So I recently sat down to read the Book of Basketball, the latest book from Bill Simmons.
It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s 700 pages, so if you want to read it, you need to be a fan of Simmons or the NBA.
Pretty much, Simmons doesn’t rewrite NBA history so much as put it in historical context. He believes the Hall of Fame should be like a pyramid. That way, someone doesn’t get elected just to the hall, but to a certain level. There can also be only a certain amount of players on each level, so players could technically get bumped down if someone passes them.
For example, the top level might have 12 players. If Lebron retires and is one of the top 12 of all time, he goes to the top echelon, and number 12 gets bumped down to the second level. So Simmons ranks the top 96 players of all time (in his eyes). The only way you can rank the players is to try and compare them, and how they would match up today. For example, would Oscar Robertson have the same success today against guys like Chris Paul, Lebron James and Dwight Howard?
One of the other main topics is what he calls The Secret.
Apparently it’s a big deal to NBA players, but NHLers have understood it for decades. The Secret? It’s not all about the basketball, but about chemistry on and off the court, and making the sacrifices. It’s not about getting your own numbers, but about winning the game.
Like I said, NHLers have known about this for a long time. The most successful teams have players that make those sacrifices (giving more ice time to the checking line, or maybe not getting as much powerplay time, or willing to block shots ad nauseum). But apparently, in the NBA, it’s not that well known.
So much of the book focuses on The Secret, what guys had it and what guys didn’t. Basketball fans will like the book, non-basketball fans won’t, especially considering its length (it’s the largest book I’ve read since the Stand).
I found only two problems with it.
The first has to do with all of his columns/books: too much focus on the Boston sports scene, and letting those teams influence him. For example, Simmons assumes Lenny Bias (drafted second overall in 1986) was going to be a great player for the Celtics, even though he died of a cocaine overdose a couple of days after being drafted. Yet Simmons constantly mentions how cocaine ruined players in the late 70s and affected their playing careers. But I can’t remember one example where he mentions the fact cocaine would have ruined Bias.
As well, there’s no proof that Ferry would have been a great player. What would have happened if his career turned out more like Danny Ferry, Tyson Chandler or Darko Milicic?
He also spends too long arguing that Bill Russell is better than Wilt Chamberlain, when he concedes neither is the best all time.
The other problem has to do with the impact the international competition is having on the game today. Simmons focuses on the ABA, and African Americans changing the game. But nothing about Europeans, even though they’re having an impact. There’s Anderson Varejao, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrea Bargnani, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jose Calderon, and others. They’re changing the way the game is being seen around the world, but there was hardly any focus on it in his book.
In a way, hockey and basketball have a lot in common. There’s the debates about who’s better (Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell in the NBA, Mario Lemieux vs Wayne Gretzky vs Bobby Orr in the NHL), competing leagues in the 70s that were eventually swallowed up (the ABA and the WHA) and whether someone actually belongs in the hall of fame (too numerous to mention).
But you would not be able to write a 700-page book on the history of the NHL without focusing some on the Summit Series in 1972, Russia’s domination on the world hockey stage for decades, or the influx of European players over the past 20 years. It would have been nice for Simmons to spend a little bit of time talking about how the impact of the U.S. national team losing at the 2002 Worlds, 2004 Olympics and 2006 Worlds, and whether that is changing the style of play in the NBA as more Europeans come into the league.
One last thing. Simmons rails on the media for not going after different stories, afraid that teams might stop talking to such and such a reporter. He thinks the media won’t rag on a certain player at times because they are worried they’ll lose the friend-like atmosphere between the journalist and the athlete. What’s the worse that can happen, he asks, that the teams will get angry at a reporter? But Simmons admits fear at Isiah because of columns he wrote that made fun of Isiah. So Simmons wants more print media to be like him, when he doesn’t even need to worry about seeing these people every day, but he admits to be worried about meeting someone he made fun of (and didn’t even want to meet Isiah). Sounds a little hypocritical.
Overall though, it’s a good, if lengthy read. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.