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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.

By Ed Guzman  |  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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who cares?

Posted by: millineumman | November 30, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I was given this book for my birthday and it's a fun read.

Posted by: MBUSA | November 30, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

terrible article. put ur book reviews in the style and arts section i wanna read about injury updates and potential trade moves the wiz could make. if you're just gonna write anything could it at least be something wizards related.

Posted by: lilhollywood10 | November 30, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Authors make mistakes with facts. The bigger issue is whether the correct facts would have yielded a different conclusion. Based on what you've summarized, I think not.

Simmons wrote a compelling book. I was hooked on the 69-73 Knicks, so I wasn't keen on his devotion to the Celts, but he has a lot of interesting vignettes in the book. I'd give it a B+.

Posted by: Izman | November 30, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I really don't like Simmons, and actually bought the book on the strength of what Gladwell had to say about it. While I don't agree with every point the author makes, and I could certainly do without his nauseating crush on the Celtics, the book is definitely entertaining, and well worth owning if you're a diehard NBA fan. You are bound to find stories and statistics you didn't know, or had forgotten.

I didn't notice any of the statistical errors, but I don't really have an eye for that kind of thing. As Ed points out, the details don't get in the way of the bigger points (about the Lakers struggles, or the Celtics comebacks). They don't detract from the arguments he's trying to make.

And honestly, in a book so full of facts, it's easy to understand how a few mistakes made it in. I don't blame Simmons, but rather his publisher. If I had to guess, I imagine he was under a deadline to get it out in time for the start of the season, and had to condense proofreading time.

Posted by: bryc3 | November 30, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I dont want to read 700 pages of Celtics love, thanks.

And Wilt dominated Russell, period.

Posted by: divi3 | November 30, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

terrible article. put ur book reviews in the style and arts section i wanna read about injury updates and potential trade moves the wiz could make. if you're just gonna write anything could it at least be something wizards related.

Posted by: lilhollywood10 | November 30, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Terrible post. Give me a break, lilhollywood10. Why lambaste Lee for this? People who read the Wizards blog might also be NBA fans interested in this kind of thing? Try to sound less like a troll next time.

Posted by: CDon | November 30, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

"I really don't like Simmons, and actually bought the book on the strength of what Gladwell had to say about it."

Simmons exposed Gladwell re: Larry Holmes once, good column and a nice example of Gladwell's thinking not applying all over the map.

Posted by: divi3 | November 30, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

never liked Bill Simmons, I've read his stuff (mostly columns on ESPN) and I can say the quality of his writing is demonstrated by his initials.

Posted by: Marine4Life51 | November 30, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I can't stand Simmons. His cloying man-crush on Larry Bird and anything related to the Celtics is nauseating. And his playing fast, lose, and clueless with the facts is pretty much in keeping with his style. I have no idea what his background is, but he comes across like a fan who lives in his mom's basement and somehow managed to stumble into a pro writing gig. If he were doing a Kornheiser riff and using humor as a delivery system for opinions, it wouldn't be so bad. But (A) he's really not that funny and (B) he too frequently tries to pass arguments off as having some basis in fact, which they rarely seem to do.

Posted by: kalo_rama | November 30, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Wow, people on the internet sharing their negative opinions about something they haven't read. Never saw that one coming.

Posted by: bryc3 | November 30, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I see more errors on this blog (spelling and grammar included) than I did in reading the BOB. Best book on basketball I've ever read.

Posted by: iamse7en | November 30, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

"Wow, people on the internet sharing their negative opinions about something they haven't read. Never saw that one coming."

Wow, people twisting other people's words to try (and fail) to make a point. Totally saw that one coming. I have no opinions on Simmons book and have expressed none because, as you said, I haven't read it. My comments were based on years of reading his crappy "articles" online (and, according to Lee's review, the book sounds like pretty much more of the same).

Posted by: kalo_rama | November 30, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Am I lost --again??

I thought this was the Wizards Insider.

Posted by: VBFan | November 30, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

@Izman: I definitely am not a Celtics fan, either, but I found the book compelling to read as well. And he seems to give those Knick teams you loved some of their just due.

@bryc3: Based on the passing references Mr. Simmons made in the run-up to the book's publishing, it sounded like he was really up against it (the epilogue was from after this year's Finals, and it was out only four months later).

Just based on the fact he has current players on his Top 96 alone, there's bound to be second and third editions of this book to reflect where guys like Kobe, Duncan and LeBron finish up their careers. In which case, there will be ample opportunity to clean up the factual stuff, one would think. I just felt it warranted mentioning because it happened to jump out at me, though as I also said, it wasn't anything that detracted from the larger point of the book.

Posted by: edguzman | November 30, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Anyone to post his top 96 list 25 at a time for us? I'd be interested in that, esp since there does not seem to ba any new news about the Wiz right now.

Posted by: Blurred | November 30, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

He(Simmons)hammers Big John Thompson about his Olympic picks and how it undermined the US ability to win it all(gold medal). I picked it up in Target and flipped through it and then put it down when my 17yr.old said "mom's getting it for you for kwanza" then i said "tell her to get me stormy weather the bio of Lena Horne"

Posted by: dargregmag | November 30, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

@Blurred: I left my copy at home (in the office now) but here's his top 10, from a cursory Google search:

1. Michael Jordan
2. Bill Russell
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4. Magic Johnson
5. Larry Bird
6. Wilt Chamberlain
7. Tim Duncan
8. Jerry West
9. Oscar Robertson
10. Hakeem Olajuwon

And here are his top 10 teams of all-time:

1. '86 Celtics
2. '96 Bulls
3. '87 Lakers
4. '89 Pistons
5. '01 Lakers
6. '97 Bulls
7. '71 Bucks
8. '83 Sixers
9. '72 Lakers
10. '91 Bulls

Posted by: edguzman | November 30, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse


If EJ's biography comes out soon, I've got you on my Christmas list for a copy of it.

It also looks like AI may be on EJ's Xmas list. That would be interesting.

Posted by: Izman | November 30, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

'96 Bulls would were better than the '86 Cs, just sayin, too much defense and the best player of all-times

Posted by: divi3 | November 30, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

A book of basketball facts, not Simmons opinions, would be a better read or gift. I think we are all capable of digesting the facts and then formulating our own opinions. However, I can understand that the point of this Wizards Insider was to suggest a holiday gift, and that's cool. But a nice holiday gift would be for the Wizards to get their act together, play tough consitent basketball and win games.

Posted by: Theone9 | November 30, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

I would also rate Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain higher.

Posted by: LarryInClintonMD | December 1, 2009 12:59 AM | Report abuse

start reading Tarik's caps insider and follow suit.

Posted by: Mtortora | December 1, 2009 1:11 AM | Report abuse

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