Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: "The Book of Basketball" by Bill Simmons

"The Book of Basketball" by the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, can be described as many things. Long. Thorough. Self-involved. A valentine to the sport of basketball and particularly, the Boston Celtics.

One thing you can't say about it, is it's boring. Sure, it's nearly 700 pages long (at least the hardcover version of it). It's filled with stats (and more stats). But if basketball stories, arguments about basketball and pop culture references are your thing, then Simmons does the job in his second book (following "Now I Can Die in Peace" about the 2004 Red Sox winning the World Series).

Let me give the good news about "The Book of Basketball" and the bad news.

First the good news:

It is loaded with stories about players going all back to the early 1950s, the early days of the NBA. It goes into detail about the experiences of players (such as how racism affected black players of that era like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson) and thoughts on what drove players. He includes several of his own experiences, including attending Celtics games with his father while growing up in the 1970s and sitting at a table next to a retired Michael Jordan and his entourage in Las Vegas (a great story).

He also goes into great detail with his arguments on who he considers to be the 96 greatest NBA players of all time (The Pyramid, which covers nearly 400 pages of the book), and provides a great argument for nearly every one of them (not to be a spoiler, but he was smart enough to realize Michael Jordan was the greatest player in NBA history and let his love affair with Celtics great Larry Bird color his opinion).

There are also the footnotes, which is almost as good reading as the regular book. Some of them are pop culture references in which he compares players and teams to movie and television characters, others just aside stories. Most are fairly entertaining.

Then there's the bad news:

First, there's the length. Nearly 700 pages is long, too long. It took me nearly six weeks to get through it (Hey, I do have a life outside of this blog and reading, after all). Some of the book could be considered filler, such as much of his arguments for his choices for the great 96 (Eventually you just go, "Ok, Bill, you made your point.").

Then there's the editing. Scattered throughout the footnotes thoughts from his editor (whom he called "Grumpy Old Editor") whom Simmons allowed to provide his quick thoughts on different points (often showcasing a homerism for his favorite team, the New York Knicks). However, there were several errors throughout the manuscript that should have been caught, including one reference to Pistons great Isiah Thomas' comment that if Larry Bird had been black, he would have been just another good player (at one point, the book said Thomas said if Bird had been white). Another error/typo said Clyde Drexler played for the Pistons when he went up against Jordan and the Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals (Drexler played for the Portland Trail Blazers). If "Grumpy Old Editor" had paid more attention to the editing rather than chiming in on the Knicks, these things likely would have been caught.

Finally, and not spoil a point, in his chapter on the greatest NBA teams of all time, he inexplicably listed the 1996 Bulls (owners of the record-breaking 72-10 record and a fourth NBA title in six seasons, starting another three-peat run) as the second-best team of all time behind the 1986 Boston Celtics. Yeah, the 1986 Celtics were great, and had some great players (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, etc.), but they don't match up with the owners of the team with the best record in NBA history, one that began with a 41-3 run to start the year. This was the example of his homerism showing (but then again, maybe that was the point of the section, to continue that argument of what was the best team in NBA history, and maybe this is MY homerism showing).

Overall, a good effort on Simmons' part. It has been said that a writer should write on what they know and what they love, and it is clear that Simmons did just that in "The Book of Basketball." Plus, with the news that the start of the 2011-12 NBA season has been pushed back to at least December 15 thanks to the continuing lockout, this may be the closest we get to NBA basketball outside of rebroadcasts of classic games for a while.

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