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?

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