Sunday, October 16, 2011

#75: The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons

ESPN Books, New York: 2009. 715 pages

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I like Bill Simmons' writing quite a bit (he and Jason Whitlock are my favorite sportswriters) but I felt this was going to be roughly 700 pages of stroking the collective cocks of the Boston Celtics. It was roughly 200 pages of that, but at least it was entertaining.

Simmons book revolves around "The Secret", explained to him once in a pool in Vegas by Isiah Thomas. "The Secret" is what makes good players great, great players transcendent, and championship teams candidates for elite-all time status. Along the way, one gets opinions, stats, more opinions, Johnny Wadd references, Michael Buffer references, a comparison of pre-1980s stars to old time porn stars. Simmons does not take himself very seriously, as evidenced by this footnote "Nothing's worse than being trapped in a room with someone who is creating dumb arguments, trying to prove impossible to prove things...unless it's this book." (674) This is what I would call a "Bar Book"; a collection of awesome arguments to have whilst watching sports over a beer with some friends.

This makes it different than many books of this type, looking for the "best ever" anything. Most of these books are overloaded with obscure statistics which sort of prove the point, but leave readers with that cloud of "Yeah, but...". This works in baseball, as SABR and Bill James have done most of the heavy lifting by figuring out the historical meaning of statistics. Simmons is on the leading edge of this with the NBA, as are the people who run the great Pro-Basketball reference website.

Simmons spins many sordid tales of NBA greats, but that is not what this book is all about. The book is about the game, and Simmons treats the game as sacredly as John Thorn treats baseball. I don't watch a lot of NBA basketball anymore, but it is refreshing to see someone keeping the '86 Celtics and '92 Bulls alive. Not to mention people such as Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and Dave Cowens; people who did not benefit from the extreme amount of coverage of today's bland corporate superstars. The strength of this book is that non-corporate, vaguely sexist and downright profane tone that Simmons has always employed. Dan Biasone gets a LOT of attention; the man saved the NBA by inventing the 24 second clock, and the Hall of Fame let him die without inducting him. I find this outrageous, as does Simmons. The best authors are in touch with the history of their subject and celebrate it warts and all. Simmons is certainly one of those authors.

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