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 ESPN.com, 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?