April 1, 2010

A white man's book about the black man's game

It's been a fair while since I've been this willing to gush about a book.

It's also been a while since I've gotten halfway through a book and decided to buy it rather than try to force my way through before its return deadline to the library.

And now that I'm about to finish the book up, I'm not feeling even a single iota of regret for the purchase.

This is, quite simply, the best basketball book I've read.

No qualifier ("this year", "since this other book", "about the NBA")...no conjunction ("but for the...", "if not for...")...no disclaimer at all.

This book is awesome.

If you have any interest in basketball in the least, read this book.

Whether you have any interest in the NBA or not (and I have very little, in all honesty), read this book.

Ok, enough gushing and empty platitudes.  Let's get to why this book is awesome.

I'm all down with the numbers and the Sabermetric revolution.  I've read Bill James and follow Rob Neyer almost religiously.  I'll check baseball-reference with a crazy kind of frequency during the baseball season.  Hell, I've read and enjoyed Moneyball.

Every now and again, however, we need to remember that numbers don't tell the full story.  Yes, we can look and see that Barry Bonds's OPS+ during his San Francisco years was 199, but there are a huge number of stories that aren't included in that 199 number.  This is the kind of book that spends a little amount of time on the 199 and a whole lot of time on the stories of how Bonds would've gotten there, how the ball sounded coming off of Bond's bat, how Bonds's teammates hated playing with him, how sportswriters talked about Bonds, and even what Simmons thought while he was watching Bonds.

This is a book about the stories...the memories...the feelings...the people who made all the baskets, pulled down all the rebounds.

This is a book that tells you that Moses Malone was a savant in using his backside to sneak under the basket for rebounds.

Simmons debates which version of Michael Jordan was the one you'd want on your wine cellar team (he comes down on '92, but just by a hair).

The book is based on a radical redesign of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a massive, six-level pyramid in French Lick, Indiana.  All visitors would begin in the basement where there would be special exhibits about interesting eras, basketball innovations, current champions.  From there, the tour would begin on the first floor with the players that Simmons refers to as level one players - consistently very good but never quite great - and proceeds upward to the pinnacle of the building with the pantheon players, the greatest dozen players to lace up their high tops and take the NBA court, the greatest of the great.

Two thirds of the book is taken up with ranking the eighty-six members of this new Hall of Fame - in order and in great detail.  This can only be done, however, after Simmons goes through and reallocates many of the MVP awards that the NBA has handed out over the years - since some part of his very much non-scientific rankings are based on MVP awards.  And that can only be done after we learn the history of the NBA so that we can know how the style of play - and the statistics gleaned from each style - changed through the decades.

Most sports writers would have turned this sort of an exercise - ranking players, reawarding MVPs, choosing the most invincible team, crafting the greatest team from his pantheon - into an arbitrary and tedious chore.  Really, a three-page explanation of why Tim Duncan in the seventh best player of all time?  Watching Tim Duncan was like watching paint dry, how can he have three pages of anything interesting written about him?  But Simmons turns every article into a fascinating exploration of the player, his contemporaries, his era, and often society at the time.

In the course of writing this book, Simmons read dozens of books, watching countless hours of game tape, viewed documentaries, and cited every one of these sources while combining them all into a seamless and fascinating whole.

The crux of the book centers around what he calls The Secret - the key to winning basketball and something that very few players have ever fully achieved.  He first learned the totality of The Secret from Isiah Thomas - check the excerpt - and uses The Secret to frame many of his arguments for (Russell, Jordan, Bird, Magic, Duncan, Kareem) and against (Chamberlain, Shaq) various players.

In the course of the rankings, Simmons explores the racial divide that allowed only two black players onto an NBA team for decades, the inflated statistics of the post-merger NBA, Rick Barry's awful hairpiece, his hatred of Kareem, and his love for everything Celtic.

And he pays amazing tribute to Elgin Baylor.  For the explanation of Elgin Baylor, alone, I would've paid for this book.

Get it...read it...buy it.  It's outstanding.

If you're not convinced, check out...


coachsullivan said...

I bought the book the first weekend it came out and finished it in three days. I've read it a second time through since then. It's impressive. Haven't even thought about putting it on the bookshelf yet...it has an honored place on the stand next to my toilet.

PHSChemGuy said...

I had no idea that a full book of Simmons could be this outstanding. I still have it in the bathroom for a quick bit of reading when I'm on the throne.