Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Big Book of Basketball (Part 3) -- Jack Gets Back

Editor's Note: My response to Dan's earlier post


So I don’t forget when I get to the end of my response, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the wine-cellar section.

I agree that Simmons certainly could have made the book “better” by doing many of the things you suggested in terms of pop culture references, personal memories, etc. It appears, though, he made a conscious decision to sacrifice writing the “best” book he could in an effort to create something that he hopes will still be relevant in 25 years. His lack of pop culture references (other than to Boogie Nights) seems emblematic of this. The book would be much more enjoyable for today’s readers if he had sprinkled in more references, but it would have risked making it much less enjoyable for future readers. (Although the personal memories would have been enjoyable for all readers.) Unfortunately for Bill, though, it meant he couldn’t write the way he writes best — which might confine his book to the bargain bin with every other sports list book in a few years.

As for organization, as much as I have criticized Simmons for trying to be too much like Bill James, this is one way in which Simmons' writing would have been helped by being more like him. I don’t necessarily agree with you that Simmons should not have used the ranking system as a skeleton to frame the book, but he should have realized he didn't need to write pages to justify where he ranked each player. When James didn't have something interesting to say about a player in the "Historical Baseball Abstract", he simply doesn't say anything at all. This style would have allowed Simmons to rank all these players, while focusing on the ones he had the most to say about, as you suggested. I know I certainly could have lived without him explaining why he decided to rank Cliff Hagan ahead of Jack Tyman.

I also wonder how much of our frustration has to do with how we decided to read the book. Both of us chose to read the book straight-through in a relatively condensed period of time. Would it be better consumed in smaller portions? Maybe pick it up to read about one player a night before bed?

In regards to your thoughts on individual parts of the book, I wanted to expand upon your comments about the cocaine references. I actually wouldn’t have minded the quantity of these references except that they were all exactly the same (late 70s basketball+cocaine=bad). Essentially this tells me that Bill knows nothing about cocaine in the game other than that David Halberstam mentioned players used it in “Breaks of the Game”.

So I’m not entirely negative, there was one thing Simmons wrote in the book I wanted to agree with — I wish the NBA (another other sports leagues) would be willing to have a bit more fun. The only people that take themselves more seriously than the NBA and NFL are Michigan Daily news and opinion staffers. I’m not saying every one of his radical suggestions in Chapter 6 should be adopted, but I wouldn't be opposed to at least considering a four-point, half-court shot or holding a double-elimination tournament for the last two playoff spots in each conference. Why are these leagues so averse to doing something exciting or fun?

The Big Book of Basketball (Part 2) -- Dan Responds

Editor's Note: As I mentioned earlier, Dan B. and I will be having a conversation on Bill Simmons' "The Big Book of Basketball". Here is his response to my earlier post.


I'm finished -- I actually finished a couple days ago, but I'm responding now. And on the whole, I feel exactly as you do about the book. When people ask me "How was it?", I respond "Good", but before the word is even out of my mouth I'm already qualifying it. It ends up being a stuttered yes and scattered thoughts. It's a mess. Which is appropriate, because the book is kind of a mess.

I'm not going to address your points individually, because I mostly just agree with all of them, and it'd be boring to read that I agreed with all of them. But I do have one over-arching thought that I think might address many of the points at the same time. So I'll make that point, and then briefly mention other things that I noticed/had thoughts about.

My biggest problem with the book is a combination of your points 4,5, and 6 I guess. It seemed like he couldn't decide how he wanted to write and organize the book. The best way for him to do it was not to rank the best players in this stupid pyramid idea. The book should have been written like the allen iverson (page 454), david robinson (right after him), and bill walton sections, along with maybe bernard king. those sections absolutely stood out to me as by far the best sections of the book (along with the michael jordan section actually).

He's not a stat guy like bill james -- he doesn't know anything about stats, he doesn't understand them, and he doesn't really believe in them. Which is fine. But he shouldn't try to be a stat guy, and include that stuff. He would have done much better if he had realized his strengths. What are those? Well, he really is a huge basketball fan, and he has been to a ton of games, and he makes fun analogous comparisons between athletes and other cultural aspects. So that's what he should have stuck with. Don't tell me about trying to compare stats between eras -- you have no idea what you're doing. What I want to read from you is why Bill Walton is like 2pac, how the Celtic crowd reacted when David Robinson walked into the arena, and about the confrontation between Iverson and the referee. These are things that are interesting to hear from YOU, these are the things YOU write well (the last couple paragraphs on Iverson I would argue are the best-written in the entire book). Don't try to be a basketball scholar -- you're not that. And for older players, he should have either totally ignored them if he wasn't going to add anything original, or address them like he did with bernard king. I specifically remember coming away from the Bernard King section thinking that I understood Bernard King a lot better than I had before (Simmons either compared him to Carmelo or made me compare him to Carmelo, which makes sense, and helps me understand. Of course this could be wrong, and I'm just not old enough to know). But he does it with anecdotes, with first-hand or second-hand descriptions, and with arguments that go beyond statistics, and delve into how he was looked at by other players, and what the feeling was in the arena when he was playing.

So what he should have done was organized the book into "why history/statistics won't paint the whole picture on these guys" rather than "the list of 96 best players ever." I think that's probably what he started out doing, but then stopped for some reason.

OK, onto my little notes and thoughts.

Page 205 -- This is Simmons' section on Len Bias. At the bottom of the page, he argues that Bias "resonated with black fans much the same way Hawk, Pearl, and Doc did back in the day." I'm sorry, you're Bill Simmons. You're an extremely pale white guy from Boston whose first car was a Porsche and whose dad owns a yacht. If you don't want to be absolutely laughed at, you need a citation for this. Desperately. Better yet, don't include it. I actually hated almost the entire Len Bias section. It's just whining mostly. Nothing I hadn't heard or read before.

Page 217 -- At the top of the page, Simmons talks about how the NBA leads its journalists to "write black." Needless to say, this section is atrocious and offensive. I almost stopped reading. He also makes the point on this page that the NBA box score never deceives, but then argues throughout the rest of the book that stats don't tell the whole story. I'm not saying these things can't both be true; they could. Or one of them could be true. Or neither of them could be true, which is actually the case. The NBA box score does deceive all the time, and while advanced statistics don't tell the "whole" story, they can tell an awful lot of it. But of course Simmons never addresses these stats other than to say they don't work because one time Marreise Speights was ranked higher than Shane Battier in PER (nevermind that Hollinger admits that PER doesn't cover defense, or that there are TONS of other statistics that should be incorporated into an analysis of two players).

Page 323 -- Simmons talks about noticing that 2-guards make some sort of leap between 23-25 years old in his David Thompson. I found this interesting and original. I enjoyed it (even if others might think it's obvious). I also thought the David Thompson section on the whole was actually relatively well-done.

Page 344 -- Reggie Miller chapter. I actually mostly liked this chapter, but there was a paragraph on this page that was laughable. Simmons argues that (i'm paraphrasing) 21 superstars crossed paths with reggie during his career, who were all mortal locks for the all-star team, including jordan, bird, isiah, iverson, pippen, and dominique wilkens. He then, in the VERY NEXT SENTENCE, argues that if reggie was really all that good, his career should have been as successful and substantial as all those guys. since he has fewer all-star game appearances than all those guys, and since he's the only one who never appeared on an all-NBA first or second team, his career couldn't have been so great. Simmons, amazingly enough, is ignoring the obvious point that is basically jumping off the page: maybe miller didn't make the all-star teams or all-NBA teams BECAUSE ALL THOSE GUYS ARE FUCKING LEGENDS WHO WERE BETTER THAN HE WAS. that doesn't mean that reggie wasn't great -- all it means is that he wasn't as good as those guards. And those guards are some of the best of all time. Next paragraph, bill says "nine of his contemporaries at shooting guard made all-NBA (first or second)....reggie only made third-team all-NBA three times." WELL MAYBE THAT'S BECAUSE THE OTHER TWO TEAMS WERE TAKEN UP BY THE GUYS YOU JUST FUCKING MENTIONED. needless to say, this was abominable. i have to move on.

Page 356 -- I really liked the Bernard King section. Why? Let's see. Bill makes bullet points, and each goes to a strength of his. Bullet Point 1) Bill compares King to a corned beef sandwich. BP 2) talks about watching the 1984 playoff game against the celtics, and how unstoppable King was. BP 3) talks about how he rooted against Kobe breaking King's record because of how that record spoke to NY basketball fans. The rest of the bullet points I didn't much care about, but these three were good enough. I can honestly say that I came away from this book with a much better understanding of bernard king than i went into it with, which is rare for me and bill.

Page 360 -- Simmons just recites facts he learned about Paul Arizin in the last two years. Totally unnecessary. I don't care. Boring. Stop it.

Page 401 -- We get it with the cocaine jokes already. Simmons has an infatuation with cocaine and basketball. It's incredibly annoying. He talks about it all the time, and makes horrible jokes about it. I hate it. Stop it. There's a horrible Michael Ray Richardson coke joke here, and I had just reached my limit. Couldn't stand it anymore. I put the book down and didn't come back to it until the next day.

Page 402 -- Bill decides to talk here about how basic NBA statistics have failed us. Which is interesting, because it goes against his earlier thesis. It's also interesting because Bill then starts talking about all the statistics that we "should" invent, totally ignoring that for all of his made-up statistics that are relevant (about 60%), we ALREADY HAVE STATISTICS THAT MEASURE THEM, YOU JUST DON'T KNOW WHERE TO LOOK. Anyways, this comes out of a section on Wes Unseld where Bill wonders about how Wes was so good when he had atypical size and weight for a center. He ignores the existence of chuck hayes, who, if you know anything about basketball, seems to me like an offensively-limited version of what wes unseld used to be. It just shows a basic lack of understanding about how NBA statistics work now, and how they've been adjusted in the past couple years to account for things like this.

Page 408 -- Gary Payton named his kids Gary Payton Jr and Gary Payton II. I didn't know this. It's glorious. Thank you Bill.

Page 442 -- I loved the Walt Frazier section here. Really enjoyed it. Like I (think I) understand King better, I think I understand Frazier better too. Well done. He describes Walt's go-to move in detail, talks about how demoralizing it was for opposing crowds in detail, and it's great. Then he speculates about a coke problem, and I lose interest. But the first part of it is great.

Page 454 -- Great Iverson section. Best writing in the book I think. Bill does best when he says "screw the stats." Even if it's not technically correct, it's interesting, and it's an argument. It's your book Bill, make it your book. Also loved the following David Robinson and Bill Walton sections. If you only read 15 pages of the book, read from the beginning of the Iverson section to the end of the Walton section.

Page 510 -- (Describing Barkley) "Who would have been a more fun teammate than Charles Barkley? He loved gambling, drinking, eating, and busting on everyone's balls. (Wait, that sounds like me!).

I threw up here.

Page 680 -- I love the wine cellar section, except snubbing Kobe for Wade is actually indefensible. I can explain why if you're interested, but this is long enough as is.

So yeah, I enjoyed the book, I guess, kind of, but there's lots of things wrong with it, but it's mostly entertaining, but incredibly frustrating, and he's annoying with style, and makes a lot of wrong choices, and it's horrendously organized....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Big Book of Basketball (Part 1)

Editor's Note: In an effort to actually motivate myself to write, I hope to engage in a series of conversations with various people using this blog. I'm starting with a discussion with Dan. B about Bill Simmons's "The Big Book of Basketball". If you want to participate and/or have another topic you want to discuss on the blog, please shoot me an e-mail. I think it will be fun.

Below are my opening thoughts on the book. Dan will respond later this week.

Rarely have I felt as conflicted about a book as I did while reading The Book of Basketball. On one hand, it was entertaining and informative enough that I’d recommend it to almost anyone with even a casual interest in basketball (it’s hard to argue otherwise given that I finished the book in two days). On the other, the book is flawed in so many ways beyond the usual criticisms I have about Simmons's work.

I have liked Simmons going back to his earliest stuff on, but the book’s first chapter encapsulates why I can barely get through his stories today — he’s no longer satisfied being Bill Simmons. Simmons used to have a very unique voice; now, he wants to write like Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman (Doesn’t “The Secret about basketball is that it’s not about basketball” sound like something very similar to what they would say?). He used to write about the pranking,  gambling, and boozing he’d do with his friends JackO, House, and J-Bug; now he wants to name-drop by writing about his “friends” Gus Johnson, Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon. He used to criticize all the people he said journalists would never attack for fear of losing access; now, he verbally jerks off Isiah Thomas — someone Simmons has blamed for ruining the Raptors, the Knicks, and the CBA — for spending 15 minutes next to Simmons at a pool in Las Vegas and passing along a “brilliant” concept about basketball (essentially, the so-called “Secret” is that basketball is about teamwork, chemistry and people) obvious to anyone that’s played the game (even I knew it and I was a sixth-man in eighth-grade basketball)*.

*And even if you like some of the other Simmons-esque writing techniques such as pop culture references, I feel like you’d be disappointed by the book—95% of the references were to Boogie Nights or real porn movies.

As for the problems that go beyond my usual criticisms his work, I must revert to a list:

1.)    Much like with “The Secret” he takes credit for concepts he believes are brilliant that are really quite obvious. For instance, his “world-renowned Kurt Cobain theory” — the rocker’s legacy has benefited from dying early.

2.)    I enjoyed the content of the footnotes, but they became very distracting from a reading standpoint. Given he goes into many tangents throughout the book, it’s unclear why he could not have simply incorporated many of these tales into the main portion of the book. Even though they were at the bottom of the page and not the end of the book, it disrupted the flow of reading having to glance down there.

3.)    Simmons also tries to argue that the stats don’t really matter as much as we think (especially in his argument about why Russell>Wilt), but in ranking players, he uses statistics to prove almost all of his points (hedging this with statements like “I usually hate stats, but…” similar to the racist comment prefaced by “I’m not a racist, but…”). And even aside from this inconsistency, it seemed like a poor literary choice to insert chunks of paragraphs filled with statistics into his writing.

4.)    I appreciate his research, but the book reads like someone who spent a year or two researching a subject (which is what he did) and then said “Hey, look, here is everything I found.” It's like a history test in college—a pure information dump. His work contrasts quite clearly with someone like Bill James (clearly the person Simmons is trying to emulate) who has absorbed, digested and processed everything he's learned about a sport over his life. 

5.)    I’ll admit I’m just a casual NBA fan, but Simmons’s rankings seem very uncreative. He spends much of his book ripping players such as Karl Malone, Kareem and Wilt, but then bows to conventional wisdom and ranks them very high within his Pantheon. Again, contrast this to someone like Bill James, who was not afraid to rank Craig Biggio as one of the best baseball players of all time.

6.)    Similarly, although I don’t necessarily have problems with many of the rankings themselves (because I don't know enough about the NBA), I do have a problem with how he reached his conclusions—his arguments were often illogical and inconsistent. For instance, he ranks Scottie Pippen as one of the all-time greats and even says it’s arguable he was as good an all-around player as Jordan, but (either on the section about Jordan or someone he is comparing to Jordan) makes it sound like Jordan had no one else good on his team (Simmons makes many mentions of this in Jordan's early career where maybe it wouldn't be as contradictory, but there is one specific passage I remember that clearly was contradictory). Likewise, many of the other rating systems he creates have these problems. He admits, for example, that Player X is an exception to his 42-Club system. Then three paragraphs later he talks about how great of a test it is because it draws a perfect line that only includes players that should be included. I'm admittedly not a huge NBA guru, but the abundance of simple logical errors in this book is troubling. 

7.)    I'm fairly certain that many of the ideas for which he takes credit (and beats to death) are stolen from other people (I think the stuff about the ‘70s, which is among the strongest part of the book, relies quite heavily on David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game” and Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls”). He does credit some other writers during portions of the book, but I feel as though quotes are more to be like "See, I read SI as a kid and respect great journalists" than adding anything to the book.

8.)    He outright admits to lying about something in one of his columns (albeit a minor point) to increase the rhetoric effect. Yikes!

Your thoughts on my thoughts? As a bigger fan of the NBA than I am, do you have any thoughts about his discussion of players and teams you are familiar with? What do you make of his discussions of race?