Random Musings – The Non-Fiction Short Story Novel

Any sports fans out there? I hope so, because I’m about to write about a sports book. If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you might recall a post I made a while back about my fascination with the short story novel. For reference, that’s a novel that has a single overarching story that is told through a series of individual short stories. It’s a form that I’ve studied, but yet to adequately emulate.

Well, I’m looking at it again, somewhat unexpectedly. A few weeks ago, Ballentine Books released a book by Jack McCallum called Dream Team. Anybody who knows anything about sports has probably guessed that the subject of the book is the 1992 US Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, dubbed “The Dream Team” because it was the first time NBA players were allowed to play in an international competition and starred the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one team.

I loved the Dream Team, so I was excited when this book finally dropped. Jack McCallum used to be the chief NBA beat writer for Sports Illustrated and covered the Dream Team for SI, and so he had virtually unparalleled access to the team at all times. I hoped for an array of stories I had never heard before to be woven into the tale I already knew about the team that rolled through its competition with an average margin of victory of over forty points per game.

Happily, I got that. But it was the way he told it that interested me, because he did not do what I expected. The natural way to have written this book would be to start at the beginning, telling how the decision came about to allow professionals in the Olympics, proceed through the selection process, talk about how the team did, then discuss it’s legacy. While Dream Team followed that general format, McCallum did not quite tell the tale chronologically.

Rather than adopting a strict narrative, McCallum told the tale through many short stories. He’d pick a topic—often times a specific player at a specific point in time—and tell that story in a few pages before moving onto the next topic. For example, he tells the story of Larry Bird being at the very end of his career and not really being healthy enough to play, but making the team out of respect for his contributions to the sport, follows that up by talking about why Isiah Thomas was left off the team despite being better than most of the players who were chosen, then went on to tell the story of Magic Johnson’s career to that point. Each chapter is its own individual story, and could pretty easily stand on its own as a short bio in a magazine.

Instead, through thirty-six tales, McCallum tells the larger story of the Dream Team as a whole. And just like the fiction novels I’ve read, I loved the format. It’s a neat way to get the story out there without having to commit to a specific narrative. Had McCallum stuck to a more natural narrative, the book might not have worked as well. But because he told it in short stories, he was able to change things up and keep things interesting.

When talking about this style, my recommendations are always Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. But Dream Team is a worthy addition to that recommendation list. If you want to write a novel, but are afraid of the commitment to a singular narrative, then it’s worth checking this form out. Give one of these books a try and see what you think

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