While not quite all-star material, this second annual collection of sports essays, drawn from sources ranging from Sports Illustrated to Esquire to Tropic, scores plenty of points-- beginning with the perceptive introduction by guest editor McGuane, who chose the finalists from series editor Glenn Stout's nominations. Curiously, McGuane's meditation on how sports captivate us by acting as a societal mirror is the collection's anomaly, the only piece here that deals primarily in abstractions--including the idea that sets the book's theme: ``At the core of sport is courage.'' And so nearly all of the 25 essays that follow focus on individual players and how they play their games and their lives. The leadoff selection, Gary Smith's mournful ``Shadow of a Nation,'' is paradigmatic--the story of a young Crow Indian whose great skill on the basketball court proved no match for his real opposing team: the defeatism and alcoholism that had conquered so many Crows before him. This sort of sportswriting-with-a-conscience abounds here, from Timothy Dwyer's moving ``Center of Gravity,'' about basketball star Manute Bol returning to his starving homeland of Sudan, to Paul Solotaroff's muckraking ``The Power and the Gory,'' on the ravages wrought by steroids. More traditional, particularly effective pieces focus on the sad career-slides of Roger Maris (David von Drehle) and Sonny Liston (William Nack), and the serene joy of bird-dogging (Sydney Lea). There are numerous portraits, some routine (Leigh Montville on Nolan Ryan; Joe Sexton on hockey star Brett Hull) and some exceptional (Michael Disend on an obscure handball king; Donna St. George on Minnesota Fats). Dave Barry closes things with an amusingly flip look at hard-driving basketball forward Grant Long. A level, literate playing field for the armchair athlete- -though a few more pieces by women (more than three, anyway) would be welcome next time around.