Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

Image of Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports
Release Date: 
June 1, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Sidecountry is a treat and an education about multiple aspects and the fundamental allure of sport and the amazing story of the human struggle.”

John Branch has been a sports reporter for the New York Times for the past 16 years. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and won a Pulitzer in 2013 for “Snow Fall.” It is the opening piece in Sidecountry and tells the story of an avalanche, detailing its unfolding, its power, and its victims. After reading it, there is no mystery why it won a Pulitzer.

Sidecountry does not focus on the high-profile sports. Branch’s 20 pieces, collected here and published between 2008 and 2020, are among his favorites culled from the approximately 2000 published in the Times. The term “sidecountry” is used in the skiing community to describe the area outside, but adjacent to, the ski run.

These stories are centered on sports that are off the beaten track or deal primarily with people who are not well-known public figures. When asked what sort of sports he covers, Branch responds that he writes “stories you didn’t know you wanted to read” about “ordinary people tangled in something extraordinary.”

This perfectly describes the contents of this book. These are not stories of extreme sport, although some may regard some as being within this category. Rather, they are sports or activities that take place within extreme circumstances or conditions. Girls’ high school basketball is an ordinary sport played across the country, while a 312-game losing streak certainly is extreme.

The Lady Jaguars of Carroll Academy in Huntington, Tennessee, lived through this streak of futility. Branch spent time travelling with this team from this school operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court.  

Branch profiles coaches, teachers, parents, and, of course, the players. This is a powerful tale of personal tragedy, alcoholism, and a drug epidemic that is devastating in its consequences. It is also the tale of the incredible resilience of the girls and the dedication of their coaches. Anyone who continues to believe that the United States of America is the land of equal opportunity should be required to read “The Lady Jaguars.”

Not all of these stories carry this contrast of light and darkness. Some are just adventures, but memorable and unusual ones. There are vivid accounts of an alligator hunt, wingsuit flying at Yosemite, and rock climbing the face of El Capitan. Big game hunting for bighorn sheep with bow and arrow pits man against the sheep and the elements. It is a challenge in which the advantage seems to lie with the sheep. There are memorable twists to a story of a perfect game of bowling, perfection in horse shoes, and the strange world of figure-eight racecar driving.

There are moving stories of mortality. One describes the fate of four mountain climbers from the vibrant mountain climbing groups in India and their quest to conquer Everest. Another relates the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and her teammates, written from an unusual point of view. The story of Steve Kerr and the assassination of his father is moving, painful, and like many of these stories, inspirational. “A Football Coach: A Tornado and a Murder” fits the same description.

In the 20th offering, “Children of the Cube,” Branch goes into the world of the speedcubers with his son as his guide. There is a World Cube Association that sanctions events and tracks times in this sport that comes out of a second wave of the Rubik’s cube fad that is growing rapidly across the globe. It has a special attraction for many exceptional children and is another remarkable tale in Sidecountry.

As with most anthologies, and especially those showcasing the work of one author, it should be read in small portions. One disconcerting element stems from an editorial decision on how to present the material that represents a series of stories run sequentially in the newspaper. Offering publication dates might have relieved the irritation of the repetition of basic information, or even better the repetitions might have been deleted. A small thing perhaps, and. Indeed, it does not detract from the stories in which it occurs. In single pieces, of course, this is not a problem.

No matter, these are powerful tales, great or small, and they take you to worlds of sport that cannot be seen in the way in which most of the world consumes sport.

Sidecountry is a treat and an education about multiple aspects and the fundamental allure of sport and the amazing story of the human struggle.