Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"The Book of Basketball" & The Sports Guy

For Christmas, my wife bought me Bill Simmons' comprehensive "Book of Basketball," a 700-page review of the history of professional hoop as seen through his eyes. I'd already read a number of reviews about it before Christmas even came; most bloggers, predictably, took the opportunity to skewer the book.

And those who complained had some valid points. Simmons takes multiple, unprovoked potshots at players he dislikes (Kareem, Rick Barry and Kobe take a beating) while artificially pumping up those he obviously likes (there's the inevitable worship of Larry Bird and pretty much everyone who played for the Celtics in the '80s). He invents dumb arguments — does anybody really believe Wilt was better than Russell? — then spends entire chapters arguing them. And his writing remains filled with goofy pop-culture anecdotes and references to porn, as though Simmons (age 40) is trying to prove to us that he's still the backwards-hat-wearing former bartender from Boston who sits in the cheap seats surviving on Ramen noodles.

But can we really hold those things against him at this point? I mean, it's a Simmons book! Buying a Simmons book and then complaining about things like this is like renting "Friday the 13th," then complaining that there's too much gore.
And yes, I'm biased. I discovered Simmons' writing while I was in college (when he first began appearing regularly on's Page 2) and have read everything he's written ever since. Frankly, Simmons represented everything I ever wanted to be as a writer: he didn't care about showing his biases, wrote with no attention whatsoever to length and always (ALWAYS) wrote what he wanted to write about. I even find his constant squabbling with his employer endearing; there's something almost noble about the back-and-forth between ESPN and its most popular writer. I even plopped down $10 for "Now I Can Die in Peace," even though I despise the Red Sox.

Still, anyone who reads him regularly knows that his destiny as a writer was this book. An unabashed NBA fan since his childhood, Simmons is one of the few writers who can make you care about things you didn't before you started reading him. At least that's the way it's been for me: I've always liked basketball but lacked the energy for the pros ... until I started reading Simmons regularly. Quite simply, through the power of his writing he made me interested in the NBA. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But that's the truth.
And it's the truth because Simmons wants desperately for you to care about pro basketball the way he does. It's roughly the equivalent of playing intramural softball with my friend Daniel: after playing a season with him, I couldn't help but care about winning softball games. It wasn't until I turned 22 that I realized I was slowly going insane and had to get away from Daniel and softball as quickly as possible. Simmons is that way when it comes to pro hoops: read him long enough and you'll start caring about the NBA. Or you'll want to run away screaming.
So this book is his magnum opus. He devoted three years of his life to it, watching copious amounts of tape, reading countless old books and SI articles and drawing on his own substantial memory bank to fill in the rest. It's 700 pages because it must be 700 pages, and by the time you finish reading it, you do have a different understanding about basketball than you had when you began.

If you like basketball, or if you just feel like you want to like it, it's definitely worth the read. Though I might wait on the paperback.

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