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By Rick Reilly
Blue Rider Press. 368 pages. $27.95
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Reviewed by Allen Barra
In the foreword to his latest collection, Tiger, Meet My Sister . . ., Rick Reilly, writing of himself in the third person, notes that "Reilly was a very odd sportswriter in that he didn't really write about sports. He wrote more about people who play sports than the sports themselves."
True, and it's probably the main reason Reilly is an 11-time national sportswriter of the year and has remained enormously popular while writing for the best-known sports print journals, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and ESPN.com.
Reilly's people aren't just star athletes but fans like Jane Lang, a blind 67-year-old woman from Morris Plains, N.J., who travels by train to at least 30 Yankees games a year. They're presidents such as Barack Obama, with whom Reilly selects a fantasy football team ("The absolutely worst fantasy league football partner. Just try to get the guy to return a call").
There's even his own father:
He'd always come home drunk after playing golf, except for the time he'd come home dripping drunk. Then he'd be looking to bust something, maybe a lamp, maybe somebody's nose; my mom's once. To this day, the sound of spikes on cement sends a shot of ice through me. That was him coming up the sidewalk.
Reilly packs a lot of life into a short space, which is about as good a definition of a great sportswriter as I can think of.
The Tiger in the title is Woods; it comes from what Reilly calls one of "a few sentences nobody has ever uttered." This highlights Reilly's other great quality, wit, as in "brevity is the soul of." One of the nicest people he ever met is "that bald guy with the mushroom-cloud ear who always comes up to me and tells me how much he loved my last column, even though Mitch Albom usually wrote it." Of the five biggest jerks he's ever met, Barry Bonds is No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4.
In all instances, Reilly adheres to Red Smith's famous advice to young sportswriters: "Whatever you do, don't God-up these guys."
Reilly has always been fearless in turning that wit on the big shots. Here he is on Woods: "I have one rule on Tiger: admire the game, not the man . . . the man is rude and vulgar and has a screw-you-I'm-Tiger-Woods policy that's not the least bit becoming."
And here he is on Michael Jordan:
Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame talk was the Exxon Valdez of speeches . . . Here is a man who's won just about everything there is to win - six NBA titles, five MVPs, and two Olympic golds. And yet he sounded like a guy who's been screwed out of every trophy ever minted. He's the world's first sore winner.
But Reilly doesn't just take the puffed-up down a peg; he also has an instinct for boosting the underdog. No one else took the time to write such a fitting appreciation for Tim Tebow: "I've come to believe in Tim Tebow for what he does off a football field, which is represent the best parts of us, the parts I want to be and so rarely am."
Perhaps the best of all Reilly's qualities as a writer is his willingness to admit when he's been wrong about someone. After years of hagiographic profiles of Joe Paterno, he wrote in July 2012:
What a stooge I was. I talked about Paterno's "true legacy" in all of this. Here's his true legacy: Paterno let a child molester go when he could have stopped him. He let him go and then lied to cover his sinister tracks. He let a rapist go to save his own recruiting successes and fundraising pitches and big-fish-small-pond hide.
He has regrets. About the increasing violence in pro football, he writes:
This is the game I've spent thirty-six years glamorizing . . . And it turns out I was part of the problem. Howard Cosell stopped covering boxing when his conscience wouldn't allow it, and yet I go on. I'm addicted.
In March, Reilly announced he was retiring from writing to focus on television. It's TV's gain, but it's a loss for the rest of us. You can't put the best of your TV work between covers to hand down to the next generation.