Book Review: 'The Book of Basketball'
Let me start by saying that I am a fan of Bill Simmons's work. I read his columns. I download his podcasts. Which I realize only makes me like millions of others who have made him one of the most influential people in sports media.
Point is, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy" should be an easy sell with me and the vast legion of fans who are looking for a gift this holiday season. A book about the history of the NBA written in the style of Simmons? Sign me up!
(Actually, plenty of people already have. The book has spent four weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list for nonfiction, including a stint at No. 1.)
Don't be put off by its length (nearly 700 pages). As Malcolm Gladwell explains in the foreword, "It is ... a series of loosely connected arguments and riffs and lists and stories that you can pick up and put down at any time."
And that is certainly the book's greatest strength. There are chapters about the Russell-Chamberlain debate; where the great single-season teams rank; who he believes the best 96 players in NBA history are; a chapter devoted to an entertaining encounter with Isiah Thomas in Las Vegas that he proceeds to tie in with what he calls The Secret (the special something that makes championship teams mesh and flourish). In other words, topics that could stand alone and fit in with his vast archive of columns.
And it's not done in a linear or clinical way. Yes, he breaks out stats to help his arguments, but there is always the Simmons wit and pop-culture knowledge to keep things moving. And there are the funny and interesting asides, in the form of more than 1,000 footnotes, that add to the book. Any longtime fan will feel right at home.
Trying to make sense of more than 60 years' worth of NBA history is an ambitious undertaking. And it can only be done by someone with an old soul, who has a deep appreciation and love for the game (which is best captured in the epilogue that centers on a visit Simmons paid to Bill Walton after the 2009 Finals). He is someone who did not think twice about watching old games on DVD or plowing through more than 100 NBA-related books to fuel his research. Those who have been critical of his work always seem to forget that he does put in the time and effort, even in his present incarnation of ESPN Personality.
Which is what makes the factual errors in his book so startling.
When my copy arrived in the mail last month, I randomly came upon a page about the 2000 Lakers, a team that he correctly points out went 15-8 in the playoffs. But he says they started the playoffs 11-8 "before sweeping the last four Philly games." Problem is, the Lakers played Philly in the 2001 Finals. They were actually 11-6 heading into the 2000 Finals before winning the first two games and finishing off the Pacers in six games.
Elsewhere, he writes about the 1969 Celtics rallying from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Lakers in the Finals (it was actually a 2-0 hole); Michael Jordan hitting "The Shot" against the 1988 Cavaliers (it was 1989) and in the same paragraph saying he demoralized "Drexler's Pistons" (a mistake that Blazers fans have already let him know about, according to him).
There's a mention of Kobe Bryant going on a streak of 40-point games during the 2000-01 season, when the streak actually happened in 2002-03; Kevin Johnson guiding Phoenix to the 1989 Western Conference semifinals and 1990 conference finals (the Suns reached the conference finals both years); Rick Barry attending the University of San Francisco when he was drafted out of the University of Miami. And so on.
Is it a fatal flaw? Sales so far would seem to indicate otherwise. And within the context of the book, it's not as if he's skewing facts to spin arguments in his favor. Die-hard NBA fans know that the first Kobe-Shaq title team had to struggle in the playoffs and that the '69 Celtics staged a memorable comeback. They know that MJ showed no mercy to his opponents. They know that Kobe was a ball hog and that KJ made those Suns teams go. They know that Rick Barry was a difficult teammate.
It's just that one would have hoped someone of his influence, someone who has an audience that takes much of his work as gospel, would have been a little more careful with the facts.
And one can imagine those will get cleaned up in the inevitable reprints that the book will have. Because this labor of love that Simmons put together certainly deserves to endure with those who love basketball.
November 30, 2009; 12:25 PM ET
| Tags: Bill Simmons; book review; "The Book of Basketball"; NBA; Michael Jordan; Kobe Bryant
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