Over the past few weeks I’ve been plowing through The Book of Basketball, a 700-plus page tome by Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, that’s as deeply flawed as it is massively entertaining.
Simmons is the only sports columnist I read outside of former colleagues, a consistently funny writer who delves as much into the world of celebrity and pop culture as sports, always ready to compare an athlete or team to a movie or TV show. There’s a chapter in TBOB (I can’t resist) in which Kobe Bryant’s career is explained as well as it ever has been using Teen Wolf as a mirror.
The book is, in short, a love letter to the NBA, a messy collection of braindroppings, history, anecdotes and lists. It is a broad overview of the league, but worthwhile only for purists, of which I am one.
At the center of the book is “The Secret,” which is not really a secret: the truism that subjugating the self is key to team success. The first chunk of the book is a dissertation on this thesis, buttressed with Simmons’ observations in decades watching the game (much of that quite personally as he attended Celtics games from childhood onward) and notes culled from dozens of other books on the NBA.
This section is great, particularly the story of Simmons’ encounter with Isiah Thomas, the amazing Pistons point guard turned failure as a coach, CEO and minor league president. There’s also a good summary of the different epochs in NBA history and how various paradigm shifts came about (hint: Cocaine figured prominently in the 1970s).
My favorite chapter of the whole book is “The What-If Game,” which imagines how the NBA landscape would’ve been impacted by slight revisions in history. The hypothetical conjecturing isn’t the point so much as the chance to cast a thoughtful glance to some of the forgotten bits of luck (good and bad) that greatly shaped the league as it came to exist. The one that haunts me the most is No. 19: “What if Atlanta took Chris Paul with the number two pick of the 2005 draft?” I go to as many Hawks games as I can and every game imagine what it would be like to see Paul on a regular basis.
The bulk of the book is ostensibly a blueprint for creating a new NBA Hall of Fame, but really it’s an excuse to rank the best players of all time. This list goes on for more than 300 pages, from No. 96 Tom Chambers to No. 1 Michael Jordan. No, seriously. A 300+ page list of all-time player rankings! It’s impressive and ridiculous, funny and frustrating. This is a writer who KNOWS the NBA, and he spends a healthy-sized novel worth of pages distinguishing a pecking order between Joe Dumars and Sidney Moncrief?
My biggest problem with this book is that Simmons clearly did his research, watching hours and hours of game film from every season available, read a hundred-plus books, and yet he wastes much of that knowledge on hypothetical arguments that, in the long run, don’t matter. He eschews insights for jokes and conjecture (and an obsession with statistics that seems curious given his constant mockery of stat geeks). Some of the other chapters (Which MVP awards were fishiest? Who would you put on an all-time team to play against invading Martians with the fate of the world on the line, and you had a time machine to get any player?) are even worse.
There’s also the constant swearing and dick jokes, layered higher and deeper than in an Apatow movie, and the typos. Simmons makes constant reference to his “Grumpy Old Editor,” which became a continuing source of humor when the misspellings and grammatical errors piled up into the dozens. My favorite ones: On page 594, a footnote refers to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as “Kareen,” and on page 617 he is writing about Michael Jordan and says, “that’s what makes me laugh whenever I hear guys like Wade, Jordan and LeBron compared to him.” Yeah, I laugh whenever people compare Jordan to Jordan too.
Every time Grumpy Old Editor piped in with a footnote (one of the book’s joys are the hundreds of footnotes), I imagined him as a senile 90-year-old who can’t remember to put on pants, much less how Kareem spells his name. Turns out it’s a guy named Gary Hoenig. In his defense, he was editing a notoriously sloppy columnist’s brick-sized book on a short deadline.
Simmons’ writing style is remarkable in how readable it is, given that he’s a self-admitted lousy writer. My only real complaint is a trait that carries over from his columns — everything goes on one sentence too long, and most of those last sentences get a bit cutesy. What Simmons’ writing does so perfectly, and probably what has helped make him one of the most-read sports writers on the planet, is that he writes how he talks. You don’t read him so much as hear him, his tone a mastery of conversational writing.
In fact, my absolute favorite pieces of his writing over the years have been his interviews. There’s a certain formula to sports reporting and writing that, honestly, leads to asinine questions and thoughtless exchanges, like both athlete and reporter are on autopilot. Simmons doesn’t come from that school. When he’s talking to Isiah Thomas or Bill Walton (as in the wonderful last chapter), it reads like two basketball obsessives having a meaningful conversation that offers those of us without that access a much better understanding of the league and the game.
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Simmons does such excellent podcasts. I’d love to see the second Book of Basketball just be a collection of conversations between Simmons and current and former coaches, players, referees, owners … Basically anyone around the game.
Also, his idea of a coffee table book full of photos of NBA players’ tattoos and the stories behind them would be a good third book. In case you hadn’t noticed, as much as the book annoyed me, I would jump into another 700 pages in a heartbeat.