During an interview with the New Yorker's Avi Zenilman a few months ago, Bill Simmons, an ESPN columnist/author and a man who doubtless dashed off 3,000 words this morning before I managed to get the brown sugar and banana on my oatmeal, was asked about the paucity of great basketball books. See, when you write about the NBA, as Simmons does and I have done for many years, you are generally asked negatively toned questions. What's wrong with the game? What's wrong with the refs? What's wrong with the young players? What's wrong with the Knicks? What's wrong with Mike Miller's hair?
The question hearkens to George Plimpton's theory -- probably erroneous when it was uttered and now outdated anyway -- that the smaller the ball, the greater the literature. (George did love him some golf and tennis.) Simmons answered by talking about the lack of access writers get to athletes these days. But had he been asked the question now, he could've said: "Well, it's a helluva good time for NBA hoops books. Including mine." In fact, that's probably what he would've said.
Three have caught my eye and, fortunately, the eyes of much of America: Simmons' The Book of Basketball; Jackie MacMullan's autobiography/biography (I don't know how else to describe it) of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird called When the Game Was Ours; and Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game.
(Obligatory admission: Ballard is a colleague whose work I respect so much that I furnished an honestly rendered blurb for his book; MacMullan is a former colleague, a current friend and a non-stop source of confusion because of our names and professional beats -- "Are you sure you aren't just one person having fun with it?" a reader once asked; and Simmons' positive comments about a couple of my books upped my Amazon rating by a few thousand places. There, that's out of the way.)
The most fortunate thing about this intersection of three terrific books at one time is that they are so different. Taken collectively, they cover the NBA waterfront. MacMullan wrote a legends' story. Ballard wrote an art-of-the-game story. Simmons wrote a fan's story, albeit a fan who has been inhaling NBA games, movies, TV shows and, evidently, caffeine at the same rate that the Kardasians inhale public scrutiny.
In one respect, Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game is the most surprising. I can't tell you how many times over the years even an educated basketball fan has made a comment about NBA coaches just "rolling the balls out" and how "nobody knows the fundamentals anymore" and how "the players just don't work hard in the offseason." Ballard puts that to rest, with chapters about the inside game (shooting, passing, shot-blocking, training) that manage to be both technical and lusciously written. It is probably no coincidence that Ballard plays the game like he writes -- he has hops but he has 'mentals, too.
Here's his insight on Shane Battier's defensive acumen: "Depending on the situation, Battier has a whole arsenal of ways to contest a shot. When following a player around a screen toward the basket, he will come from behind and reach around the waist of the shooter, then bring his hand up from below the shooter's arm and in front of his face. ... In another variation, Battier leaps and jabs as if he's going to punch [Mo] Williams in the stomach, then pulls his fist back at the last second. Some players, frustrated by Battier's invasion of their personal space, lean or move to try to draw the foul. But when this happens, Battier feels he has the advantage. As he says, 'Then I know they're reacting to me instead of focusing on the basket.' "
MacMullan's book is surprising in another way. Take one famous athlete reflecting upon his career and you usually get cream of wheat; take two and you get two bowls of cream of wheat. Not the case here. Some critics have reacted negatively to MacMullan's third-person voice, but in my experience, rare is the book that can't be better guided by a writer than the voice of an athlete. Anyway, their voices are there, particularly (and predictably) Magic's.
Most of the headlines for When the Game Was Ours have surrounded Magic's accusation that Isiah Thomas spread rumors that Johnson was gay. Whatever demons (if any) pursue Bird these days -- aside from the persistent mediocrity of the team he general manages, the Indiana Pacers -- he's not opening up about them to a great degree. Still, I found fascinating the early chapter about the 1978 World Invitational Tournament, where the players met for the first time and played together on the U.S. team. It's always remarkable discovering how long marquee athletes can nurse resentment, as Magic and Bird still do about playing second banana to U.S. coach Joe B. Hall's own Kentucky players. (For an update on that theme, see Jordan, Michael, Induction, Basketball Hall of Fame.)
It's Simmons' book, foreworded by Serious Writer Malcolm Gladwell, that really gets at the fact that the pro game, a chaotic blur to most sports fans who watch it with half-closed eyes and a full-closed brain, is every bit as fascinating and analyzable as baseball, whose endless statistics have hypnotized our sporting culture for the last a hundred years or so. There's a place for numbers in Simmons, but he's more about opinions. (That last sentence may be reserved for understatement of the year.)
Some critics complain that The Sports Guy could've written The Book of Basketball in far fewer than 700 pages and 7,000 footnotes. But that's like walking into a Greek restaurant and yelling, "Why the hell is there baklava on the menu! I hate baklava!" Oversized is what you get from Simmons, who can safely be called the only human being to bring the relationship between Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell stars in the early 90s -- I had to look it up) into a discussion about the relationship between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
But there are veins of rich basketball material in there, ideal to be mined in bits and pieces if you don't have, say, 700 spare hours to read it in one sitting. For example, Simmons' five pages of defense for putting Hakeem Olajuwon as the 10th-best player of all time is the best analysis that I've read of a vastly underrated player. Writes Simmons: "Add everything up and here are your odds that we'll see another Hakeem Olajuwon: a kajillionpilliongazillionfrazillionfriggallionmillion to one. You will see 50 reasonably close replicas of Jordan (and we've already seen two: Kobe and Wade) before you see another Dream. So go on YouTube, watch his highlights and congratulate yourself for seeing the only Hall of Famer who would have made it had he been anywhere from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-10."
Not long ago, I was with a group of similarly aged males and one asked me, as legions have asked before: "So why can't I like the NBA?" The question came as Congress was studying the long-term debilitating effects of pro football and umpires were blowing calls left and right in a baseball postseason whose stars included an admitted steroid user. When I hear that question now, I'll just pass on my five-minute spiel and suggest a few book ideas. Christmas is coming.