Generally regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in history, Sugar Ray Robinson came of age as a man and a boxer in the ’40s and ’50s. He’s best known for the six legendary brawls he fought with Jake Lamotta, but his cultural significance extends beyond athletics. His story is also the story of post-war Harlem featuring the likes of Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis. At the height of his career, Robinson owned a Harlem night club that was frequently the hottest spot in town. Will Haygood, who writes for the Washington Post, brings not only the inimitable Robinson to life in Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Knopf, $27.95), but also fixes him within the electric milieu that is Harlem. After penning bios of Adam Clayton Powell and Sammy Davis, Jr., Haygood rounds out his picture of African-American icons of the mid-twentieth century with this life of Sugar Ray.
Christopher McDougall’s fast-paced look at running, Born To Run (Knopf, $24.95), is part adventure, part anthropology, and part physiology; it’s stuffed with amazing characters, incredible feats, and wow moments. Wondering why he couldn’t run without getting hurt, McDougall investigated the superhumans who run ultramarathons of 50 and 100 miles through blazing deserts, up mountains, and against horses. Some of these extreme athletes party as hard as they run; not discipline but spirit is their secret. This is also the key to the elusive Tarahumara, a cave-dwelling people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Natural ultramarathoners, these Indians run as a way of life. Despite traversing rocky, cactus-ridden terrain in thin-soled sandals, the Tarahumara are seldom injured, and McDougall’s research concludes that today’s high-tech running shoes cause rather than prevent injuries by not letting the foot work the way it was designed to. If you’re a runner, this book will have you craving more than the occasional 10K. If you’re not a runner, you’ll want to see what you’re missing.
Currently Lebron James is a globally recognized athlete, pitch-man, and entrepreneur. In Shooting Stars (Penguin Press, $26.95) reporter Buzz Bissinger helps tell James’s back story, where nothing of his future but basketball seemed assured. Growing up in a poor and unstable home, James ricocheted around Akron, Ohio, until he found twin anchors in basketball and in the teammates who became his surrogate family. Romeo, Willie, Sian, Little Dru, and Lebron chose loyalty above all else, enrolling together at small Saint Vincent’s, known more for academics than athletics, and taking the school to three state championships. The book gives vivid descriptions and play-by-plays of important games, with insight provided by recollections from James and others. But most memorable here is the appreciation of James’s maturation over a brief and tumultuous period, during which he was an object of suspicion, admiration, jealousy, adulation, expectation, and greed, all while trying to find himself as an emerging adult and public figure. Lebron James is lauded as a fantastic teammate, and in this book that unique quality is shown even more off the court than on it.