Sugar Ray Leonard was a father at 17, a repeat adulterer, an alcoholic and drug addict. He battled his way from the No. 2 Boys Club in Washington to an Olympic gold medal and the highest level of boxing -- and celebrity.
The one constant in Leonard’s life was fighting: the fighting his parents did, the fighting in his neighborhood, the fighting he used to overcome his failure in other sports and the challenges of being black in the nation’s capital in the 1970s.
“There were two ways of getting your name in the newspaper if you were a black teen in D.C. -- the bad way or the good way,” Leonard says in his autobiography, “The Big Fight: My Life in and Out of the Ring” (Viking, $26.95), written with Michael Arkush. “The bad was through the police blotter. The good way was through boxing.”
Boxing was the way he made his way in the world, and it was transformative. “The sport turned me into a different person, afraid of no one,” he says. It was also redemptive: “In the ring, for the first time in my life, I felt I could conquer any force.”
For a long time it worked. He was inspired by Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. And yet he felt empty, even at the Olympics award ceremony. He ignored Ali’s advice (“Don’t do any showboating”), he was unfaithful to his fiancee on the night before their wedding, he didn’t follow his vow to go to college.
But he did eventually abandon the persona of Sugar Ray, “the character I created,” and confronted the person he became: “I am Ray Leonard, father of four, survivor of drug and alcohol abuse, who found out what truly matters.” This revelation comes three pages before the end of his memoir but for so many athletes it doesn’t come at all.
Which is why “The Swinger,” a novel by Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck (Simon & Schuster, $25), rings so true. Here we have a multicultural golf star who is a model citizen, an international marketing marvel and a media symbol of family values whose life careers off the fairway. Some elements of this story may not sound entirely original.
The “hero,” if that is the word, is Tree Tremont, who is the perfect husband when he’s not having sex with a phlebotomist in a janitor’s closet.
Before long, Tree is cut down to size, finding himself in the middle of a federal drug prosecution, the central figure in audio tapes of sexual acts performed in a wine cellar, and the principal in wild driving escapades -- all before his wife slugs him with a fireplace poker. The golfer takes “some private time” to get himself in order. Did I mention that he went to rehab in Mississippi?
The story is ridiculous, except that these sorts of things happen in real life. Here’s the reason, in perhaps the only serious passage in a droll novel: “Tree wanted everything. He wanted the hot nightlife and the kiddie-soccer home life and the glamorous wife and the get-rich-now corporate life that was the foundation of the PGA Tour. To keep it all going, he had to wallpaper his life with lies.”
Quarterback Tim Tebow’s memoir, “Through My Eyes” (written with Nathan Whitaker; HarperCollins, $26.99), explores a life that couldn’t be more different from the swinger and the boxer. The son of a missionary couple who were fond of putting Scripture to song, Tebow has set a special path for himself: not only to play well but also to do good.
He struggled with dyslexia, did farm work, was homeschooled, went on mission trips, won a national football championship game and the Heisman trophy, dedicated himself to helping orphans and sick children.
This is a sports book only tangentially about sports. It’s about coming of age and finding purpose -- and the difficulty of being a man of faith and a man of football. For him, if not for all of his teammates, the goal is “a life that is marked by always trying to do things the right way.”
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)