The King Of Numbers

***

Curt Schilling wants to show me his bunker. An ordinary host might hesitate before inviting a guest down into a clean, fluorescent-lit cinderblock sub-basement, the one that sits under the regular basement with the workshop and the dehumidifier and the world-renowned collection of World War II memorabilia. But Curt Schilling is not your ordinary host, and not just because he answers the door wearing flannel pants and a black custom t-shirt—"I got it online," he says, "there's a site that does them"—choked with gothic lettering that reads "Yeah I believe in the constitution" and continues at a length that would make it awkward for even a speed-reader to get to the end of the sentence.

Curt Schilling is not the average host because he is Curt Schilling, and Curt Schilling is not the sort of person who would hesitate to show you his bunker. Or, more to the point, he is not the sort of person who would hesitate, full stop. Curt Schilling stared down every challenge October could throw at him without blinking, and certainly without hesitation. He is also the sort of person who could lose a job because of his unapologetic politics and dangerous propensity for controversial memes. As he leads me down into the bunker, lined with large plastic buckets labeled Savory Beef Stew, a writer is reminded of something Schilling said in his living room earlier, during a discussion of Sharia law. "I just don't have a filter," Schilling said, there in his living room. This is true, but the lie is right there over his shoulder in the bunker I shouldn't be seeing—there is a shelf full of air filters, piled with them, right there for when Curt Schilling thinks that he and his family will need them. — Curt Schilling Is Sorry He's Not Sorry

It's called leadership. Photo by Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a thing about dads: they're going to embarrass you sometimes. Later on, when you become a dad yourself, you understand how this works. When you are young, you wish the guy on the sideline yelling would quiet down, or go away. His hair is all wrong or it's thinning, his clothes are out of date by a Presidential administration or two, and he's yelling at you and only you—like you're the only kid out there, the only one that needs to step things up, the only kid that ever made a mistake. You wish to God he'd just stop, but in another chapter of your life, when you're in his shoes—when it's you in the khakis, you with the haircut from 1995, you watching your own son—you know just why he can't. When you're a man, you know. And you know how much the rest of it, the clothes or the haircut or the sideline etiquette, doesn't matter. Not in comparison to what you're watching, anyway. So don't ask Mike Gundy about his hair. Ask him about his boys. — Mike Gundy Is A Man

***

Cities change by night. It's nothing so dramatic as the streets rearranging themselves under cover of darkness, although it is fair to say that the roads do seem to lead to different places. But in the new dark, one city gives way to the other, and the industrious daytime metropolis hands things over to its neon twin and its different pursuits. The map does not change, but you would never mistake one for the other. They are different places.

Here is how it happens in Rio. It comes quickly and slowly. The city is languid and sensual even in the daylight, white beaches and blue sea and tan flesh never far away; the people do not rush, as if they're determined not to miss any of the bright beauty around them. But then the dark, and the Ciudad de Dios becomes very much a city of men, a place of desire and appetite. The smell of feijoada in the alleys, then, and of chouriço sizzling on braziers; the lights come up and the rain rolls in over the mountains as certain and inescapable as the wrath of God. Like Rio, Ryan Lochte is transformed by water; like Rio, he is subject to the iron eternal rule of the night. Even before the night brought them together in a collision that defined these games, Rio and Lochte were locked in an embrace: changed by water, driven by hungers that will not be denied. — The City Of God And The City Of Men

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