Thursday, January 07, 2010

1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons


I am a huge fan of Bill Simmons and a more reserved one of the NBA, so I obviously asked for the most highly-anticipated basketball books (actually, the only one) in my memory for xmas. And I got it! I am usually struggle with non-fiction, but I could barely put The Book of Basketball down during my vacation and finished all 700+ pages in under two weeks. Before I do a proper review of the book, I would like to talk about Bill Simmons himself a bit.

Bill Simmons is one of my heroes. In and of itself, this isn't all that special as I admire and respect many people in this world. What makes him stand out is that he is the only one who actually hails from my generation. After my brief stint working for Deja.com during the .com boom, I became profoundly disappointed with my people. We have pretty much failed in doing anything good for the world except making parts of it richer. We borrowed the worst parts of our baby boomer predecessors (their ambition and self-involvement) and left all the difficult, good stuff on the ground (their radicalism, their critique of authority). We're the worst kind of sheep, responsible for 8 years of Bush and the SUV stroller. We've somehow managed to combine the extremes of right-wing righteousness with left-wing political-correctness to create a world of excessive consumption and excessive caution. There really isn't much we've done that I'm very proud of.

I know with that set-up it sounds like Simmons is some kind of wild radical. He's not. Fundamentally, he's a sports writer. But there are three elements that make him stand out politically for me: he made his career on his own terms, he embraced technological change and he is highly critical. All of this is mostly limited to the world of sports, but it is significant nonetheless. Sports is a huge business, second probably only to Hollywood in terms of America's cultural and economic influence on the world. (Sports is also the last domain in North America where people argue critically and honestly with any intelligence, but that's another discussion.) Because of his success (due to his skill and hard, consistent work) he has influenced his peers and a generation of readers. With the former, we are already seeing a sea change in the discourse of sports journalism (there are clearly many other factors and invidivuals involved in this change, but Simmons is one of the most significant), where writers are finally starting to find some balls (do you think we'll see another elephant in the room like steroids in baseball during the '90s?). I'll break the elements mentioned above out using Simmons-style structure:

He made his career on his own terms: He started out briefly working at the very bottom of a Boston newspaper, then quit and partied for a bit and then started his own website (bostonsportsguy.com). He was way ahead of his time here (and ahead of me as well, as I didn't jump on the bandwagon until he got to espn) and the success of his website led to him being hired as a regular columnist at espn.com. His success at "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" coincided (and helped) the growth of the website and the web in general for sports information and allowed him a lot of creative freedom. He also gets his face on the front page now. My point here, though, is not that to vaunt his success, but to underline that he became successful following his ideals. He was frustrated at the limitations, both in terms of advancement and content in the traditional newspaper medium and so he went to the web and wrote what he wanted (those early days on his old site must have been a real blast to follow, except that I'm not much of a Boston sports fan*). On espn.com, he refused to pull punches and has come out extremely critical against some very powerful people and institutions. I'm sure there were some interesting conversations in the offices there during certain occassions (though we must give credit to espn for being so flexible and taking some risks, especially considering its size and power today).

He embraced technological change: I already mentioned how he jumped onto the web early, but the other arena that he has fully taken advantage of (and given me hours and hours of entertainment) is podcasting. His podcasts are generally relaxed, casual conversations with a few regular friends (Joe House with his gentle voice being my favorite), colleagues and sports pundits. They are the kinds of discussions you would either be having with your own friends or the ones you wished you could have with some of the great thinkers of sports. He isn't limited to just sports as he gets into reality shows and popular culture (including great back and forths with Chuck Klosterman). He has also gotten quite deep, including an awesome conversation about Obama with JA Adande (you have to scroll down to the 1/21 episode; it really is worth listening to, especially if you want to renew your enthusiasm and optimism now that we are on the verge of invading Yemen) and another one about The Wire (best TV show ever and constantly vaunted by Simmons) with Jason Whitlock that even my wife deigned to listen to.

Simmons recognized the potential of the podcast early on and he pushed hard for it. It took espn a while to appreciate the power of this new distribution form, but they are finally starting to get into it. A couple of podcasts ago, Bill Simmons said that once we get the internet regularily into cars and people can choose podcasts the way they choose radio stations, the medium will exploded and I suspect he is right). (Another podcast visionary, whom I also learned about from Bill Simmons, is Adam Carolla - definitely check his show out.)

He is highly critical: This trait is the one that seals the deal for me. I love following professional sports, especially the NBA but it is a love/hate relationship. I started following the league just as it really started to take off with cable television and Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, there is a constant struggle between the NBA that is the game and the NBA that is the marketing machine and for a while the latter was really winning out (to the point where refs, announcers and the league itself through scheduling and promotion would all work to ensure that a more marketable team or the team with the most marketable player would be more succesful). Simmons was one of the earlier and louder voices on the national stage who really started screaming bullshit at a lot of the stuff that went down. And as he has a legitimacy among the fans, the league and the machine surrounding it (including all the various media outlets) had to listen. I don't know if they've done much about it, but at least they listened and at least someone is screaming. In these times of capitalist supremacy where it's almost considered morally wrong to criticize a corporation or administration, I am grateful for the few voices who still are willing to take a stand. That Simmons has managed to do this and be wildly successful at the same time gives me some small hope for the world. At the very least, I'll get to read some honest and critical writing on a regular basis.

Re-reading the above arguments, I realize that I am ignoring the significance of the context Simmons is working in (the rise of the internet) and many other individuals who have contributed in their own way to these developments (AM sports radio in general, for instance, which has always been much more critical-minded than television or the print media and which had a big influence on Simmons). I am not a hardcore sports nerd, so I tend to read only the most popular writers. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would possibly argue that I am exaggerating Simmons influence and they may well be right. I'm absolutely sure that I have excluded a ton of influential figures, but I am not reviewing a book by any of them.

All these big-issue arguments aside, the main reason I am a big fan of Simmons is that his writing is entertaining, often laugh-out-loud funny but built on a foundation of solid research, well-constructed arguments and interesting ideas. He's writing about sports in an intelligent way but doesn't take himself too seriously.

So onto the book itself. It's huge and is basically a giant look at the entire league from the beginning to last year. He starts out with an intro explaining how he got into basketball and why he wanted to write the book. Then he writes a great broad history of the league (extremely informative). The bulk of the book is him ranking the top 64 players of all time. Simmons loves theoretical arguments (such as "what if player x from the '60s and player y from the '90s played on the same team?") and this section is one giant exploration of how all these players who played in such different eras stack up. The next section is ranking the best teams of all time and then he concludes with his Wine Cellar team, the players he would put together if martians came down and challenged us to a basketball game for the fate of planet earth (seriously; he has a tiny nerd streak that adds to my appreciation). There is a final chapter where goes and meets with Bill Walton which is very moving. I got teary-eyed.

I learned a lot from this book. He has a strong thesis and that is "The Secret", the idea that playing as a team trumps individual athletic prowess and leads to victory. This seems like a truism, but it is a constant struggle in professional sports and many great players have not been able to learn The Secret. I was also shocked (again) by the racism players in the '50s and '60s encountered and how some rose above it and others were taken down by it. Overall, though, The Book of Basketball is kind of like a giant, massive collection of Simmons' online columns, really well-organized and structured with a singular focus. It's not a transcendent work, but terrifically entertaining and highly informative. It's a book about the NBA. If you're not interested in the league or basketball, then I don't suggest you read this. If you are, I strongly recommend it.

(and here's a better review of the book from Slate's Josh Levin, though I disagree that the jokes got repetitive.)

1 comment:

Lantzvillager said...

Wow, what a strongly worded post. I will definitely keep an eye out for this book.