1. Second Wind, Bill Russell
Co-written with historian Taylor Branch, Bill Russell's biography gives you everything you want in a sports memoir, bringing readers into his time as an NBA great with the honest reflection of someone 10 years removed. Most athletes have good stories to tell. Not all of them can tell them well.
Plus: The basketball juggernaut has a lot of stones to turn and Russell has single-handedly decided to turn all of them, from NCAA corruption and racism to drugs, politics, women and semi-regular existential crises.
Minus: There are no drawbacks. It is a model memoir.
2. I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, Althea Gibson
Memoirs by Black women in sports are rare, often passed over for whichever Major League Baseball player wants to write about bravely pitching with his left hand. Althea Gibson's book is a shining exception, detailing her journey to life as the first African American Grand Slam champion at Wimbledon.
Plus: Gibson writes with incredible candor and a true gift for reflecting critically on the regularly hostile world around her.
Minus: The memoir serves as a reminder of all of the progress we have yet to make, and all the lessons we have willfully refused to learn.
3. Under the Lights and in the Dark, Gwendolyn Oxenham
Gwendolyn Oxenham, a onetime Duke University soccer player and Santos FC alum, deep-dives into the world of women's soccer, profiling players in leagues around the globe and celebrating their accomplishments against widespread cultural dismissal.
Plus: The book scores easy points for regional pride—the cover features the Thorns on the field at Providence Park, and Oxenham calls Portland the "Promised Land" for women's soccer.
Minus: There are no salacious tell-alls—you're forced to settle for inspirational stories about the "romance of the game."
4. It’s Good to Be Gronk, Rob Gronkowski
It's time to start taking Gronk seriously. He has written two memoirs, the first of which he admits having only read 80% of. The second is a somber reflection on life as a New England Patriot and the trials and tribulations of being a 6-foot-6 retired millionaire and folk hero.
Plus: It's a true classic of the genre, with passages on sleeping 18 hours a day and hitting his head on a chandelier while going wild to House of Pain's "Jump Around."
Minus: It was ghostwritten by sports agent Jason Rosenhaus, so you have to accept that some of the raw brilliance has been filtered through a corporate mouthpiece.
5. Barbarian Days, William Finnegan
When he was a child, William Finnegan began surfing the shores of Hawaii and California, a pastime turned fixation that brought him to remote coasts on almost every continent. Barbarian Days is his own coming-of-age story and has won praise for its lucid prose and romantic depiction of boys and their relentless pursuit of danger.
Plus: You don't have to surf to appreciate Finnegan's image of the ocean as an "uncaring God."
Minus: Try all you like, but there is a finite number of ways you can describe the intervals of wave patterns.