Book Review: The Book of Basketball

via www.uncrate.com

I know what you're thinking. Reviewing a basketball book that came out years ago, and has already been laden with tons of accolade, including going to No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers chart? Seems like sort of a waste of time. And you know what? You'd be right. But doing an impromptu review of a book that wasn't even sent to me (that's right... I went out and bought it. *gasp*) is the best tribute I can pay to Bill Simmons, whose updated version of "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy" is one of the best sports reads I've enjoyed in a while.

Right away, I'm going to differentiate myself from the bulk of the sports world by saying that I don't actively follow Bill Simmons. That's not so much a slight of Simmons, as much as it is me not reading as much sports news/articles as I should, and not having enough time between this site and other things to browse Internet columns on a regular basis. It became clear pretty early on though why he's popular enough to attract his own section on ESPN.com and over a million followers on Twitter.

Simmons is not only a terrific writer, but spent an exhausting amount of time researching basketball and watching old VHS tapes in preparation for the book. It's that sort of attention to detail that gives his points and opinions the credence needed to validate an entire book on the history of hoops. Simmons is a pop culture fanatic, and frequently relates moments of NBA lore to scenes from The Shawshank Redemption, Boogie Nights and Teen Wolf, but he always does it in an off-hand, natural way that doesn't detract from his writing. Without naming names, there are a lot of Internet sports writers out there who are constantly trying to be comedians, who'll end paragraphs with superfluous crap like, "Kobe was playing like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider tonight," which is then usually followed by a photo of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Simmons isn't trying to impress you with random B.S.; he references The Shawshank Redemption because he KNOWS that movie, and can find parallels to it and the NBA even when they're sketchy at best.

He's also learned from Tony Kornheiser that it's necessary to be self-deferential when relating everything back to yourself. When he spells out the concept of his Hall of Fame pyramid, he readily admits that while he'd like it to be adopted someday, at it's core, it's really just an idea he and his friend thought of when they were driving across the country. He rags on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar constantly, but since he's a die-hard Celtics fan, it's easy to accept his derision as respectful hatred rather than spiteful loathing.

He's also developed one of the most unique footnote systems I've ever seen. Whereas most book footnotes offer little more than background information, Simmons uses them to clarify some of his points, or sometimes to relate it to a story that had to be edited out of the regular cut. It's almost as if there's a running DVD commentary that follows each of the pages, and it's so unique that I have to imagine it'll be adopted by other books in later years. If ever there was a reason to buy the print version of a book over an electronic one, this is it.

Of course as a rabid basketball fan myself, it was impossible for me to make it through his book agreeing with everything he said. In his Hall of Fame pyramid, for instance, he put Robert Horry at No. 80. If he had made the distinction that Horry was the 80th most qualified person for the Hall of Fame, or that he had the 80th best career in history, I could agree. But he distinctly said that his pyramid was for the best players in history, and as fantastic as Horry was (he'd be the Babe Ruth of the role player Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed), he was nowhere near as good as a litany of players just from the past 15 years: Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice, Carmelo Anthony. Hell, even marginal stars like Chris Kaman or Glenn Robinson where more pivotal to their teams than Robert Horry. That's not to see that Horry didn't capitalize on every virtually every opportunity he was presented with, but that you'd never go out of your way to build your team around a guy who spent most of his career coming off the bench. He may have more Hall of Fame credentials than someone like Penny Hardaway, but he certainly wasn't a better player.

My other qualm is his indignation that Kobe didn't win the 2006 MVP award over Steve Nash. True, Kobe carried a pretty awful Lakers team to within a Tim Thomas three of an upset in the first round (over Nash's Suns no less). And that was the year Kobe took on a ridiculous scoring load post-Shaq, and even scored 81 against Toronto and 62 against Dallas in three quarters. BUT... Steve Nash spent the whole year without Amare Stoudemire, and dragged a starting lineup of Raja Bell, James Jones, Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. It's not like Kobe had a demonstrably worse supporting cast; Odom certainly lasted longer in the league than Marion did once he got traded to Miami. And whereas Nash single-handedly gave life to also-rans like Bell, Diaw and Thomas, Bryant was solely concerned with scoring as many points as possible, with winning only coming as an aside after he accomplished his mission drop 35 on a nightly basis.

But the biggest problem I have with his argument is that Kobe Bryant did everything but change his name to Rick Barry in the seventh game of the series against the Suns. With his team down by double-digits, Kobe flat-out refused to take a shot in the second half, almost as in protest of the rest of the team, who he no doubt blamed for their eventual loss. Bryant is a fantastic player, but his composure in Game 7 that year was so lousy and so stubborn that to say he deserved the MVP over Steve Nash is almost baffling to me. Simmons spent the first half of the book railing against Wilt Chamberlain for his stat-mongering and selfishness and praising Bill Russell for his devotion to getting his team a win. And yet, he wanted the award to go to Kobe strictly because of his alpha-dog status as the league's leading scorer, while his contemporary, Nash, was doing everything in his power to make his teammates better. There's a discrepancy in logic there that I don't understand.

Still, this isn't me complaining about the book by any stretch. If anything, I came away from this book wishing I actually knew Bill Simmons so that I could debate him about certain things. Anyone already familiar with his writing, or anyone looking for a fresh perspective on the history of the game should do themselves a favor and buy it.

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