But Bill Simmons’ magnum opus, although entertaining and somewhat informative, fell short of my expectations.
You see, like most Canadians, I don’t know a lot about basketball. Sure, I watch maybe a game per week, I know the big name players and I certainly respect their athleticism and the skill necessary to play in the National Basketball Association.
But that level of interest pales in comparison to my obsession with hockey. That’s just the sad truth: In Canada, basketball always plays second fiddle to hockey. From an early age we’re all ingrained with an understanding of hockey that fuels our fascination.
It’s hard for any sport, especially one that runs at roughly the same time as the National Hockey League, to gain any kind of popular traction amongst Canadians.
What it boils down to for me is this: if you gave me a TV with only two channels, one broadcasting the classic 1986 NBA Finals with Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers facing Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and the other showing a pre-2004 lockout game between the New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild, I’d probably end up watching the hockey.
However, I’m always trying to broaden my horizons, especially when it comes to sports and writing, and so I want to expand my basketball knowledge base.
Further, Simmons has always impressed me as an imaginative writer who can inform and amuse. Anyone who’s read his blog or followed him on Twitter knows he has a deep and abiding passion for basketball, so it seemed like reading his tome would be the perfect way to familiarize myself with the game.
There’s no denying that I learned a lot from Simmons’ 736 page treatise on every imaginable detail of professional basketball. His meticulously researched book does a lot to explain the evolving styles of play as well as the different personalities that have made up the NBA and American Basketball Association.
His lengthy footnotes and parenthetical asides made me laugh out loud and his pop-culture references are always on point. He’s got a gift for keeping sections that would otherwise be deathly boring fun and fresh. Unfortunately, they also add about an extra 100 pages to an already lengthy book.
That’s just one symptom of this book’s fatal flaw: it is poorly edited. Simmons should’ve been reined in to try and keep the book and more manageable length.
Further, a more consistent naming protocol should have been used. Player’s first names, last names and nicknames are used interchangeably from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes sentence to sentence. Although it can lead to some echoes in the writing, sticking to a standard would have lowered the word count - and in a book this big that could end up cutting some pages – and would have made the book more accessible.
This is where the book ultimately failed me.
As a survey of the history and players of professional basketball, the Book of Basketball seemed like the ideal entryway for a novice fan trying to learn about the sport. But it seems as though Simmons never really decided who his target audience was going to be, and so his narrative swings from being explanatory and appropriate for the new fan, to detailed and filled with in jokes only a long-time NBA fan would get.
Writing a book for the sophisticated fan is fine, but it should be advertised as such and be consistent in its level of accessibility. Unfortunately, the Book of Basketball is all over the map in comprehension, making it a frustrating read.
Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball is funny and smart, but could’ve used a more firm editorial hand to rein in some of the author’s lengthier footnotes and asides to make a slightly more concise book that is accessible for all readers.
Whether it’s picking a champion before a season begins or presaging the outcome of a draft, there’s a good chance a sports writer is setting themselves up to fail when they make predictions.
It’s inherent in sports journalism. The predictable nature of a season naturally lends itself to playing oracle.
You know there will be a Most Valuable Player award and even at the start of the season you can narrow it down to three or four likely candidates. Guessing who it’s going to be is easy copy and it gets the consumers involved in the debate as well. It’s too tempting to pass up.
Of course, more often than not, those predictions are way off and then you have readers sending you crank emails lecturing you on how you’re the wrongest wrong who ever wronged.
Hindsight is 20-20 and those bold statements, predictions of future success (or struggles) and deep explanations embedded in an article can sour quickly, ruining an otherwise fine piece of work.
I touched on this before in my review of SI’s Great Baseball Writing. Throughout that collection there are passages or even entire articles from the late 1990s and early 2000s that try to explain the sudden power surge late in the careers of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa.
This is at the heart of the Sports Illustrated or EA Sports cover curses – the subject is chosen because of what they’re expected to achieve and, more often than not, they disappoint because they’re being held up to more intense scrutiny or our expectations (raised by the hype of being on the cover) are unrealistic.
Right now I’m reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and I’m making my way through his lengthy Pyramid section where he ranks the top 96 professional basketball players of all time.
It’s an entertaining and informative piece, until you get to the subchapter on Lebron James. Here’s a few paragraphs of the book that, in turn, were pulled from Simmons’ April 15, 2009 posting where he makes the case for James as NBA MVP.
“Not since Magic Johnson has a superstar doubled as such a galvanizing teammate. If there's an enduring image of the '08-09 season, it's the way LeBron stamped his personality on everyone around him. They orchestrate goofy pregame intros (my favorite: the team snapshot), trade countless chest bumps, giggle on the sidelines, hang out on road trips and support each other in every way. What's telling about LeBron's in-traffic dunks -- and he unleashes them more frequently than anyone since Dominique -- is how he seeks out his bench for feedback, and even better, how they give it to him. It makes the forced camaraderie of the Lakers seem glaring. If you want to watch a team that pulls for each other and follows the lead of its best player, watch Cleveland.
And if you're a Cavs fan trying to talk yourself into LeBron staying after 2010, your best chance is this: Through 24 years, LeBron has proven to be an inordinately devoted guy. When you're with him, you're with him. The upcoming documentary (supposedly superb) about his high school years bangs this point home. So does the fact that he jettisoned his agents and surrounded himself with high school buddies. So does everything that happened this season. He's as good of a teammate as a player. The more I watch him, the more I wonder if such an intensely loyal guy would ever say, "Thanks for the memories, everybody," dump his teammates, dump his hometown and start a fresh life elsewhere. Although he isn't surrounded by the most talented players right now, collectively, it's a team in the truest sense, with a devoted set of appreciative fans, and maybe that's all LeBron James will need in the end.
I thought he was a goner four months ago. I think he's staying now. Regardless, he's our Most Valuable Player for 2009. It won't be the last time.”
Although Simmons’ schtick is enthusiastic hyperbole, I do believe that he was very sincere in his belief that James is a loyal, team-oriented player and a true son of Ohio. And, credit where it's due, the Sports Guy was right that James would win NBA MVP in 2009 and that it wouldn't be his last.
But Simmons was wrong about Lebon's character. I think it's fair to say that the Decision, the hour-long ESPN special where Lebron announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” proved that as it ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans and tarnished Lebon's image.
It turned out that James is not particularly loyal, that his high school friends/managers totally misread the impact of his television special and that the Lebron camp are so out of touch with his fanbase that they signed off on this ad for Nike, rubbing salt in the wound.
Yikes. Knowing what we know now, reading Simmons' glowing praise of Lebron makes me cringe.
In fairness to Simmons, he did change his mind as the free agency deadline loomed this past summer, backpedalling from his earlier belief that James was going to stay in Ohio as new information came to light.
And hey, it’s not like I haven’t made my own terrible calls. Long-time readers of this blog just need to think back to my March Madness predictions from this past spring, or my Canadian Hockey League playoff predictions from about the same time to see that I’m no seer myself.
I just want to underscore just how tricky this predictions game can be. It’s a wrinkle that makes sports journalism just a bit tougher, a little more unpredictable and definitely a lot more uncomfortable for columnists.
Blog posts, books, magazine covers, whatever, are all created in a particular moment but then stand forever.
Unfortunately, sports journalists are often called upon to make predictions, foresee the future and the incorrect guesses last much longer than the actual outcome ever does. It can turn good copy bad, real fast and it can also make me put down a book for a few minutes to reflect on how fleeting insight can be.