a readjack.com book review: The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons

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At 697 pages (foreword, index, acknowledgments not included), The Book of Basketball is the thickest piece of Simmons shtick in town.

The work of Bill Simmons can be divided into three parts. One third is the writing. One third is the mind. One third is the shtick.

I love Simmons the writer. Maybe this is because I discovered him with his fantastic Lenny Bias story…you know, the one that ends with “And I hate it.” I am not sure how many people appreciate Simmons the writer. Not to say that none do. I just do not know.

But the combo of Simmons the mind and Simmons the shtick has made the man the most popular sports writer of the past ten years.

In fact, one could probably break every writer down into those three categories: writing ability, life perspective, and work production and execution. Shakespeare was most beloved for the first and third, Hunter Thompson for the second. Simmons is beloved for the second category as well, because it is his life perspective on sports that leads to fascinating columns on How To Fix the NBA Playoffs, How To Fix the Baseball Hall of Fame, (we’ll get to this in a moment), and Why Bill Belichick Bought a Used Ferrari Called Randy Moss.

This is the kind of stuff that my friends and I used to bang around for ALL hours with startling frequency from age 10 to age 22. We were also, like all sports dorks, huge enthusiasts of the ol’ What If? game. (We’ll get back to this in a moment as well.) My favorite was arguing why “What if MJ didn’t retire to play baseball?” would not end in “The Bulls would have won eight straight.”

For a guy like the aforementioned Dr. Thompson, his life perspective led to gems like The Vegas Book, The McGovern Book, and this wonderful bit he wrote for ESPN in his Hey Rube days detailing How To Make Baseball Not Boring As Hell.

For Simmons, the life perspective translated into his column shtick. We’re talking…

The Ewing Theory (of which he is a co-developer)

The 13 Levels of Losing

The Playoff Gambling Manifesto (version 4.0, version 3.0, version 2.0)

League Previews with Quotes (EX: the Caddyshack NFL preview)

The Draft Diary (EX: the LeBron draft)

The NBA Trade Value Column (EX: the one where it looked like Tyson and Eddy were about to blossom into the next KG and Shaq)

The Running Diary (EX: Game 4 of the 2008 Finals)

The NBA All-Star Game Column (EX: The Black Super Bowl)

The NBA LVP to MVP Column (EX: This scandalous two-parter due to the MVP, here and here)

The Dr. Jack Breakdowns (EX: DeNiro vs. Pacino, Seinfeld vs. Cheers, ’86 Celtics vs. ’07 Pats)

The Curious Guy Interviews (EX: Malcolm Gladwell, Malcolm Gladwell II, Malcolm Gladwell III)

And of course, The Mailbags (EX: summer 2008)

We’ve also got The Tyson Zone, The 42 Club, (relevant for this review), The Manning Face (summed up best by Malcolm Gladwell) and any of the other top faces, (especially Art Shell), The Reggie Cleveland All-Stars, The Lindsey Hunter All-Stars, The Rene Russo/Diane Lane All-Stars, the Sneaky Hot Hall of Fame, and the Unintentional Comedy Ratings.

Why is all of this relevant in a book review? Simple: The Book of Basketball is 697 pages of shtick. It’s not a “good read.” A collection of great Simmons columns would form a good read. TBOB is a hand-held collection of Simmons hoops shtick, any bit of which should prompt even casual basketball fans to hop aboard the argument bus and take it to the end of the line.

Some readers have complained about the length, but this isn’t a 700 page narrative. You wouldn’t complain about the length of an encyclopedia. The longer the better, right? To spin it another way, if you were one of the people who was bummed as the Simmons work output decreased over the past three years while podcasts increased, (you can put me on that list), then here is your reward, the piece of work that makes the waiting worthwhile.

In fact, Simmons touches on this time-well-spent idea in a footnote on page 278, perfectly summing up why it’s a waste of time for writers to do much more than write: “Tragically, [George Kiseda, the “first great NBA writer”] never wrote an all-encompassing NBA book. Even weirder, the next great NBA writer (Bob Ryan) hasn’t written a great one either. But hey, when you can spend your Sundays arguing with Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica in HD instead of writing a book, I guess you have to do it.”

Could not have said it better. This book is, among many other things, a testament to work ethic, to a writer’s values and goals, and to a throwback era when writers spent more time writing than talking. It was one of two birthday books my parents and brother got me. The other is Forward From This Moment, a collection of columns from Leonard Pitts, AKA The Best Columnist Working in America Today.

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Nothing like a Dr. Jack breakdown.

That is a book I will take apart with a pen and read from front to back.

The Book of Basketball is a fun-read, a bounce-around, a grab-it-whenever-there’s-a-moment-to-reach.

I have not “finished” the book. That is to say, I have not read every single word on every single page. But I have absorbed the sections and read the bulk of any narrative portions. So in honor of our boy Bill, let’s break his book down Dr. Jack style. (Though without the capper of the EDGE.)

Prologue: A Four-Dollar Ticket

The Pitts collection Forward From This Moment is named for a line from his devastating, heartbreaking, heroic column from September 12, 2001, the first day of the rest of our American lives, as it were. It is a perfect line for a Pitts collection.

The parallel line from Simmons’s career comes from a 2008 column about the Red Sox winning Game 5 of the ALCS over the Devil Rays (yeah, I know). The title of Bill’s collection? You Either Love Sports or You Don’t. When I read that line, it killed me, because I knew: here is a man who just loves sports. When it came to sports fandom, I was once a crazed fanatic-junkie-genius-savant-stat dork-emotional wreck of a maniac. To some degree, those days are fading. Close readers of Simmons will see that has happened for him as well.

And yet…and yet there are those moments that can re-spark the fire with one swing of the bat or swish of the net, moments where we know that the fire, while low, still has the strongest coals. You either love sports or you don’t.

The prologue to TBOB is filled with that passion, an essay revealing the seeds of Bill’s love for the game, which is tied in to his love for the Celtics, which is tied in to his love for his father. The prologue begins in 1973, the summer that Dad Simmons bought a single ticket to the Garden and began bringing little Bill to the games to sit upon his lap.

It ends in 1987, with the stunned Simmons duo floored by the finish of Game 4 of the ’87 Finals. Not just Magic’s famed baby hook, but moreso Bird clanking the would-be game-winner a moment later. Simmons closes the section with this:

A few more seconds passed. Finally, my father looked at me.

“That was supposed to go in,” he groaned. “How did that not go in?”

More than twenty-two years have passed since that night…and I still don’t have an answer for him. For everything else, I have answers.

I think.

That is Simmons the Writer hard at work, a great bit of storytelling that caps off a wonderful section and shares with the reader his love for this sport.

One: The Secret

This opening chapter (following Malcolm Gladwell’s foreword and the prologue) covers Bill’s mafioso-esque sit-down with Isiah Thomas at a topless pool in Vegas, and the apparent “secret” to basketball, which Simmons refers to as “The Secret” for the remainder of the book. If you have followed the SG’s career, you know that he and Isiah had something of a long-range beef concerning Bill’s critique of everything Number 11 did following his retirement, along with several things he did while wearing that Number 11.

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The secret to not being embarrassed at home by the ’91 Bulls is to walk out of the gym with time still on the clock.

The story of Bill meeting Isiah (excerpted here) would be classic no matter what was discussed. It’s got the smoothing-over intro from Gus Johnson and the fantastic setting that heightens this bizarre encounter.

But the point of the chapter is to introduce The Secret; that is, the secret to basketball success. The origin of The Secret and of Bill’s desire to ask Isiah about it comes from a 1990 book by Cameron Stauth called The Franchise that chronicles the ’89 Pistons. The book features a quote from Isiah in which he lays out the elements of a championship team and then alludes to a certain “secret” about winning, though he never actually says what the secret is. (Of course, it can pretty easily be inferred based on the quotes…)

So Simmons asked him about it, and this was the answer: The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.

Bill employs The Secret as the go-to element of his HOF Pyramid, but isn’t the wording of The Secret a little troublesome, a touch too cryptic? If The Secret only means that basketball is a team sport; that stats don’t tell the whole story and talent alone does not win the ring; that it’s about how the team functions as a unit, how they jell, how they sidestep jealousy, how they do what’s best for the ultimate goal…if that is The Secret, then isn’t that all PRECISELY about basketball?

One-on-one is basketball, as is HORSE, as is 21, as is a three point contest, as is an And 1 street ball game, as is Game 6 of the NBA Finals. What Isiah, Bird, Magic, Russell, Jordan, and anyone else learned is that success in the NBA extends beyond individual talent, and that there are certain approaches towards winning an NBA championship that work. Yet are there not also certain approaches towards winning a dunk contest? Isn’t that still basketball? They may not be the same activities, but they are the same sport.

The Secret, then, is really just some overly-complex Obi Wan and Yoda jibba jabba that could more easily be summed up in this way:

The secret of winning championships in the NBA is to ignore individual statistics and embrace the team concept.

Done and done.

Two: Russell, Then Wilt

This is a fun chapter, in which Simmons breaks down the Russell and Wilt debate by debunking six myths:

1. RUSSELL HAD A BETTER SUPPORTING CAST THAN WILT

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Does Simmons end the Russ vs. Wilt debate? Y.B.T.J.

2. RUSSELL WASN’T A VERY GOOD OFFENSIVE PLAYER

3. STATISTICALLY, WILT CRUSHED RUSSELL

4. WILT WAS A GREAT GUY

5. A COUPLE PLAYS HERE AND THERE AND WILT COULD HAVE WON JUST AS MANY TITLES AS RUSSELL (note: Since Russell won 11 NBA championships and Wilt won two, the idea that anyone thinks “a few bounces of the ball that-a-way” would have evened these totals seems preposterous. This feels like a reach.)

6. PLAYERS AND COACHES FROM THE ERA ARE SPLIT OVER WHO WAS A GREATER PLAYER

Does he “settle” the Russell v. Chamberlain debate? Not sure. But he crafts a damn good argument. There are only two ways a person could oppose him. The first would be a person who shares some kind of bond with Wilt. Something like, “I was at the 100 point game, and I’ve never seen anyone better. I will never forget how dominant he was that day. It is among the defining moments of my life as a sports fan and nothing Russ ever did could compete with that moment.”

The second would be a person who creates his own statistical, historical argument rooted in similar levels of research and interviewing. What would this argument look like? I have no idea. I haven’t done the research. But that is one more reason I love this book: Simmons did his homework. Boy oh boy, did he ever. Which brings us to…

Three: How the Hell Did We Get Here?

This is probably my least favorite section, yet I respect the work that went into it, and I understand its inclusion in a book like this. Basically, Bill goes through the NBA year-by-year from 1946 (the league’s founding) to 1984 (the year that he stakes as the beginning of the league’s ‘modern era’).

The sections themselves feel a touch truncated; in fact, most of them have similar feels to the book’s bajillion footnotes. The one exception is a story about the players strike during the hours leading up to the 1964 All-Star Game (material he covered in this wonderful essay about Elgin Baylor that is, I believe, an anecdote originally found in Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, a book Bill reveres). That section has some legit drama to it, and feels like more than just a footnote.

Still, while not wildly entertaining, this section is necessary, and does it really matter that one section is merely “necessary” without being superduper fun, when the entire book is filled with superduper fun sections? Like, for instance…

Four: The What-If Game

Five: Most Valuable Chapter

These two chapters tie together for a few interconnected reasons. They are the beginning of Bill’s re-sculpting of the NBA’s history, followed up by The Pyramid, which makes up the bulk of the book and was, I suspect, the aspect of the project that most excited the author. They involve tons of second-guessing and reveal the often flimsy nature of sports decision-making. And they are the kinds of arguments that flow most organically during any quality sports conversation.

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Karl Malone doesn’t appreciate Bill Simmons pointing out inadequacies in Karl Malone winning the ’97 MVP.

(On the Tuesday night that this 2009-10 NBA season began, I attended an NBA party at the home of one of the most basketball-crazed people I know. Not surprisingly, the house was filled with other basketball junkies, and between the Cavs-Celtics game and the Lakers-Clippers game, an argument broke out in the kitchen over MJ vs. LeBron vs. Kobe, which moved into whether or not the league was watered-down and a discussion of which teams of the past ten seasons could have competed in the ’80s and ’90s, which moved into a discussion over which other sports were or were not watered-down, which moved into a discussion over which current boxers could hang with Ali, Foreman, Norton, or either Sugar Ray, which somehow ultimately moved into a discussion of whether or not Terrell Davis should be in the Hall of Fame and “If Dwyane Wade dropped dead today, where does he rank among the all-time greats?”

Point being, hypothetical sports conversation is THE BEST, and this book is loaded.)

My favorite part of the What-If chapter is his number 1 what-if, a re-tooling of the 1984 draft in which the Rockets–according to Hakeem–considered trading Ralph Sampson to Portland for Drexler and the number two, which they then would have used on Jordan to produce a trio of Mike, Clyde, and Hakeem. Yikes.

And of course the MVP section includes complete breakdowns of every questionable MVP call (Bill makes the arguments about Barkley-MJ ’93 and Mailman-MJ ’97 that we’ve been making for 16 and 12 years, respectively), with Simmons either approving the actual MVP or making his case for The Other Guy. The MVP section is probably the dorkiest portion of the entire book (in case you don’t yet know, dorkiness is wondrous)…while the Pyramid section is lengthier, it is relatively straight-forward within its enormous premise…but the MVP section includes Bill’s marvelous list of the season-by-season Alpha Dog, MVP, shoulda-been-MVP, and “playoffs MVP,” a Simmons wrinkle.

Six: The Hall of Fame Pyramid

Seven through Ten: Levels 1, 2, 3, 4

Eleven: The Pantheon

OK…here’s where we get to the best of the good stuff. The fact that Simmons “hates lists” is nothing new. He has written about it a few different times, including this comprehensive breakdown of what he does not like about them. When I first heard about TBOB, I was hoping upon hope that Simmons would take his Pyramid concept from his baseball column and apply it to the NBA, a HOF Pyramid that I would actually care about, unlike the baseball one, which I would only find mildly interesting, and only on superficial levels.

Thankfully, he did, giving us The 96 Greatest Players In NBA History.

Is it a quality list? (OF COURSE IT IS!) But here are the categories by which he evaluates lists (from the above link), and let’s go about it that way. In Bill’s words, “here are the top five things that annoy me about lists:”

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At the top of the pyramid, always and forever.

1. Everyone does them now.

What separates The Pyramid from other topic-similar lists? Well, the levels, of course. When it comes to lists and rankings, I am a huge advocate for tiers. For instance, when people ask for my favorite movies, I give them this top tier: The Blues Brothers, Yellow Submarine, The Godfather Parts I & II (I view them as one story in two parts, like seasons 1 through 3 of The Wire), Ferris, Shawshank, and Diner.

And this is how I always approached my own arguments concerning the best NBA players of all-time, one of my many favorite lists that I penned in the midst of the long and atrociously boring school day. Was MJ the greatest of all-time? I would say so. Others would take Russell, Bird, Wilt, Magic, or Kareem. But is MJ undoubtedly among the greatest? Obviously. How many guys can join him in that circle? I always took those five, followed by at least West and the Big O. That’s eight of the top nine of the SG’s Pantheon, the other being #7 Duncan, who was a senior at Wake when I was a freshman in HS, and thus not included in those 3rd period geometry lists.

Also making this list better than others is that he does not use arbitrary marks like “Top 5,” “Top 10,” “Top 25,” etc. The Pantheon is 12 players, followed by 84 more guys split over four more levels to create a Top 96. Tiers based on merit are infinitely more useful and relevant than tiers based on arbitrary cut-off numbers.

Finally, while most lists within “journalism” are thrown together for shallow purposes–they are easy space fillers, they appeal to lazy writers and readers, they are sure-fire ways to spark “controversy”–the NBA HOF Pyramid stems from a true desire to understand “which players mattered most” throughout NBA history. And it’s not simply a “list,” since each selection is accompanied by a detailed explanation that breaks down the selection and compares the player to relevant other players (like why Duncan belongs head of Shaq and KG, or why the Mailman is one spot ahead of Sir Charles or why Alex English is one spot ahead of Adrian Dantley).

2. Every list is completely subjective and almost always ridiculous.

Is this list “completely subjective”? No, not completely. If it were, Magic would not be rated higher than Bird. Obviously, since the list was formulated by one person–despite any participation from his friends, colleagues, editors–it is bound to be somewhat “subjective.” Robert Horry, a guy with zero chance of making the actual HOF, is number 85, while Bill’s appreciation for Scottie Pippen moves him into L4 at number 24, ahead of higher-touted superstars of his era Ewing (39), Drexler (43),and Nique (55). (As you can guess, I am 100% on board with that particular ranking. To quote Jay-Z, this book is gonna get Bill Simmons paper longer than Pippen’s arms…)

But Simmons has created very specific qualifications for membership within each level, has done a RIDICULOUS amount of research in the form of reading, watching, interviewing, and statistical analysis, and sincerely seems to be searching for truth. Again, he’s got Magic ahead of Larry, he’s got Kareem (one of his least favorite players on a personal/fan level whom he has unofficially dubbed “That ninny Kareem” as evidenced here, here, here, and here, and in this book’s very first footnote…and at least once more on page 192 where he refers to Kareem as “Mr. Ninny”) ranked third, and though Horry is included, he’s down in L1.

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An 11-year-old Bill Simmons, seen here calling Kareem a “ninny” for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

3. These lists always have a way of sucking you in…right up to the point where something goes terribly wrong.

So…did anything go terribly wrong? No, I wouldn’t say so. Bill didn’t talk himself into placing Russell ahead of Jordan (though I’m sure he would have presented a compelling argument if he had). Is anyone on the list who shouldn’t be? Maybe Kemp. Maybe Horry. Maybe Sabonis. Probably Vince and T-Mac, even though I guess I understand their inclusion…maybe. Though, again, every pick is backed up with enough explanation that it is difficult to argue, even when you disagree.

Was anyone left off who should have made it? My Pyramid would probably include Mutombo, who was such a monster defensively and great on the boards. From 1992 (his rookie year) to 2001 (the year he was the “final piece” to the 2001 Sixers), Mt. Mutombo led the league in blocks per game and total blocks, total offensive and defensive boards, and was tied with Shaq at 12.4 boards a game for second behind Rodman (16.4). He also won four DPOY awards during that stretch (Hakeem and Zo had two during that time, and only Ben Wallace has matched his four), and made a total of eight All Star teams (one more than Zo).

However, going by the Simmons standards, Mutombo would have been a Level 1 guy (never won a ring, never the best at his position), and if a L1 guys gets left off, so be it.

(But why not include him in Group 3 of “the basement” for the best role players, as described on page 273? Sure Mutombo was more of a star than a role player, what with his eight All-Star appearances, but if Horry can be a Pyramid guy with zero All-Star appearances, then ol’ Mr. Finger Wagger can be considered a role player.)

4. Even though I hate lists, I always enjoy them. If that makes sense.

I love lists. Have since I was a boy. Can rattle off the U.S. Presidents, the SB winners/losers/MVPs (and most scores), all 50 states, all Best Picture winners since 1967, every opening quote from The Wire, every Chicago Bears retired number, among others. I can do this, quite literally, in my sleep. (Characters in my dreams often challenge this, followed by me wowing them.)

(DECEMBER 16TH UPDATE!!! A potentially frightening postscript to this section: thanks to sporcle.com and my own stick-to-itiveness, I have now memorized all 96 members of the Pyramid in order.)

Still, I understand why Bill “hates lists” because I dislike certain lists for the same reasons. The Pyramid, however, is quite definitely NOT one of those. This is a great list. One of the greatest, in fact. Definitely in the Pantheon of great lists. (I’d rank it second, right after the time senior year of HS when Jonny C, Sammy V, Jakey B and myself compiled our 64 favorite friends and family members and created “The Person Pool” to be settled by random draws in full-March Madness bracket style.)

5. WHOOPS. Bill only included four points.

And since there is no fifth point upon which to comment, here is Bill’s Pantheon from 1 to 12,  along with the placement of every significant player of my life, divided by their levels.

(I’m not giving anything away. 1. This is already out there. And 2. if all you wanted from this book is a list of players, you don’t really want to read a 700 page Bill Simmons basketball column anyhow.)

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Shawn Kemp was good, but was he Pyramid-good? Bill says yes.

Jordan, Russell, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Wilt, Duncan, West, Oscar, Hakeem, Shaq, Moses.

15. Kobe, 16. Dr. J., 18. Mailman, 19. Barkley, 20 LeBron, 22. KG, 23. Isiah, 24. Scottie.

25. Stockton, 28. Robinson, 29. Iverson, 35. McHale.

37. Dirk, 38. Nash, 39 Ewing, 40. Glove, 42. Kidd, 43. Drexler, 48. Worthy, 52. DJ, 53. Wade, 54. Pierce, 55. Nique, 58. Bernard King, 59. Parish.

62. Reggie, 63. Jesus Shuttlesworth, 69. Rodman, 72. Webber, 74. Dumars, 75. McGrady, 82. Mullin, 83. Vince, 85. Horry, 86. Sabonis, 89. Kemp, 90. Chris Paul, 91. Dwight Howard, 93. KJ, 96. Chambers.

Twelve: The Legend of Keyser Soze

What do you do after you’ve ranked the best 96 players of all time and placed them into five definitive pyramidical tiers? Well, if you are trying to determine “who really mattered,” it’s time to rank the best teams, yes?

Simmons gives us the Top Ten, and then the Second Ten. The Bulls placed three teams in the top ten (’91, ’96, ’97, not in that order), though I’ll leave you to guess which Simmons-adored club grabbed the top spot…

Thirteen: The Wine Cellar

Ah, the Wine Cellar. This chapter came on as a real surprise and turned out to be one of the true delights of the book. Here’s the premise: a group of 12 super-aliens arrive on Earth and challenges our planet to a game of high-stakes basketball…the stakes being the destruction of our planet. Here’s the catch: not only can we bend time to create our team (i.e. lining up LeBron with Russell, should we want to), we must select a specific player from a specific season, with, of course, only one “model” chosen per player. Simmons compares this to the way that wine experts (hence the title) select specific vintages as the best, like The ’59 Mouton Rotschild, The ’53 Lafite, etc. Thus Simmons does not want Jordan…he wants The ’92 Jordan.

He has also decided that since modern players would naturally dominate the old-time guys, he is limiting his Alien All-Stars to 1977-2009, the post-merger era.

What is so fantastic about this section is it combines supreme dorkiness with the search for truth and the boredom with a standard “I’ll take Bird, Magic, Jordan, Kareem, LeBron.” (SG’s example.) His starting five (and again, I’m not ruining anything, as his explanation is worth the price of the book) is ’85 Magic, ’92 Mike, ’86 Bird, ’03 Duncan, and ’77 Kareem.

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The Aliens square up for the tip against MJ and the Wine Cellar Team.

The Wine Cellar section also includes one of the great Simmons jokes of his career, and an example of his mind’s twisted sports logic and life perspective. In explaining why Isiah was left off the bench in favor of a different point guard (I’ll let that be a surprise…because at least to me, it definitely was a surprise, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been, all things considered…though I am surprised that he took the version of this particular PG that he did, rather than the version from the year before who he thinks should have won MVP), he argued that Jordan might weigh the pro of “the world not exploding” against the con of “playing with Isiah,” and arrogantly settle on the destruction of the world. This is simultaneously hilarious and right-on; you think to yourself “You know what, Jordan probably would do that.”

And THIS, my friends, is the kind of thought process that eventually leads you to write a 700 page book about basketball.

Epilogue: Life After the Secret

This final chapter chronicles a meeting of the minds between two Bills, Simmons and Walton, at the latter’s San Diego home following the Lakers’ 2009 championship. In it, Simmons discusses The Secret with Walton (Walton rephrases it as The Choice), and we gain a valuable perspective on the life of a professional athlete. This last part is Simmons the Writer all the way; along with his prologue, this section provides a touching and fitting story to bookend this massive historical document. Which is really what TBOB is. (The secret of The Book of Basketball is that it’s ALL about basketball.)

It really is a lovely story. I’ll let you discover it yourself.

(Let’s move down a bit, because I want to include this as it seems relevant in an honest book review, but I don’t want it to override everything else because I really, REALLY like both Simmons and TBOB …)

No matter how careful you are, no matter how good your editing skills are or those of your editor, no matter how many sets of eyes run over a piece of writing, mistakes happen. As you may have guessed, I think Bill Simmons is a terrific writer. He is off the charts in categories two and three, and his actual craft is stronger than many give him credit.

(My favorite examples of Simmons the Writer? The Bias story, which is his best work; the eulogy for his dog The Dooze and his fantasy-nightmare about a trip to Fenway in 2014 with his dad and his son, both of which have final lines that are just heartbreakingly perfect without a wasted word; his Halberstam eulogy (what is it about death that produces such fine work? Two of my very favorite columns I ever wrote were inspired by deaths); his Pats-Rams column; his “Tom Seaver pitching in his friend’s backyard” story; his “That Game” story about the Buckner game; his epic “Manny Being Manipulated”; his aforementioned 2008 ALCS Red Sox column; and a column that lived up to all of my expectations as soon as the Celtics lost the 2007 lottery. That one was a perfect example of how a writer can OWN a topic…I remember thinking, “Sucks for the Celtics…on the other hand, now we get a great Simmons story.” And we did. And then some.

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Marlo is disappointed with some of Bill’s mistakes.

Why doesn’t Simmons the Writer get more credit? I guess it’s because his shtick is so overwhelming, and because he came out of nowhere as an internet phenomenon, so his legacy was always “that fan who started a website and ended up on ESPN.com” or “the guy who writes 8,000 word NFL picks columns” or “the Boston guy” or “the 90210 guy” or whatever. But Bill Simmons is going to die one day, and people are going to start reviewing his work and picking out the good stuff like in the paragraph above, writing their own eulogies and saying things like: “You know what? He was more than just the Ewing Theory and the Boston Sports Guy. He was actually a pretty good writer, too.” So I’ll just beat ’em to it right now: the man’s got serious game.)

All that said, there are some bad mistakes in this book. I point them out not to slam him or one-up him or anything silly like that, but because I use other people’s mistakes as motivation in my own work, a reminder that even the best of us (even the professionals) make errors, that everyone needs a good editor, that editing print and catching EVERYTHING is really hard, and that writing under the influence of caffeine, booze, ADD meds, stress, no sleep, and anything else that Simmons repeatedly lists can jazz you up in a bad way.

So what are the errors? Well, he has an odd habit of occasionally referring to teams by the wrong year moniker. (We’ll call these our Level 1 mistakes.) He says that MJ hit The Shot against the ’88 Cavs instead of the ’89 Cavs, (page 609) which could have just been a typo, but on Page 204 when talking about the impact of the ’87 Celtics losing Len Bias, he writes: “Pull Pippen from the ’87 Bulls, Malone from the ’85 Jazz or Duncan from the ’97 Spurs…that’s how much Bias’ death meant.” Of course Pippen, Malone, and Duncan were drafted in ’87, ’85, and ’97, and thus debuted on the ’88 Bulls, the ’86 Jazz, and the ’98 Spurs.

During the MJ Pyramid section, he lists a group of teams that Jordan defeated that were never the same again, and the list includes “Drexler’s Pistons.” (also on 609) I’ll chalk that one up to all of those drugs listed above. (But where were the editors? Where were the parents?)

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Peter North, in a rare PG appearance.

There are a few standard typos with the wrong word in the wrong place, (Level 2) like this footnote on page 546 comparing Shaq to porn star Peter North:

North was the master of the money shot; Shaq was the master of the monster “don’t try to dunk this or I will put your arms through the hoop with the ball” dunk.

There are more significant mistakes, (Level 3) like the bizarre one in the footnote on page 109 where Simmons lists the various single-game “white guy records.” Pistol Pete for most points, Mark Eaton for blocks, etc. He lists Nowitzki and Stockton as sharing the steals record, and Majerle and Rex Chapman for the treys record with 9. Then he writes: “Peja Stojakovic had 10 threes in a game but I don’t count the Euros as true white guys. Just a personal thing with me.” Did I miss something? Isn’t Dirk a German who played ball in Germany until he entered the NBA at 19? I’m pretty sure that makes him European…

(There is also the problem of Bill referencing the ’95 Magic-Bulls series as an “upset” for Orlando, or anything that suggests that series is an example of why the Bulls could not handle a dominating center. I agree in theory with that last part (as shows in my would-be what-if above), but that was hardly an upset. The Bulls were a 5th seed, and would have been much lower had MJ not come back. The Bulls were sinking in ’95, with Horace gone, Harper having a brutal debut year as the new “Jordan replacement,” and Will The Thrill as our starting center. They were 31-31 after a loss to the Lakers on March 11, won three straight, and then Jordan came back with their record at 34-31 and they closed out the season 13-4 with Jordan.

So Mike did jump-start us, but the Magic were still the 57-win force in the East, and MJ was still getting his basketball legs back. Does 1993 or 1996 MJ get stripped by 1995 Nick Anderson in such a hopeless fashion? Of course not. The Bulls of the ’95 playoffs were not a real team. They were a sudden, odd fusing of the should’ve been 42 win ’95 team and the soon to be 72 win ’96 team.)

But all that is nothing compared to the real bad ones, or anyhow, the ones that I think Simmons would be most bothered by based on his love for these two pieces of visual storytelling.

First on page 57, he says that there are 65 episodes of The Wire instead of just 60. (Level 4) Flubbing the number of episodes might not seem like a big deal to those not into the show, but episode count is more significant with The Wire than so many other programs, since each episode is a chapter of the full story. Forgetting an episode in any particular season of The Wire –and again, I’m raising the standards since Bill is a self-proclaimed Wire-fan — would be like forgetting that the Warden gave Andy “another month to think about it.”

Speaking of Shawshank, our man Bill actually F’d up two references to his beloved story of hope and redemption. He repeatedly refers to Red as describing prison life as “pressure over time” when the quote is “pressure and time,” and then he lists Red’s full name as Ellis “Red” Boyd when it is, in fact, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. (This is another one I can’t find now that I am making the list. Read closely, though. It’s there.)

These blatant mistakes are curious, particularly the Shawshank ones. For those of you scoring at home, this makes it an even four Shawshank bricks in two Simmons books, (the Pantheon of Simmons mistakes), since he botched the wording on two quotes in the Red Sox book, one on page 119 at the opening of the section CURSE WORDS, and one on page 131 as the lead for his 4-4-01 column “The Nomar Redemption.” I’m not going to list them…just open the book and throw on the movie and see for yourself.

So what’s the deal? I asked my friend Avril what she thought about this, and she said that for her, it would taint his credibility. But I’ve read too much of the man’s work for a few errors to give him the taint. (Not to be confused with a TAINT.) Again, the research put into this book is ASTOUNDING. If there were any debate prior to the release of this book, there is none now: Bill Simmons’ knowledge of the history of professional basketball in America stands squarely in the Pantheon of such knowledge.

So no, his credibility is not tainted. Not for me, at least.

shawshank
Andy and Red, seen here warming up at Fenway prior to Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS.

But while his editors and proof readers should have caught the Drexler’s Pistons and the “Germany is not in Europe” gaffes, (unless this is stuff to “make sure we’re paying attention”…but why do it so many times?), it is still curious that a guy who loves movies and TV the way he does–and especially Shawshank–would make so many mistakes about those very items.

Is this a chink in the Simmons armor? Is this like Shaq’s foul shooting? Will a 60-year-old Bill start making references in 2029 to “the time in Shawshank when Red Auerbach read the letter that Brooks sent” or quoting the famous “I like to think the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet, was to wonder how the hell Andy Richter ever got the best of him.”?

Since Simmons clearly loves Red (Auerbach, in this case, not Redding), yet retroactively slams him on page 308 for his “bonehead” trade of Paul Westphal, I think it’s only fair that the Sports Guy’s mistakes be pointed out as well, just as a reminder to the rest of us to stay sharp. And as long as your mistakes are being aired out for all to sniff, may as well have it done by a great supporter of your career, right? Indeed, there’s still time to get it right for the The Second Book Of Basketball: A Quick Influx of Cash.

Or am I being obtuse?

***UPDATE, 16 December 2009***

On his site thebookofbasketball.com, Simmons lists the book’s bajillion errors, including (obviously) many, many, many that I did not catch. Included are sections that I certainly read, though many that I did not. I don’t know if this makes me a worse editor, him a sloppier writer, both, neither, or simply that my expectations of “no mistakes” is way, way unreasonable. I just thought it should be pointed out that he did indeed call himself out on many errors. (He does not, however, include anything about Shawshank or The Wire.)

Additionally, Bill includes loads of deleted goodies in this ESPN Mag story. Good stuff!

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12 Replies to “a readjack.com book review: The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons”

  1. Good review, big fan of Simmons so I’ll have to check this out.

    But you know I’m gonna have to defend my Lithuanian brethren for a second…

    Sabonis is one of the greatest players ever and deserves to be on the Pyramid. (Don’t know where Simmons ranked him as I haven’t read it yet) Don’t just take it from me:

    “Ex-players and current players alike contend that Sabonis, little known in the U.S., would have been recognized as one of the top centers ever to play the game of basketball had he come to America in his prime. Scottie Pippen was quoted as saying that Arvydas was “the best European basketball player to ever play the game”. Ex-Spur Sean Elliott routinely claimed that Arvydas “should be in the conversation as one of the greatest centers ever”. Hall of Famer Bill Walton describes “Sabas” as “the greatest passing center of all time”. And Dino Radja, a former Boston Celtics player, said that Sabonis would have been an all-star “ten times over” had he played his healthy years in the States.

    Brian Meehan, a columnist for The Oregonian, followed Sabonis’ career over the course of decades. Recalling the 1988 Olympics, when Sabonis’ Soviet team beat an amateur United States team with the likes of future NBA stars David Robinson and Mitch Richmond. Meehan notes one play when a healthy Sabonis reacted to a teammate’s missed shot: Sabonis slashed towards the rim, jumped over Robinson, and slammed the ball home. Meehan is of the opinion that it was the play of Arvydas in the 1988 Olympics that influenced Team USA to use professional players in the Olympics, hence the “Dream Teams” of 1992 and 1996. Meehan ranks Sabonis as the 6th best all-time center behind, in no particular order, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. ”

    (http://hoopedia.nba.com/index.php?title=Arvydas_Sabonis – yeah I know it’s a wiki but I trust they are authentic)

    Lugen4Lyphe

  2. Dude, I would never stoop so low as to disrespect a Lithuanian. (Being one fifth myself.) Simmons has put in the research, so if he says Sabonis belongs, I won’t argue.

    However, while I have no doubt as to his credentials for an All-Basketball Pyramid, I do wonder about placing him on an NBA Pyramid. If it’s All-Basketball, then isn’t Kukoc up for consideration? Or ‘The Goat’ or ‘The Helicopter’ or any of those NYC street guys who everyone says could ball on Dr. J and Kareem?

    That’s all I’m saying about Sabonis. (And, even if it is an All-Basketball Pyramid, I just don’t know enough detail about Sabonis’ non-NBA career (other than that it was fantastic) to comment on his inclusion here.)

    By the way, how great were the ’92 Lithuanian Grateful Dead t-shirts? I can still see Sarunas Marciulionis up on that podium…

  3. Good points. Sabas’ career in the NBA would probably be recognized by the casual fan as the white boy who got the towel thrown in he face by Rasheed Wallace.

    Still have those Lithuanian tie-dyes, bust it out from time to time.

  4. Беспроигрышный вариант :)
    Абсолютно согласен
    Нечего сказать – промолчите, дабы не засорять тему.
    Я считаю, что Вы не правы. Давайте обсудим. Пишите мне в PM, пообщаемся.
    Это точно, идеалов нет

  5. Я думаю, что Вы не правы. Я уверен. Давайте обсудим. Пишите мне в PM, пообщаемся.
    чото как то не впечатляет(((, откажусь пожалуй
    Я извиняюсь, но, по-моему, Вы не правы. Я уверен. Пишите мне в PM.
    Обожаю всё,
    первая самая лутшая

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