Book Review: ‘The Book of Basketball’ by Bill Simmons

February 27, 2010 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, NBA by pacejmiller

[Update: If you want to know what Simmons says about Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller, click here to find out!]

At first blush, Bill Simmons seems like a sportswriter with a massive ego (and dick vibe).  I mean, you’d have to, to call yourself “The Sports Guy” and to name your book (or “Pulitzer”, as Simmons likes to call it) The Book of Basketball.

Yes, Simmons does have a bit of an ego, and he is as opinionated as hell, but there are two things you can’t deny about him.

One, love him or hate him, the man knows basketball.  He grew up watching basketball (he grew up in Boston so naturally loved the Celtics), idolizing basketball players (mostly Russell and Bird and other Celtics players), writing about basketball and breathing basketball.  How else would he be able to fill up a 700+ page book about the sport?

And two, hands down, Bill Simmons (or Jabaal Abdul-Simmons, as he used to call himself as a kid) is the most creative and utterly hilarious sportswriter today.

Combine the two and that’ll give you a fair idea of what The Book of Basketball is like.

Big call, but I rank The Book of Basketball right up there with Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries as the funniest basketball-related book ever (and borrowing from a Simmons-style analogy, both books were about basketball, both books were about race, both involved sex and getting blown, and both dabbled in drugs and homosexuality).

(Click on ‘more’ to read the full review and rating!)

Breaking down The Book of Basketball

The Book of Basketball is huge.  Of course it is.  There is so much information crammed into its 700+ pages that it makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.

The Foreword is given by Malcolm Gladwell, bestseller author of The Tipping Point and Outliers (my review of that book here).  Here, we learn that all Simmons does every day is watch sports in his office on massive flat-screen TVs.  That’s his job.  He gets paid loads and loads of money for it.  What a bastard.

Then, the Prologue, where we find out a little about Simmons’ childhood and how he grew to love the sport of basketball.  The guy is an old school fan, the type that grew up going to live games as a child, hanging around the player entrance and benches (back in the day when you could).  As he said himself, the book is about “capturing that noise, sorting through all the bullshit and figuring out which players and teams and stories should live on.  It’s also about the NBA, how we got here, and where we’re going.”

Chapter One is entitled The Secret.  The secret of basketball, that is.  Obviously, I won’t spoil what that secret is, but it’s a fascinating read.  There’s no real definition for the secret, but Simmon’s gives it his best shot.  Chapters Two to Five are a bit random.  They cover things like “Who is better, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain?” (given that Simmons is a Celtics fanatic, I’ll give you one guess), the history of the NBA (seriously, from the first NBA game in 1946 to the present day, from the tight shorts to the cornolls and tattoos), the “What if game” (eg what would have happened if Ron Artest never charged the stands or if Portland picked Jordan instead of Sam Bowie?) and who the MVPs of each NBA season were and who they should have been.

Who was better? Russell or Chamberlain? That's a question Simmons settles once and for all in The Book of Basketball

From Chapter Six to Chapter Eleven, Simmons brings us the Hall of Fame Pyramid, his opinion on who the 96 best NBA players of all-time are.  It’s the crux of the book, and the most ambitious part of it.  How the heck do you rate every NBA player that has ever played and come up with a list of the top 96, break them down into different levels, AND justify each of those selections?  Somehow, Simmons had the balls to do it and I must say he did a pretty good job.

The last few Chapters are also very good.  In Twelve, Simmons tries to pick the top 10 greatest NBA teams of all-time – again, no surprises which team he ranks number 1.  In Thirteen, Simmons picks his greatest team (12 members) of all time from every NBA player who has ever played (which he refers to as the “Wine Cellar”).

Simmons caps off the book with an Epilogue in which he visits Bill Walton’s house and rounds up the book in light of the Lakers’ 2009 NBA title.

So there you have it, The Book of Basketball in a nutshell.

Bill Simmons’ style

Simmons has an easygoing, everyman style.  He writes like a sports fan.  A fanatical one that truly cares about basketball.  His writing is easy to read and easy to follow, but informative at the same time.  Brutally honest, wisecracking, at times almost stream-of-consciousness in delivery.

The best part about Simmons’ writing is that he infuses every page with hilarious pop-culture references and analogies – from movies and music to celebrities, politicians and historical figures.  The stuff is outrageous, politically incorrect, and oftentimes downright crazy — but always gut-bustingly funny.  And the references and laughs are alarmingly consistent, and most of all, they somehow seem to ring true in a ridiculous sort of way.  They are on just about every page, and it kept me wanting to read on to see what far-fetched analogy Simmons would come up with next.

Simmons is not impartial, nor does he pretend to be — he openly roots for the Boston Celtics and against the LA Lakers (and just about every other team and every other non-Celtics player).  Actually, to say he roots against certain players (Wilt, Kareem, Rick Barry and Vince Carter in particular) would be an understatement.  Simmons craps on them, pours fuel on them and lights them on fire (for instance, he says that even the horse Wilt Chamberlain rode on in Conan the Destroyer was a better actor than him!).  But boy is it funny!

Wilt and Arnie in Conan The Destroyer

Simmons jokes about cocaine addiction in the 70s and 80s (and how it almost ruined the NBA).  He routinely talks about gambling and porn.  He sometimes makes up stuff (just to make sure you were concentrating).  He pretty much does whatever he wants, as long as there is some vague link to basketball.

I’ll give you an example.  Simmons says casually that “Magic Johnson had one of the best porn names ever but became so famous so fast that we never realized it” (that is so true!).  Then in the footnote, Simmons rolls out the “Best Porn Name All-Stars”: Dick Pound, Pete LaCock, Ken Bone, Misty Hyman, Ben Gay, Magic Johnson, Rich Harden, Dick Trickle, Rusty Kuntz, Billy “The Whopper” Paultz, Butch Huskey, Randy “Big Unit” Johnson, Hot Rod Williams, Dick Pole and Wayne Chism, with Mo Cheeks and Dick Harter as coaches.”  Seriously, where does this man come up with this stuff?

Rusty Kuntz

I can understand why some people might hate Simmons or get sick of him.  He is scathing in his attacks and rarely knows when to pull back.  His humour is almost always juvenile (but genius).  No doubt, he can be irritating and come off like a punk.  It’s no surprise that many ex-NBA stars hate his guts and Isiah Thomas even threatened him with physical harm.

But seriously, I couldn’t get enough of it.  Simmons’ wit does fall off a bit towards the back end of the book and he got on my nerves more frequently, but when he throws in a classic reference like the Porn Name All-Stars, all is forgiven.

Yes, The Book of Basketball is pretty self-indulgent, but so was Seinfeld, and it’s still frakking funny.

The Verdict

Believe me when I say The Book of Basketball is a must for every hot blooded basketball fan.

It’s the type of book you can leave on the coffee table and pick up and read a few pages here and there when you have time, and there are always surprises to be found in there.  Every now and then, out of the blue and amidst the laughs, Simmons would throw a poignant curveball at you, and you find yourself saying, “Whoa, that was pretty good.”

I liked it so much that I read the whole thing cover to cover, including every single footnote (actually, the footnotes should be a must-read because there is so much gold hidden in them).  Not everything in the 700+ pages will resonate, but there were countless moments when I laughed out loud or nodded my head in agreement (or shook my head in disagreement).  It is an engaging book, the type you want to recommend to other basketball fans and have around the house for those moments when you feel like a shot of basketball knowledge (or just a laugh).

However, it would be wrong to treat The Book of Basketball as a basketball encyclopaedia.  Chapter Three does give an in-depth history of the NBA, but remember it’s all told from the perspective of a very biased man.  Simmons grew up idolizing the the Boston Celtics, so it’s no surprise he is naturally inclined to put them on a pedestal.  I can tell he tries to be objective but he’s not.  Not really.  His favouritism is not blindingly obvious, though it is definitely there.  For example, a Celtic might be 4 or 5 (or 10) spots higher than he is supposed to be in the Pyramid, or a particular team might be shafted in favour of a Celtics squad in the “Greatest Team of All-Time” debate.  Obviously, this is my subjective opinion, just like Simmons is entitled to his, but still.

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the book is that Simmons often twists things around to suit his arguments.  There’s not a lot of consistency – one moment he could be using overexpansion of the league as the reason why a player is not as great as he seems, and three hundred pages later he could be saying that overexpansion shouldn’t be counted against a player’s legacy.  A similar argument could be made about statistics and efficiency ratings – Simmons rants about how stats don’t mean all that much and how efficiency ratings are not reliable, but other times he uses the exact same things to justify a point.  Argh, I’ll cut him some slack here because we all do whatever we can to win a sports debate.

Having said all of that, The Book of Basketball is a glorious and hilarious collection of insider information and anecdotes, legendary stories (some probably apocryphal), and interesting, detailed analysis — tied in with hundreds of pop-culture references.  Simmons summed it all up pretty well himself (in a footnote, no less):  “Nothing’s worse than being trapped in a room with someone who is creating dumb arguments, trying to prove impossible-to-prove things, and hammering you with their insufferable opinions.  Unless it’s this book.  Then it’s totally fine.”

I’ll finish this review off with an anecdote from the book.  One of my favourites:

“[Larry] Bird once told Indiana’s Chuck Person before a game that he had a Christmas present for him.  During the game, he made a three in front of the Pacers bench, turned to Person, and said, ‘Merry fucking Christmas’.”

5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I first fell in love with Simmons’ writing when he compared Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade to 24’s Jack Bauer in one of his posts on ESPN.  This is reproduced in summary form in the book, but here is the original extract in full:

“One more thought: Did you ever notice the disturbing parallels between Wade and Jack Bauer beyond the whole “totally fearless” and “can carry a show by themselves” parts? Follow me here …

2002: Wade submits a stellar sophomore year at Marquette (after not playing as a freshman) and puts himself on the map; Bauer submits a stellar Season 1 of “24” and puts himself on the map.

2003: Wade carries Marquette to the Final Four; Bauer carries “24” to an excellent Season 2 in which he detonates a nuclear bomb in L.A. (no, not the Kobe incident in Colorado — an actual nuclear bomb).

2004: Wade leads Miami to the NBA playoffs before losing in Round 2; Bauer fights off a heroin addiction and carries “24” to a solid Season 3 that falls apart down the stretch after he kills Nina Myers.

2005: Wade gets a new running mate (a controversial center named Shaq) and would’ve won the title if he didn’t get injured during the Eastern finals; Jack gets a new running mate (a controversial girlfriend named Audrey) and could have had his best season ever if the “nuclear football” plot hadn’t fallen apart right near the end.

2006: Wade enjoys his greatest season (Finals MVP, first title) and so does Bauer in Season 5 (which features David Palmer’s assassination, Jack coming out of hiding in the Mojave desert, President Logan’s meltdown, a really good nerve gas plot and Jack getting kidnapped by the Chinese). Both Wade and Jack peaked in 2006. And if that’s not enough, Gary Payton co-starred with both of them: As GP on Miami and Wayne Palmer on “24.”

 

Wayne Palmer and Gary Payton

 

2007: Wade’s Miami team falls apart (44 wins, first-round exit) as Wade’s supporting cast crumbles and poor Wade is too banged up from previous seasons to carry them. Jack’s TV show falls apart (worst “24” season by far) and his supporting cast crumbles (no Tony Almeida or Michelle Dessler and too much President Wayne Palmer, the Mark Blount of “24”) as he’s too banged up from previous seasons to carry them.

2008: Wade’s season gets cancelled by injuries (he plays only 51 games); Jack’s season gets cancelled by the writer’s strike. Everyone wonders if we’ll ever see vintage Wade or vintage Jack again.

2009: Comeback years all around! Wade submits his best regular season ever; Jack leads “24” to its strongest first 18 episodes ever. Now we’re heading for the playoffs and who the hell knows what will happen?

(See? And you thought that was going to be convoluted.)”]