What I’ve Been Reading: The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy

It might be a little hypocritical to slag on someone for being self-referential. As a blogger who writes primarily about his life and thoughts, most of my Internet persona is defined by self-reference.

Then again, I don’t purport to any other notion. You don’t come to Black Marks on Wood Pulp and expect non-personal writing.

The Book of BasketballHowever, when you read a book called The Book of Basketball, you expect it to be, for the most part, about basketball.

Let’s get this out of the way. I loved this book. As a basketball fan with a fleeting knowledge of history pre-1980s, it was a wonderful way to fill in the blanks. Was Wilt better than Russell? Was David Thompson as good as people say? Should I hate Karl Malone more than I already do? (The answers, respectively: no, yes, probably.)

I grew up watching Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, so it’s good to have a reference point from which to compare. And if you’re looking for a more objective tome, there are probably better choices. However, if you’re looking for a down-to-earth synopsis of the NBA’s past 60 years, you can’t do much better.

The concept: Bill Simmons, who is sort of a pioneer when it comes to crafting Internet sports columns (in that he helped usher in the more relaxed, more opinionated and, ultimately, more enjoyable sports writing that we all take for granted today) uses his extreme fanhood to explain his take on the NBA, past and present.

A 96-player, pyramid based Hall of Fame that separates different classes of player based on accomplishments? Done. A listing of the top 10 teams of all time? Done. An incredibly insightful look at why Oscar Robertson’s numbers might be skewed, or a entire section devoted to what could have happened had certain moves not been made? Done. It’s like sitting down with a good friend – who also happens to be a huge NBA fan – and hashing out every great basketball argument ever made.

Yeah. It’s awesome. So let’s start picking it apart.

Seriously, Bill – your name is on the book – there’s no reason to keep reminding us that this is your opinion we’re taking on. I don’t care about who you know. I don’t need every argument to be unceremoniously finished with a reference to Teen Wolf, or a backhanded Shawshank Redemption quote.

He tackles race in an awkward way – he’s understanding, though at the same time strangely defensive and apologetic. He drops names whenever he can. He peppers his footnotes with the same kind of lame humor you’d expect to see in lesser blog comments on Deadspin. He makes no mistake that this is his book, and that we should expect more and more lame pop culture references and stories about his buddy House.

That being said, the self-referential nature only begins to grate around page 500. Did I mention the book is nearly 700 pages long? Surprisingly, it’s a fast read, though I can’t help but think it would be about 200 pages shorter if he took himself out of the story (an unfunny point he makes several times as you get closer to the end.)

See, there’s my problem. It’s easier to complain than it is to praise. Though the last three paragraphs sound like criticism, this shouldn’t frame my opinion of the book. They are minor blips on an ambitious project, one that doesn’t just present basketball history, but puts in context and in a way you can easily understand. This isn’t a book for stat hounds or nitpickers – this is a book for true fans, for those who long to have hour-long discussions about who was better: Bird of Magic.

(My answer: Bird. Bill’s surprising answer: Magic. Even as a Boston homer, Bill still couldn’t bring himself to be biased.)

This was lovingly handwritten on November 17th, 2009