The only good thing about getting a nasty flu? Easy: Lots of time for reading monster tomes like Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy”. Thanks to a sentinel from the legion of The 2009 Killer Viruses, i was able to knock down all 697 pages of this thing – every “what if” scenario, every drop of gushy sycophantry about the Boston Celtics, every cheap shot at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, every improved list of reasons why, every obtuse pop-culture reference that would’ve sent me scurrying to access Wikipedia had i possessed the ability to crawl out of bed. Everything.
It’s not quite like proclaiming you’ve finished “Finnegan’s Wake,” but pride can be taken in the solace that this reader was perhaps among the first 100 to finish the volume on The Continent and probably the only one in Hungary. Apparently one needn’t have read “The Book of Basketball” to review it, as evidenced by the barrage of reviews (pretty much all of which landed firmly in either the “Simmons damn near the greatest sportswriter ever” or the “Simmons is overrated and, frankly, passé” camp) that somehow appeared throughout the blogosphere within 24 hours of the book’s release on Amazon.com. (Come on, there’s no way ESPN Books sent out *that* many review copies.)
If you’re clueless as to what the vitriol contained in the above-cited negative review is all about, well, you’re not alone. One can’t help but wonder, however, just how much of “The Book of Basketball” Charles P. Pierce looked at with an open mind and how much he, you know, *read* of this book. (Is it possible that Pierce’s 2000 book “Sports Guy,” apparently titled without knowledge of what a barely-known blogger was doing in Boston, has something to do with it…? Nah.)
Yes, all the deadpan humor, friend-referencing and fierce homerism so characteristic of The Sports Guy’s columns over at ESPN.com are in here, but Simmons and editor Gary Hoenig realize that “The Book of Basketball” wasn’t to be a simple rehashing of internet work or stapled together newspaper column-like bits, but a freaking *book* for Hemingway’s sake.
And kudos to them, because “The Book of Basketball” is exactly what Simmons (and basketball) fans deserve: The Sports Guy’s writing – coupled with his insane encyclopedic knowledge of the game – refined.
The bad news first for Ball in Europe’s hometown crowd: The subtitle “The NBA According to the Sports Guy” is vitally descriptive. There are miniscule acknowledgements of the European and NCAA games, but you’ll need an atomic microscope to find them. It’s nice to see Arvydas Sabonis check in on Simmons’ “Pyramid Guys” list – more on this momentarily; essentially, it’s a 361-page reworking of the Hall of Fame as the NBA Hall of Fame – at no. 86 and set up (though no speculation included on) one of the book’s most compelling “what if” questions, i.e. What if Sabonis had signed with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1989? These paeans to the European players and dominant USSR squads of the 70s and 80s are few and far between, however.
On the other hand, non-American fans should nevertheless give “The Book of Basketball” a shot for several reasons, and, in tribute to the Sports Guy, let’s throw in a bulleted list from out of nowhere.
• Simmons’ prose oozes with that one word plug for Euroleague: Devotion with a capital D. If you love basketball, well, Simmons probably loves it more than you. Also, you’ll love this book.
• Stats and facts, facts and stats. While admitting that he hates numbers to tell the story, Simmons always argues his approximately 1,238,975 cases with a firm statistical foundation. For stat monkeys – like yours truly – this is amazing stuff, pub argument-settling stuff. I mean, did you know that Dennis Rodman’s teams went 692-352 (a winning percentage of just under .666) including playoffs for his career? Or that field goals attempted and rebounds have steadily declined over 50 years, by factors of 22.5% and 40%, respectively? Or that the single greatest statistical performance by a duo in the playoffs was turned in by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (or Shaqobe, as Simmons would have it) in 2001? I’m just scratching the surface here…
• Getting to this one line alone is worth reading the first 354 pages: “The lesson as always: Bill Laimbeer was an asshole.” (Oops.)
• The pop-culture references and stories-of-my-friends stuff is kept to a minimum. You don’t have to have been raised on American television to understand 97% of the prose in “The Book of Basketball” (as opposed to the 72% comprehensibility ratio exhibited in most of the ESPN “Sports Guy” columns); you may want to have Wikipedia handy, though.
• You can build up your biceps and pecs just by hauling the heavy-ass thing around.
• The characterization is incredible, almost reading like literary fiction, particularly in “The Pyramid” section. In creating a true “NBA Hall of Fame,” Simmons contributes what amounts to 96 short essays on players from throughout NBA history. His portrait of recent FIBA Hall of Fame inductee Oscar Robertson is incredible, the detailed evolution of Magic Johnson’s ego (old guys like myself will recall that smilin’ Earvin petulantly got Paul Westhead fired as Lakers coach in the early 80s) excellently drawn, the élan of Dave Cowens palpable. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you’ll come to see more past and present NBA players as human beings after reading “The Book of Basketball”.
Finally – and dropping out of list mode in order to emphasize this key point so forgotten in the internet-mad world – Simmons can write. Always somehow surprising despite a certain level of necessary dogmatic predictability (i.e. Boston teams are best, the firm placement of the subjective viewpoint as though the damn prose isn’t already clearly 99-44/100% pure Simmons), “The Book of Basketball” benefits from the medium.
It’s as though Sports Guy Bill Simmons is essentially two writers. “The Sports Guy” is the guy who bangs out 4,000-word columns brimming with quick-moving spontaneity and ephemera; Bill Simmons is the guy with a vision in mind who takes his time to tell a whopper of a tale. And another. And another. For as long as your attention span and/or a lingering flu will let you listen.
Despite Simmons’ own laments that some of his words are essentially archaic ten minutes after writing them down – After all, how high should LeBron James be on all-time list? How will Shaq’s tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers affect his playing history? And how about that rebirth of Steve Nash in Phoenix? All questions further evolved since publication of the thing – “The Basketball Book” will surely be a keeper for some time to come: not for the stats, but for the stories. The origin of Bill’s own basketball fandom, his meeting with column-fodder Isaiah Thomas (much deeper than the ESPN.com-published excerpt, incidentally), the tête-à-tête with Bill Walton: This is the stuff. These stories are personal and funny and moving and engaging … and sometimes touching, damn it, yes i said it.
See, Simmons knows something. The entire premise of “The Book of Basketball” is devoted to “The Secret” (or, as Walton would ultimately have it, “The Choice”), an abstract concept that Isaiah defined while lounging amidst a plethora of topless babes poolside with “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” Rather, Simmons explains for (and readers discover over) hundreds of pages that some abstract quality rules over the game, a sort of Celtics-like Ubuntu of brotherhood that is absolutely critical to success on the court beyond statistics. It’s why the Detroit Pistons took out the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2003 NBA Finals. It’s why Simmons pervasively argues that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain. (Hell, I’d argue it’s why we’ll be seeing Montepaschi Siena in the 2010 Euroleague Final Four tournament.)
Well, Simmons possesses the secret of sportswriting: The secret of sportswriting is that’s it not about sportswriting. Tens of thousands can bang out 1,000 words’ worth of well-constructed analysis on last night’s Utah Jazz-Los Angeles Clippers game – a tsunami of sports-themed blogs at your fingertips; need i say more? – but few can truly be called Writers. Simmons brings to his already-loaded game a real devotion and affection for his subject, an urge (dare i call it “artistic”?) to communicate with fellow basketball lovers from the heart, and the willingness to let it rip aesthetically.
All of Simmons’ joking self-deprecation and self-effacing modesty aside, this guy can write. “The Book of Basketball” is more than a book about basketball; it’s even more than the best book about the NBA to come down the pike in years. This, my fellow hoops devotees, is a *Book*. And if you don’t know what i mean, wait ‘til the next flu bug hits you and crack the binding on this one. You won’t be disappointed.