They’ve Got Game: New Sports Books
The season’s latest releases take up the New England Patriots, the origin story of Giannis Antetokounmpo — and the role of discrimination, protests and money in the world of athletics.
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By Oskar Garcia
Sports fans can easily forget or dismiss a clear reality about the games they love: They are a form of entertainment, a business endeavor competing among many options for emotional and financial attention.
The leagues know this, and have made television the foundation of their enterprises. So, too, do the biggest stars — and not just athletes but coaches, executives, team owners and television personalities, too.
That relationship between celebrity and audience was tested and picked apart repeatedly in 2021. The tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled back from her sport twice, and challenged conventions about how athletes, especially women, should be treated by fans and the press. Simone Biles, the gymnast who entered the Tokyo Olympics as the face of Team U.S.A., became the talk of the Games not by competing, but by acknowledging vulnerability and withdrawing from her enormous stage.
Some lighter moments showed the shrewdness of the game. Floyd Mayweather trash-talked his way into a meaningless yet marketable exhibition against the YouTube star Logan Paul. And a few bigger developments pointed toward a landscape far different from what fans have been used to. College athletes gained the right to earn money off their fame. And some of the most transcendent stars, including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, showed that their biggest championships could be exceedingly difficult to recapture.
Several books in 2021 scrutinized athletes and the people around them in ways that might have appeared less obvious to casual fans a decade ago, before the coronavirus pandemic and broader cultural conversations illuminated the already changing interactions between athletes and the general public.
In GIANNIS: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP (Hachette, 400 pp., $30), the journalist Mirin Fader details the origin story of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star who was born in Greece without citizenship and eventually led his team to an N.B.A. championship in July. (The New York Times published excerpts from the book when it was released in August.)
Through extensive interviews with family members, coaches, teammates, friends and others, Fader presents Antetokounmpo as a rising talent who challenged notions of race in a country that does not offer citizenship as a birthright. Antetokounmpo and his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo were granted citizenship in 2013 because of the potential of their basketball careers. It validated for the family that they were indeed Greek, even if some people in the country had trouble accepting Black people as Greek. “There are hundreds of Black Greek kids growing up today who may never receive the opportunities Giannis did,” Fader writes, adding: “These kids are not embraced, affirmed, the way Giannis is now.”
Antetokounmpo’s parents arrived from Nigeria in 1991, three years before he was born. The family struggled to pay for food and bounced around apartments when they could not make rent. Antetokounmpo, at 13, met a coach who persuaded him to play basketball to chase a better life. “Giannis,” an expansion of a piece Fader reported for Bleacher Report in 2019, captures an endearing portrait of Antetokounmpo by using his family as its primary through-line as he made his way to the N.B.A. and the United States.
The framing makes for a more compelling journey than what would normally be expected of a parade of tough coaches, on-court rivals and personal uncertainty. And it gives the necessary heft to Antetokounmpo’s emotional speech in 2019 after he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
“When you’re a little kid, you don’t see the future, right? Your parent sees the future for you,” Antetokounmpo said of his mother, Veronica. And “she always saw the future in us.”
The unpredictability of the future is at the heart of one of the most repeated stories about the quarterback Tom Brady: He was selected No. 199 in the 2000 N.F.L. draft by the New England Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick.
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