You, me, and everyone we both know have more spare time indoors than ever before. Isolation (hopefully) equals safety, but it’s also stressful, monotonous, and, when endured without any outlet to temporarily slink away from long days that feel like bad dreams, alarmingly passive.
The NBA would be said outlet for millions of people during a time as difficult as the one we’re in, however it’s currently out of commission. But books — escapism’s undefeated No. 1 draft pick — remain as accessible and welcome as ever. As a way to connect the two, I’ve decided to recommend one (that I’ve read in the last 18 months) to every fanbase in the league.
Several of these selections were obvious and explicit, tied to geography or stereotypes. Some remind me of a team owner or playing style or current trajectory. Some remind me of a mood or vibe I associate with the team for reasons that are impossible to articulate. If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is! Never forget how unscientific this exercise is.
Recommending literally anything to an amorphous collection of individuals who happen to root for the same NBA team is not possible. People have different tastes. The books listed here cross genres, from science fiction short stories to self-help memoirs. All won’t be for everybody, but I don’t regret the time I spent with any of them.
Atlanta Hawks: The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead
I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know this book existed until I semi-recently saw it tucked in the back of a used bookstore. I grabbed it off the shelf and noticed Whitehead’s signature on the inside jacket. Despite several dog ears and fading cover art, it cost $45. A smidge too expensive for my blood, even if the author’s prose makes almost any other look like a condo compared to the Taj Mahal. A few days later I walked to the Carroll Gardens public library and checked it out.
Within the first three pages I realized this book was not for me. I don’t get poker, which is not what Noble Hustle is necessarily about, even if — besides Whitehead’s overt antipathy for everything he chooses to meditate on (most notably self-doubt) — it’s the closest thing it has to a backbone. There’s no structure, which is fine. Instead, it rambles from depressing Atlantic City bus rides to depressing Las Vegas casino floors to the mind of a man who might be depressed.
I couldn’t help but feel pessimistic navigating a world that is literally one endless crap shoot, but 1) the book is not without fits of piercing insight (“I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside”), and 2) depending on what type of mood you’re in (i.e. maybe after 200 straight days without seeing the sun) reading it can actually be kind of … soothing?
Absolutely nothing written above or in the book has anything to do with the Atlanta Hawks. But someday someone will appreciate that $45 price tag. Which is to say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whether it’s a morose memoir “about” gambling or Travis Schlenk’s polarizing ground-floor rebuild of a basketball team.
Put in different, simpler terms, this book suits anyone whose favorite team regularly makes them want to cry, which doesn’t not apply to anyone who is emotionally invested in Trae Young’s defensive ceiling.
Boston Celtics: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
For whatever reason I tend to struggle with essay collections. Maybe it’s my shrinking attention span, and how if I don’t let one narrative carry me from beginning to end the reading process tends to feel like a crawl through rush-hour traffic.
Trick Mirror — the most satisfying and relatable collection of essays I’ve ever read — was like that but for the exact opposite reason. After I finished each chapter, my brain played tug of war: Should I continue on or save the rest for as long as I possibly can? Sometimes she crawled into my head and untangled a knotty thought I had never been able to clearly make sense of: “Where we had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online, and this made us self-conscious. Platforms that promised connection began inducing mass alienation.”
Before Trick Mirror, Tolentino was already my favorite writer on the internet — meaning what she mostly covers and the primary home for her work — and, to make a ludicrous analogy for the purpose of this column, in terms of age, promise, and sheer talent, she is to American literature what Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (combined) are to the NBA.
Brooklyn Nets: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Not everyone can identify with this book’s unnamed protagonist — a nihilistic orphan who muffles her misery with dubiously-prescribed medication — but many would be consoled by her lifestyle. (Money isn’t an issue, day-to-day responsibilities don’t exist, and VHS tapes of old movies are her best friend. Things could be worse!)
The stakes in this novel — which is very funny despite everything written about it here — are pretty much non-existent because the present is communicated from the perspective of a wannabe coma patient. One day bleeds into the next, which bleeds into the next, which bleeds into the next. Her life is one rolling blackout.
This stasis is obviously unhealthy, but someone whose favorite basketball team recently signed one of the 15 best players who ever lived just a few months after he tore his Achilles tendon might not mind it.
Charlotte Hornets: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
I was reading this on a plane when the flight attendant stopped to take drink orders for my row. She recognized the colorful book jacket, crinkled her nose, then asked how I liked it. I tilted my head and shrugged. She chuckled and passed me a ginger ale. “That one lost me.”
Chicago Bulls: The Confidence Game: Why we Fall for it … Everytime by Maria Konnikova
“The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give … We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want — money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support — and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late.”
Few books will teach you more about human behavior. So long, GarPax, and shout out to every Bulls fan who is finally out from under their thumb.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
You know when you feel terrible about something but can’t cry? Instead, your stomach ties itself in a loop and your face clenches into the shape of emotional exhaustion? That was me during the last 50 pages of this novel, a soul-shattering foredoomed journey about the impossible choices made with our heart instead of our brain (and vice versa). To every Cavaliers fan floating through an ocean of basketball misery, it made me think of you.
Dallas Mavericks: Judas: How a Sister’s Testimony Brought Down a Criminal Mastermind by Astrid Holleeder
I did not write these recommendations in order, and also could not for the life of me link any books I’d recently read with the Mavericks. The closest was Judas, a candid jaw-dropper that turned the volume of my own heartbeat up to 1000. I bought it in Amsterdam earlier this year, then carried it around the city, stealing pages on department store couches and in hotel lobbies while my wife shopped with her sister.
If you’re wondering why I’ve connected the story of a woman who testifies against her homicidal brother to Dallas, a few months ago, as the national anthem played before Kristaps Porzingis’ very first game back at Madison Square Garden, a couple fans near press row shouted “Judas!” and “Traitor!” multiple times. (I realize that this says more about the Knicks than the Mavs, but let’s jus go with it.)
Denver Nuggets: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
I adore this story, even if it’s almost impossible to describe. It’s a 300-plus page series of hilarious jump cuts that, by the end, are nothing short of a miracle. You know what else is a miracle? Nikola Jokic: franchise tentpole, top 10 player, and wholly unique NBA superstar. So little about the Nuggets and Frankissstein makes sense, but both work for that very reason.
Detroit Pistons: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
For a fanbase that’s living through prolonged dark days with a past to be proud of, here’s a book about memory — as in: cherish the good ones, because zero lie in the pipeline.
Golden State Warriors: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Does this queasy insider account of an ostensibly progressive utopia run by an endless stream of megalomaniacs have anything to do with the revolutionary basketball dynasty that happened to ascend right across the bay?
Not quite, even if one could argue that the Warriors eventually collapsed under the weight of their own hubris. Weiner’s first-person account of life in Silicon Valley hones in on morally-suspect data collection, oblivious misogyny, and unchecked ego. “We talked about our IPO like it was dues ex machina coming down from high to save us.”
To associate that mindset with the Warriors borders on parody. Unless Golden State’s strength-in-numbers rallying cry ever made you scream into a pillow.
Houston Rockets: Conversations with Scorsese by Martin Scorsese and Richard Schickel
If there’s one continuous temperament that runs through the Rockets, from diehard fan to franchise player, it’s unappreciation. Much of it is valid. Most who don’t root for Houston either begrudgingly accept James Harden’s offensive virtuosity or aggressively shine light on his blind spots. Same deal for Daryl Morey’s approach to team building or Mike D’Antoni’s coaching style.
Now, Scorsese is not the perfect analog here — partly thanks to the different scales on which a director and members of a basketball team can be weighed — but he has been overlooked by critics and paying customers just the same. (In her review of Goodfellas, legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so.”)
This isn’t to suggest both Scorsese and the Rockets won’t be celebrated until they’re gone. The former is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential directors alive, while Harden has an MVP, D’Antoni has two Coach of the Year awards, and no single human being receives more credit for the NBA’s analytical revolution than Morey. But all will be revered differently after their collective bodies of work are complete — and in the case of Scorsese, he’s already lived long enough to appreciate the bend in his own narrative arc.
The career of a player, coach, or general manager is never long enough to evolve the same way, but the perception of their impact can, and almost definitely will.
Indiana Pacers: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
This slim, intense novel begs to be consumed in one sitting. The only break I took after I started it was getting off the couch to tip a pizza delivery person. There might not be a more efficient way to kill three hours. My Sister, the Serial Killer knows exactly what it is; no words are wasted or in the wrong order.
This is how I feel whenever I watch the Pacers. They’re confident with their own structure and how they play, even if it’s so different from almost every other team. There are no excuses. They hunt for the shots they want, defend the post how they want, and play the lineups they want. I personally don’t agree with most of their choices, but there’s no arguing with the consistent results that come from them.
Los Angeles Clippers: Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery by Christie Aschwanden
Every sports fan, athlete, and human being who exists inside a physical body should consider reading this. Success for any team requires luck in the health department, but arguably none of them need it quite like the Clippers. Their long-term future was recently exchanged for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two injury-prone superstars who will be 29 and 30 years old, respectively, the next time they play in an NBA game. They can also opt out of their contracts next summer. In other words: Let that Epsom salt flow.
Los Angeles Lakers: Movies (and other Things) by Shea Serrano
When I alluded in the intro to some of these choices maybe being a bit on the nose, this is what I was referring to. The Lakers are Hollywood; Hollywood is movies. But even more important than that: When I first noticed an entire chapter in this book called “Do you wanna read an essay about Friday?” I knew it was my new bible. Go buy Shea’s book if for whatever reason you have not already.
Memphis Grizzlies: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
This book piqued my interest for two reasons: 1) Arrival was a beautiful movie, and 2) Barack Obama blurbed it. In her review, Vox’s Constance Grady described Chiang’s writing as “a particularly utopian episode of Black Mirror.” Sold!
It’s specifically right here because everything that’s happened to the Grizzlies over the past 18 months equals science fiction. For them to zoom straight from the Grit N’ Grind era — a lovable, grimy, anachronistic stretch of underdog prestige that perennially came up a few inches below championship contention — to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. is not real life. No rebuild is perfect, but Memphis’ goes beyond their most optimistic fan’s imagination.
The core Memphis recently aged out of always had one or two stylistic flaws that lowered its ceiling. Morant and Jackson are two budding cornerstones who have no ceiling to speak of; the organization spent approximately 15 seconds in the wilderness before they landed back on track.
I don’t know if there’s any revelation or moral to this story, but those fans are living in a complete dream world and I salute them all to the maximum degree.
Miami Heat: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
It’s cheesy to connect these two on the basis of their shared unapologetic desire to push boundaries until they break, but that’s exactly what I did here. American Spy takes no prisoners. Neither does Pat Riley.
Wilkinson also just used a bunch of lines that are easy to envision on a giant poster board in Riley’s office. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth,”or “The first few moments after you meet someone are precious, because the data on them is plentiful and your own subjectivity has yet to interfere.” I mean, come on. If Riley hasn’t read this yet someone should give it to him immediately. (Also, I’m a sucker for book covers that pop. American Spy is the Miami Vice jersey of cover art.)
Milwaukee Bucks: Severance by Ling Ma
At this point, Bucks fans might as well swerve into the skid and bury their heads inside this expansively claustrophobic horror story that’s one part simmering identity crisis, two parts work-life paranoia, and 18 parts zombie apocalypse. No fanbase deserves more empathy right now.
As the narrative jumps from present day to the main character’s recent past, a global pandemic even scarier than our real one paralyzes the human race. I wouldn’t call it comforting, but this novel dimly illuminates an even darker tunnel than the one we’re currently inching through.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
A while ago I told my wife, who is from Michigan, that she’d like this. Right around the time she was nearly finished, I let her know about this very article and asked which NBA fanbase she’d recommend it to. Her response, without hesitation, was Minnesota. I asked why. “Because Midwesterners enjoy racy material that they can’t talk about in person.” Case closed!
New Orleans Pelicans: Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
If I were to compile a list of non-science-or-health-related public figures who must be protected at all costs, Samantha Irby and Zion Williamson would both be on it. Earlier this year someone who doesn’t know anything about the NBA asked me which one player should he watch to hook himself in. I exhaled “Zion” without thinking.
This is kinda how I feel about Irby’s latest essay collection. If there’s one book/movie/TV show/anything I’d recommend to anyone right now, it’s that, a body-shaking funny gem that I’ve already devoured more than once. I wish Irby and Williamson could’ve somehow entered my life 10 years ago. Better late than never, though.
New York Knicks: Who is Michael Ovitz? by Michael Ovitz
In his prime, Ovitz was an omnipotent Hollywood deal-maker and relentless bully who inevitably helped shift parts of how the movie industry does business. A co-founder of CAA and one of the most powerful talent agents who ever lived, Ovitz’s memoir is sincere yet steeped in delusion, with words that often come across as a fantastical misrepresentation of reality. “Lying to me is a point-blank misstatement with no purpose in mind,” Ovitz, a notorious liar, wrote.
Taken at face value, it’s little more than a brick of narcissism. Some statements are from a man staring at a mirror, talking to his own reflection. “I had two hundred magazine subscriptions, and I’d skim the magazines.” What?
Ovitz was also petty, power hungry, and quick to point a finger. In that vein, the gossip makes this book entertaining, if nothing else. But its most revealing moments are overshadowed by a massive ego that’s protected by egg shells.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
For the one fanbase that’s had to cope with divorce more than any other, here’s a pseudo-therapeutic bestseller that nosedives into one of the most painful experiences a person can go through. It’s unpredictable, told from a few different points of view, and slightly confusing. But this will make you feel something. Especially if you watch the Rockets and wish their two best players were in blue.
Orlando Magic: Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports by Yaron Weitzman
I didn’t include Tanking to the Top because Yaron is a friend who threatened/offered to pay me when I first told him about this column. It’s insightful and packed with fresh anecdotes about how a bold experiment generated a fascinating inflection point. Go buy it.
Why isn’t it recommended to Sixers fans? 1) They should already have it, 2) It somehow felt more appropriate connecting this to a fanbase that deserves to know what a good, arduous tank job looks like. Few franchises are more in need than Orlando.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Witch Elm by Tana French
My original answer here was Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA by Kirk Goldsberry, but proposing that informative examination of modern strategy to segments of a fanbase that still believe in their own craggy infrastructure made me feel too much like Skip Bayless. (By all means, don’t let that stop you from buying Sprawlball, reading it, and then venting to Josh Harris with a 7,000-word email.)
Instead here’s a relishable murder mystery that felt like a more appropriate way to acknowledge one of the most bizarre seven-year runs any relevant NBA organization has ever had.
The Sixers are stranger than fiction, and every time they come up in conversations had with friends, people who work in the NBA, other writers, etc. the same questions are asked:
Do the Sixers trust Joel Embiid’s body?
Will Simmons ever develop a reliable jump shot?
Was the Markelle Fultz situation ever repairable?
Why didn’t they keep Jimmy Butler?
Did Sam Hinkie actually have to die for our sins?
Tea leaves can answer the aforementioned questions well enough (nope, leaning towards no, probably not, still unclear, sir this is a Wendy’s). But that’s not the same as hard evidence. The Sixers are all conjecture.
For any fan who’s fed up with their favorite team’s need to obfuscate the truth, either deliberately or through their own bumbling incompetence, let Witch Elm be your medicine. At the very least, by the end you’ll finally have some answers.
Phoenix Suns: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Imagine being forced into a one-way, emotionally abusive relationship with an obscenely wealthy white man who knows he can directly impact your happiness but never never makes an effort to change his behavior. Your feelings are at the bottom of the totem pole to this person. There are some things he can use you for but far more often than it’s you who needs him.
Suns fans have no idea what I’m talking about, but they can learn more by reading this memoir.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam
Apologies to every Blazers fan who saw this and immediately rolled their eyes. Last month I saw it in the front window of a new bookstore in Brooklyn and it felt like a sign. My original copy was lost somewhere down the line, so I walked in and bought this one, with a grimacing Bill Walton and his scraggly red hair on the cover.
Aside from some dated language and how it was obviously written long before analytics transformed the scouting process, so many of its ideas are timeless, if not prescient. (The delicate balance between chemistry and talent, the exhausting regular season being too long, and the swelling power struggle between owners and players to name a few themes sprinkled throughout.)
One part I forgot — that for sure solidifies Portland as the most cursed team in NBA history (sorry again, Blazers fans!) — is how they had Moses Malone as Walton’s backup, then traded him for a draft pick. Two years later, Malone was the NBA’s MVP and Walton was in San Diego. Woof. (Also forgotten but equally important: Walton once had two shower heads in his home. The higher one for himself, and the lower one, as he put it “to wash the soap off my balls.” This book really has it all.)
Sacramento Kings: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
No one is suggesting you snort DMT just because your mood is irrationally affected by Vlade Divac’s whimsical understanding of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, but if that is in fact ever something you’ve considered doing then sink into this exploration of the tantalizing hidden benefits held by various psychedelic drugs before you do.
San Antonio Spurs: Pet Semetary by Stephen King
Does anyone out there honestly believe that San Antonio’s demise just happened to coincide with the NBA season being put on hiatus? There’s no such thing as a coincidence. The Spurs will never die. By the time basketball is back in full swing, Dejounte Murray will be one of the five best players in the league and LaMarcus Aldridge will move like he’s 26. This is just the way of the world.
Toronto Raptors: Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling by Amy Chozick
My favorite genre is any behind-the-scenes come-up story where a professional writer illustrates their life as a professional writer. I ingested most of it during a weekend trip to Greenwich, where my wife was a bridesmaid in her college friend’s wedding.
Now, there’s really no reason why a book about Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign would be super interesting to your average Canadian, but your average Raptors fan might be able to compare Chozick’s pursuit of Clinton to the tension they felt watching Kawhi Leonard throughout the playoffs, unsure if he’d re-sign or leave for Los Angeles. If that sounds like a stretch, it totally is! I just really wanted to include this book because it belongs in a time capsule.
Utah Jazz: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris
The few self-help books I’ve ever read were approached with the following expectations: “If this does not 100 percent cure all my problems overnight then whoever wrote it belongs in prison,” which is an extremely healthy way to be.
A few years ago when I was living in Los Angeles, this sentence was more or less uttered verbatim in my therapist’s office and she responded by endorsing 10% Happier. So I ordered it the same day. Then I watched it collect dust on a shelf in my bedroom room.
A short time ago, after lugging it on moves to Boston and Brooklyn, I gave the book a try, more out of curiosity than anything else. It didn’t rectify my own anxiety (I still use fancy-sounding words I don’t technically know the definition of — “The Invisible Man was bad but the uncouth scenes almost held it together” — in conversations with people I don’t know very well/my wife in the hope they’ll think I’m smart, which is never embarrassing) or convince me to pick up meditation. But I couldn’t help but admire how it was packaged — useful life advice that’s Trojan-horsed inside the author’s re-telling of his professional nadir.
This has literally nothing to do with the Jazz or their fans, other than the fact they are human beings and Harris’ story is nearly universal. We’re all anxious. We all have self-doubt. This book might not be meant to solve those problems, but if you’re looking for a way to pass the time before basketball comes back, giving it a try can’t hurt.
Washington Wizards: Cherry by Nico Walker
We end with one of the most tortured fan bases in professional sports. This book — a bleak exploration of masculinity, addiction, and hopelessness — will lock you into an emotional death spiral, which is how I imagine being a fan of the Wizards has felt for the past 20 years.