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Had enough of steroids? Try amputees or native ball

This week, with Mark McGwire and his not-so-surprising steroid confession in the news, I got to thinking about sports stories that have stuck with me long after the last page (or last mouse click.)

Although it is unavailable online, (you can read excerpts in The Best American Magazine Writing, 2003) my first choice for today's pick was by another person currently in the news, Elizabeth Gilbert. Long before she won international acclaim for eating, loving and praying or began writing about her second marriage to a Brazilian, Gilbert wrote a a deft profile in GQ of Jim MacLaren, a man who was hit by a bus, lost a leg, became a competitive marathoner and motivational speaker, then broke his neck in a second accident which left him a quadriplegic. It could have been a mess of a story, or maudlin or cliched. But Gilbert's tone was pitch perfect, matter-of-fact reporting mixed with MacLaren's ruminations on the meaning of it all.

The ending, with its surprising shift in time, was what really hooked me (spoiler alert)

The day before Jim MacLaren broke his neck, he woke up in his house in Boulder, Colorado, stirred out of bed earlier than usual by some strange and unfamiliar energy. He left his then girlfriend, Pam, sleeping and went outside to sit in his backyard to eat his breakfast alone. The sun was coming up, reflecting off the mountains, and the morning light was filmy and gold. Jim could hear his neighbor's young children playing next door. He could hear birdsong and the tremor of leaves. He'd brought a book outside with him to read, but it lay in his lap unopened; he couldn't focus on it. He couldn't pay attention to his breakfast, either. He wasn't even thinking about the Ironman he'd be competing in the next day. None of this mattered, suddenly. All Jim wanted was to sit in stillness and experience the inexplicable bliss that was surrounding him in this moment.

And then the bliss started to grow, to rise within him. Jim moved from a state of contentment into a state of joy, and soon even the joy could not be contained, and it became a euphoria that spilled out over his whole body, lifting the hair on the back of his neck and running goose bumps across his skin. He was overcome by a thrilling sense of what he could later only describe as anticipation. He'd never felt anything like this, and he never wanted it to end. He was laughing and crying at the same time, elated beyond his sense.

Jim's girlfriend heard the noise and rushed out of the house to see what was wrong.

"What is it, Jim?" she asked. "What's going on?"

He looked up at her through his tears and smiled. He was 30 years old. He was twenty-four hours away from becoming a quadriplegic, and he could not contain his excitement.

"Pam," he said, and he was never more certain of anything in his life. "Pam - listen! Something amazing is about to happen to me!"

But, since I can't get you the entire Gilbert piece, I've chosen another absolute all-time sports favorite. A couple years ago, when I wrote a series about a high school basketball team comprised mainly of immigrants or the sons of immigrants, I turned to this piece by master Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith for inspiration. It's the tale of basketball on the Crow Reservation, but, like all great stories, it's about so, so much more than basketball.

By Brigid Schulte  | January 13, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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Next: Build-A-Story: "I've sent out, what--80 resumes?"

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