Notable Text: The Book of Basketball
I'll admit that I'm an utter and complete sports junkie. I love my Nuggets, my Rockies, my Broncos and my Avs, and I also love sports history. Just consider how many players we can watch in person today who will go forgotten in the annals of history. There is only one Michael Jordan. Someone like Craig Ehlo wouldn't even be a footnote without the iconic Jordan over Ehlo shot in the Eastern Finals. A lot of admiration is thrust upon Brett Favre, who did have an exceptional season, but he's really, barely a cut above Dan Marino (with a 1-0 split on Super Bowl rings). And Marino never had half, maybe even a third, of the talent Favre had around him every season. The point of this rambling, that I'm getting to, is that sports is like history is like fiction is like music. There are a lot of brief moments of excellence as with Daunte Culpepper and A-ha, where a mark is made that is forgotten with archivists (and in the case of A-ha: Family Guy, etc.). Documentation is paramount. So, with an eye on that goal of documentation, I just finished Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball; a 700-page behemoth that considers the history of the NBA, asks prized "What if" questions, and ranks the top players throughout the history and present in the league. It is, for a sports fan to read, a monumental achievement.
Simmons is a crass, often pompous-sounding sports writer for ESPN (He also podcasts two - three times per week) who balances his encyclopedic knowledge of the NBA with some solid humor, and a reliance on the occasional sexist analogies that function well as allegories, but also show his hand. Reading Simmons, in his column on ESPN.com, or in this book, is like hanging out with a buddy at the sports bar. He knows his shit. He will tell some dirty jokes, and pop culture comparisons drop in whenever applicable. Ultimately, he's a guy's guy sports writer, rather than a traditional journalist. The Book of Basketball functions in this traditional Simmons style, to great effect. Simmons uses footnotes as the primary stage for his injected witticisms. There are hundreds of footnotes in the book, nearly one a page. Simmons maintains his usual self-awareness, too, either via self-referential footnotes or parenthetical statements, so there's always a heart there (making anything that's borderline sexist or racist a little less so). Reading Simmons is like knowing Simmons, and in the same way that we excuse the questionable phrasings of our friends and family because there's a deeper person there, so do we readers with this author. Especially given the final chapter of The Book of Basketball, following a somewhat masturbatory section called "The Wine Cellar," where Simmons briefly interviews Bill Walton and shows a lot of heart. It is the best writing in the book. It's the closer chapter, or as Simmons would call it "the cooler" and it easily sinks the go-ahead free throws.
As I said before, I am a sports junkie. This book was right in my wheelhouse, and I was fully willing to commit more than a month to reading about the history of basketball. Knowing that Wilt Chamberlain was statistically better than Bill Russell, but never put together enough of a team-game to win nearly as many championships is valuable to me. Understanding how rough life was for NBA players in the '50s and '60s, how they took buses and trains and flew coach, how they smoked and drank, how early black players like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson were discriminated against constantly, despite being professional athletes (unthinkable now, right?); this matters to me. For someone interested in the historical aspects, this book will perform a function, but unless you love basketball and need to know why Karl Malone's MVP win was suspect, you won't enjoy this book. It's a long, rewarding read, that is sometimes self-involved, but often time funny. If you like Bill Simmons, read it. If you love basketball, read it.
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