“So that’s what this book is about: capturing the noise, sorting through all the bullshit and figuring out which players and teams and stories should live on. It’s also about the NBA, how we got here, and where we’re going. It’s way too ambitious and I probably should have stuck to an outline, but screw it—by the end of the book, it will all make sense.”
Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball is a book best read over time and on the side. Simmons, ESPN’s The Sports Guy and arguably the most famous sportswriter working today, has penned an overlong and overly ambitious paean to professional basketball in America that can, if needed, stop a bullet in its pages. It is fun to read but in smaller doses—roughly the length of a Simmons column at a time, or, as so many of his readers like to point out, one trip to the bathroom.
This is because Simmons’ style wears on you after a while, or at least it has on me after eight years of more or less devoted readership.* He’s fun and informal, and he makes a lot of clever references; this has never been in doubt. It’s just that, over the course of 700 pages, the allusions to porn, Boogie Nights, trips to Vegas, and Teen Wolf get a little tiresome. It becomes frustrating that Simmons’ only means of articulating one thing is through the prism of this other thing. In breaking down why Rick Barry was the 26th best player of all time, Simmons starts sentences with the following clauses:
- “Remember when Jeff Beebe flips out during the near-plane crash in Almost Famous…”
- “Poor Barry was the Daniel LaRusso of the NBA…”
- “If Barry’s career was relived as a twelve-person dinner party…”
The third of these analogies is the best, even if it ignores the subjunctive mood. It even made me laugh out loud, as Simmons tends to do every dozen pages or so over the course of the book. But do we really need three different cultural entry points to try to understand the career of Rick Barry? And, in fact, all three relate to the same idea: that Barry was “the most notorious asshole in NBA history.” It’s an easy case to make, and some shrewd editing could have made it stronger and more efficiently. Moreover, this is hardly unusual in the book; it isn’t like I flagged Barry’s section. I just opened the book, happened to be here, and searched for extraneous pop culture references. Two pages earlier, Simmons talks about the disappointment of Bill Walton’s career and makes comparisons “from a comedic standpoint,” “from a musical standpoint,” and then makes an extended analogy between Walton and Tupac Shakur. Later, he’d explain the entire career of Kobe Bryant in terms of Teen Wolf.
*I read everything he wrote from roughly 2002 through 2006; then I started being more selective with his columns, but still reading 75% or so.
Simmons’ biggest stylistic issues, however, come when he tries to step outside of this culturally conscious comfort zone and into the realm of profundity. The strongest statement of his thesis actually comes from screenwriter William Goldman: “The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It’s gradual. It begins before you’re aware that it’s begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death.” Simmons’ goal, then, is to figure out which players and teams matter and deserve our memories. He tells his own story about being there for John Havlicek’s last game at Boston Garden and cheering for eight and a half minutes before the game—an incredible ovation for a deserving player. Simmons tries to make the point that we forget moments like this rather easily; he himself forgot what it was like to be there for Hondo. But here’s what he says,
“Once upon a time, the Boston Garden fans cheered Hondo for 510 seconds. And I was there. I was in the building. I cheered for every one of those 510 seconds and it was the only happy memory of that entire crummy season. But that’s the funny thing about noise: eventually it stops.”
That’s the funny thing about noise: eventually it stops? This is more confusing than enlightening, more cumbersome than prosaic, more unintentionally funny than poignant. It comes as no coincidence that the best-written parts of the book—the ones that do articulate the meaning of the sport—come in quotes or cameo appearances from people like Goldman, Chuck Klosterman, Steve Kerr, Bill Bradley, and Bill Walton. These, in fact, are phenomenal to read, making me ponder the potential of a book that collects wisdom on the sport from such emissaries of the game.
The most oft-quoted part of the book is something Simmons learned directly from his one-time nemesis, Isiah Thomas. How it all went down—at a topless bar in Vegas with Simmons’ feud with Zeke brokered by announcer Gus Johnson—is indeed an entertaining story (if not a new one for those of us who have read Simmons before). But the big profound moment comes later in the conversation, when Isiah suspensefully reveals, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” I understand, in a sense, what Isiah is saying. But it’s banal; it reveals nothing while wrapping itself in Zen clothing as a faux epiphany. Simmons carries this idea throughout the course of his book, explaining which players grasped The Secret (it earns capital letters) and which didn’t. Unfortunately, the entire concept is better articulated in the book’s final chapter by Bill Walton:
“It’s not a secret as much as a choice. Look at the forces fighting against that choice. Look at the forces pushing you to make the other choice, the wrong choice. It’s all about you. It’s all about material acquisitions, physical gratification, stats and highlights. Everywhere you go, you’re bombarded with the opposite message of what really matters. And you wouldn’t even know otherwise unless you played with the right player or right coach…. The history of life is that most people figure it out. Most of the time it’s too late. That’s the real frustrating part—the squandered opportunities you can’t get back.”
Simmons even admits that Walton’s “Choice” could work better than Isiah’s “Secret.”* Walton’s phrasing highlights the agency of individual players in choosing how they’re perceived and whether they succeed. After all, it isn’t really a “secret.” Star players know that, in order to win, you have to play as a team, but many just chose to try to win in a more selfish fashion (and in turn, gain greater glory). It’s disappointing we only get to Walton at the end; instead of rolling my eyes every time Simmons brought up “The Secret,” I could have bought into “The Choice” a little easier.
*It’s not like he chose Zeke’s phrasing over Walton’s; he did the interview with Walton after the book was more or less finished.
The second problem with The Book of Basketball is that its attempt at being comprehensive prevents it from being cohesive. Simmons acknowledges as much early on, but it isn’t just that his ambition gets in the way of his structure or organization; it also subverts part of his argument. Simmons attempts to analyze the entire history of the NBA while acknowledging that there’s firm breaks in the quality of play, marked by Bill Russell’s entry into the league (and, you know, other black players, too) and later in the early 80s, when Magic and Bird were established, David Stern took over as commissioner and cleaned up the drug problem, and Michael Jordan was about to enter the league. Basketball’s continued evolution is important to note because it adjusts how we look at it historically—probably even more than it does in baseball or football.* The consensus best player in basketball history retired a mere dozen years ago.** Compare that to baseball, whose best player retired before the NBA came into existence. Projecting how stars in the early years of the NBA would adapt to today’s game seems more difficult and more subjective than it does in baseball. Whereas desegregation raised the leaguewide quality of play in the Majors, it dramatically altered the essence of basketball, transforming it from a deliberate, set-shot kind of game to an up-and-down and above-the-rim sport in which athleticism is paramount. With baseball, we might say that Ted Williams wouldn’t hit .400 today, but he would still be a good player—probably an All-Star. In basketball, Simmons, like most everyone, can reasonably argue that George Mikan probably wouldn’t crack a starting lineup in today’s NBA. But the issue becomes hazier the further we progress chronologically, relying more on subjective judgments than anything else. When we get into the Russell Era in the 1960s, blacks were playing, but still not nearly the same number as today. Can we be so sure that Russell’s aberrant athleticism then wouldn’t just be above-average now? Or that John Havlicek wouldn’t have been able to play 42-44 minutes a game if he had to guard Kobe?
*Football is an interesting case because its history seems so much less important to its ethos. It does not have a consensus best player ever; in fact, if “Family Feud” asked 100 people who the greatest football player of all time was, the No. 1 answer would probably have about 15 respondents (and I would guess it would be Jim Brown). There would be like eight very plausible answers on the board, ranging from Unitas to Montana to Rice to LT to Manning to Sweetness to Marino. Every era since professional football emerged in the late 1950s would be represented. And as much as football has evolved, we don’t debate whether guys like Unitas and Brown would be able to play today; we agree that they would not only survive, but excel.
**And NEVER returned.
The Book of Basketball, then, feels like it would have worked better if Simmons used one of his lines of demarcation and sidenoted everything that happened before. Would it lose some of its marketability and comprehensiveness? Sure, but it also lose its single most subjective element—that question of who would translate to the modern game and who wouldn’t—and would be a better book for it. We wouldn’t be dealing with long sections breaking down the skill sets of Russell and Chamberlain’s teammates to determine who had a better supporting cast and, in the end, who was a better player. The historical scope of the book confounds the question: If we want to know who was better then, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t answer with Russell. The guy won 11 titles. But if we’re trying to figure out who would be better now, I tend to think the answer is Wilt.*
*Wilt Chamberlain is nothing short of basketball’s Babe Ruth: His statistics are absolutely staggering.** His exploits off the court took on larger-than-life proportions (20,000 women!). It is simply that basketball and baseball are very different games, and that Wilt had to think of appeasing his teammates because being the single most dominant player in his sport’s history did not guarantee team success.
**Read the book for most of them. My favorite, though, comes from Chuck Klosterman’s 1000 words on Wilt: “If Chamberlain had never played during the second half of any game in his entire career, he would still have eight more career rebounds than Dennis Rodman.”***
***Simmons spends an entire chapter deconstructing the Russell v. Wilt debate, then hands over 1000 words on Wilt to Klosterman, who more or less undermines everything Simmons wrote about Chamberlain chapters earlier. I think this should be podcast fodder.
The subjectivity issue only manifests itself in certain arguments and only then when Simmons can’t provide ample evidence of his point. In making the case that Bob Cousy was better than Steve Nash, Simmons actually writes, “Watch Nash running the show now and that’s what Cousy was like back then, only better.” Ohhhhhhhh, now I understand! He’s better than Nash because he runs the fast break just like him…but better! It comes back to Simmons’ reliance on comparisons. The only way he can articulate the grace of a Bob Cousy fast break is by relating it to another, purportedly lesser player’s fast break. And it’s not as if he differentiates beyond that sentence. His next move is to say, “There’s a reason he became the NBA’s first iconic guard…”, but again, we’re left wondering exactly what that reason is (is it just that he ran the fast break like Nash…but better?).
Through all of the flaws, Simmons’ book remains an entertaining read. It still made me chuckle fairly frequently, and it provided some neat insight for someone who has drifted away from the NBA over the last dozen years. The Book of Basketball can serve as a nice, informal introductory text to the NBA, and an excellent icebreaker in any and all NBA-related conversations. Much like the NBA’s own journey to the present, Simmons takes some missteps, finds some magic, and labors to some conclusions. It’s flawed but occasionally entertaining, just like the league it covers.