The Book of Basketball (review: 5/5)

The Book of Basketball
It’s a great book, let’s get that out of the way before we proceed. Just know that Bill Simmons is a carefree, garrulous writer and it is obsessively focused on basketball. It might not be your thing. One of the best practices when I was reading this one was to keep the iPad nearby so I could do a little backgrounder on legendary players I’d never heard of, and, more importantly, keeping YouTube handy to look up amazing dunks, passes, etc. If you haven’t followed basketball, there is a learning curve. On the upside, like I told Justin, reading this book after the recent playoffs, finals, The Decision, etc. has me more interested in basketball than I’ve ever been.

The biggest parts of the book cover Larry Bird, Russell vs. Wilt, The Secret (e.g. TEAMWORK), ranking the best players ever, and ranking the best teams ever. All in obsessive detail. You can open a page anywhere in the book, and in short order stumble on a really good argument about something. In a 3-page section on Elvin Hayes, Simmons lists 5 reasons that Hayes stands out. In item #5, there’s a little mini-essay on the fall-away/turnaround shot:

My theory on the fall-away: it’s a passive-aggressive shot that says more about a player than you think. For instance, Jordan, McHale and Hakeem all had tremendous fall-aways—in fact, MJ developed the shot to save his body from undue punishment driving to the basket—but it was one piece of their offensive arsenal, a weapon used to complement the other weapons already in place. Well, five basketball stars in the past sixty years have been famous for either failing miserably in the clutch or lacking the ability to rise to the occasion: Wilt, Hayes, Malone, Ewing and Garnett. All five were famous for their fall-away/turnaround jumpers and took heat because their fall-aways pulled them out of rebounding position. If it missed, almost always it was a one-shot possession. On top of that, it never leads to free throws—either the shot falls or the other team gets it. Could you make the case that the fall-away, fundamentally, is a loser’s shot? For a big man, it’s the dumbest shot you can take—only one good thing can happen and that’s it—as well as a symbol of a larger problem, namely, that a team’s best big man would rather move away from the basket than toward it. […] So here’s my take: the fall-away says, “I’d rather stay out here.” It says, “I’m afraid to fail.” It says, “I want to win this game, but only on my terms.”

Woah, right? Coming up organically in a discussion about a specific player we get a really interesting observation on the game itself, couched in a super-fan/nerd’s historical mastery, with some speculative psychology delivered in the kind of friendly/authoritative tone you’d hear at a bar. A later section on Kobe Bryant looks at his career through the lens of Teen Wolf, vacillating between the team-player (Michael J. Fox) and the devastating ball hog/alpha dog (Wolf). Maybe the better movie analogy is thinking of Tim Duncan like Harrison Ford:

If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who’s going to notice after a while? There’s a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, “Wait a second—Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!” From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn’t until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn’t anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it. Will the same happen for Duncan one day?

If there is a weakness, it’s that the occasional jokey celeb-bashing comes up really lame and unnecessary. But that’s a small price to pay for 700+ quality pages and a comparable number of entertaining footnotes. Worth a read!