Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On the Great Biographical Narratives of 2030

I've never seen the movie Ali in its entirety. If ever there were a biopic that seemed unnecessarily redundant, it was this one, for not only is Ali the subject of perhaps the greatest sports documentary of all time, not only is Ali is the subject of one of the greatest sports books ever written* ... but even his opponents and contemporaries have been the subjects of transcendent literature, from Nick Tosches' intense biography of Sonny Liston to Gay Talese's sympathetic magazine profiles of Floyd Patterson. There was no need for an Ali biopic because Ali pulled into his wake some of the greatest non-fiction chroniclers of the 20th century. Fiction could not compare to the truth, especially when Jamie Foxx was involved.

In this age of miniscule attention spans, I find myself thinking about these kinds of things quite often. What are the stories that serve as metaphorical proxies for their era?** Will we still be discussing the sexual vagaries Tiger Woods in ten years, or will he slink back into a protective shell? Is this a truly meaningful moment in the national narrative, as Bill Simmons hypothesizes? Or did the shock of it all simply amplify its importance? It's too early to tell (though I'd probably lean toward Simmons at this point).

Anyway, here's my point: Certain athletes of this era seem representative of some larger issue, of an evolutionary or technological or societal tipping point. And it's not always the obvious people. So yes, in ten or twenty years, there are many excellent biographies I expect to read (or write) that might capture the Zeitgeist of the early 21st century. But here are the underdogs--if I were forced to sign a contract right now to write a biography in 2030 of an active athlete/coach who isn't Tiger Woods, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant, these are some of the people I might choose:

1. Allen Iverson. Has there been a more polarizing moment in recent sports history than The Practice Speech? Iverson is the progenitor of a new era in the NBA, of the narrowing authoritarian boundaries between player and coach, of the age of personal expression. That he seems headed for the inevitable tragic fall only makes him that much more compelling.***

2. Donovan McNabb. Not just because of Rush Limbaugh, and not just because he possesses the most famously sensitive digestive system in NFL history--in a city with a checkered racial history, McNabb has come to represent the tribulations of the black quarterback in the modern age. He is an undeniably great player, and yet he is never quite good enough.

3. Peyton Manning/Tom Brady. It would have to be a dual biography, because it is already virtually impossible to separate the legacy of one from the legacy of the other. There is no better rivalry in the modern era. This is essentially Magic/Bird without the racial undertones.

4. Mark McGwire. Jeff Pearlman made a valiant effort to capture the soul of Barry Bonds a few years ago, but the problem is, Bonds doesn't appear to possess a soul. Of all the principles in the steroid era, McGwire still seems like the most sympathetic figure to me, more rent with guilt than any of the others. His return to baseball could prove either triumphant or tragic--I really don't know where it's going.

5. Rick Pitino. Because no one embodies the role of coach as slicked-up mercenary quite like Pitino. He was a trendsetter. Not to mention there's plenty of sex involved.

*I'm currently reading David Remnick's King of the World, which is also predictably excellent.
**One of the reasons I chose to write Bigger Than the Game (now available for pre-order!) is because Bo Jackson always felt, to me, like one of those people who transcended his era.
***I expect Steve James' 30 for 30 documentary on Iverson will be one of the highlights of the series.

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