Thursday, December 3, 2009

The FTT Book Review: The Book of Basketball

A few points about the NBA and Sixers fandom before we get into the guts of Bill Simmons' new book. (My apologies, as always, to the site's readers who dread the coming of Association coverage, but this is a three sport blog, and it's not like you've had to scroll past this stuff for a good long while, really.)

1) Despite the presence of an effective salary cap, the Association has the smallest amount of competitive balance.

If you grow up as a Lakers or Celtics fan, you feel as if the rest of the league is simply there to provide a dance partner for your team. That's why the rest of the league hates you and dreams of your failure, only other teams keep giving you their franchise players for 40 cents on the dollar. And unlike football, where nearly every team's fan base has a treasured set of seasons to look back on, that doesn't really happen here; the finest moments in, say, the history of Atlanta basketball or Cleveland basketball or Dallas or a dozen other teams doesn't hold a candle to individual seasons for the plus markets.

2) Fluke years, in which a "Blue Snow" team makes a run at a championship, almost never happen.

This is a key reason why college basketball is beloved, while pro basketball (unless you are a fan of the act itself, or grew up in Privileged Laundry) is endured. No team wins a series in the NBA on pure luck, a hot goalie or starting pitcher, a handful of turnovers or a series of lucky bounces, especially now that every series is a best of seven. When a team upsets another team, it's almost always a collapse moment on the part of the favorites (witness Dallas suddenly growing old and exploitable against the Warriors and never being a real threat again, or how the Mutumbo Nuggets upset a Seattle team that was well on their way to tuning Furious George Karl out for good). There is no basketball equivalent to the '93 Phillies; even the AI 2001 Sixers team that many now regard as a fluke built up to that with multiple playoff years.

3) Plus markets have the greatest advantage of any major sport.

Since basketball players are advertising gold, the Boston - New York - LA - Chicago axis puts the potential of an extra eight figure annual payday in the hands of star players. Add in the sheer fun of movie star tail and living with other members of the cultural elite means that, unlike football, you aren't generally going to get world-class players staying for their entire career in just so towns.

4) It has, by a very wide margin, the most suspect officiating.

Independent of The Tim Donaghy Experience, NBA officiating is just a nightmare. Unlike football and baseball, where knowledgeable fans can identify penalties while they are happening, there are any number of fouls that seem to depend on the game, opponent, and relative star power of the player involved. It makes it easy -- way too easy -- to draw conspiracy theories, and in the case of Donaghy, those conspiracy theories were proven correct.

You can't overstate how much this hurts the league in the eyes of non-fans. To many detractors, the only difference between the NBA and the WWE is that one is more over the top. And they aren't exactly sure which.

5) The way a team plays is nearly as important as its success on the court.

Teams that play boring ball, whether it is successful or not, don't sell as much merch, don't fill the stands on the road, don't attract premium free agents and don't appear on national television. Every year, Golden State intrigues because they play up tempo, and Phoenix thrills the cognoscenti and sells out on the road. Meanwhile, San Antonio just pounds them into mulch, and people take the best power forward in league history for granted.

That's just the way it is. We are not just watching these games to see who wins. It also has to look good.

6) Individual players have the highest amount of impact and visibility of any sport.

They don't wear helmets, the best players are the floor for over 90% of the action, and everyone has to play offense and defense. Specialization exists, but it's minor compared to other sports.

So every star player has more impact on the game than a starting pitcher or quarterback, to the extent that if a single player has a good enough game, his team wins. That's another reason why NBA players are more like thoroughbreds than regular athletes.

Keeping all that in mind... for the past week, I've chewed through the Bad Tooth's latest book, a 700-page opus called "The Book of Basketball." Despite the heft, the book is a fairly quick and worthwhile read, if for no other reason that Simmons has done the research, and clearly has a love for what he's writing. If you are a fan of the Association or the Bad Tooth's writing, it's worth the plunge, and since the book recently reached #1 on the NYTimes best seller list, it's clearly made its mark.

And if you are like me, by the time you are done with it, it's something of a relief. And you'll find yourself less interested, not more, in watching hoop. Here's why.

1) All or nothing prosecutions.

Simmons is like a pit bull with a bone when it comes to proving his point, especially when the other side is clearly something that's getting under his skin (aka, Not A Celtics Fan). This leads to the longest sustained attack on the character and effectiveness of Wilt Chamberlain ever, along with similar denigrations of the careers of players like Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Oscar Robertson, among others.

I realize this is in no way surprising, but it just rankles. You can make your point without leaving the other side a smoking ruin, or failing that, you can be consistent after laying waste. Which leads to the next point...

2) Inconsistent reasoning.

In the Wilt vs. Russell chapter, Simmons takes Wilt to task for the high number of field goal attempt and inability to involve his teammates, and given the man's relative lack of championship rings, it's a fair point... except for the otherworldly shooting percentages, which get short shrift. Hundreds of pages later, in the description of some other superstar who shot much more than his teammates (I think it might have been George Gervin), Simmons... *defends* the star in question for shooting more than his teammates, because, well, look at the shooting percentages. Who else should be taking those shots?

There's also just the stunning turnaround between the Wilt/Russell barrage and his final ranking of the Stilt. After basically making it sound like Chamberlain is the most overrated player in the history of the world, and a man who should have been incarcerated rather than allowed to play basketball, Simmons ranks him as... the sixth best player in the history of the game. Have the courage of your convictions, sir. Rank him below Kevin McHale, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy and all of those other, far more winning, people. Or would that be leaving some cake on the table?

Similar maddening moments happen on the relative merits of durability (Simmons is a fan of it for ranking Magic over, gasp, Larry Bird... then forgets all about it when it's time to fellate Bill Walton), statistical inflation (Robertson's triple double is fishy due to the era, but not Russell's rebounding and theoretical blocked shots), and the modern need to assert that the current era is the best (unless it's time to serenade, yet again, just how awesome the '80s were). It's wearisome. Very wearisome.

3) Formula shtick.

You will, I am sure, be thrilled to know that TBOB has involved and convoluted analogies to "Teen Wolf", "Rocky", MTV shows featuring women that are young enough to be Simmons' children, popular music, and every other crutch that the Bad Tooth has padded the bloghole with for the past decade. I will now set this sentence on fire. Waka waka!

4) Cloying asides.

Hey, did you know that 700 pages makes for a long book? Simmons feels obliged to remind you about it on a half dozen occasions. Or that, in describing the Willis Reed injury, you need to stand and touch a specific ligament, and that if you aren't standing and doing this, you are pissing Billy off, and that he doesn't ask for much. Spending time with this book is like spending time with the Cliff Claven of basketball, only if Claven actually knew enough about his subject that you couldn't stop listening to him.

I have small children, and they are at the age when new accomplishments have to be witnessed and validated by a parent. This also involves, say, potty training. Simmy Boy has, it would seem, never really gotten past that stage.

5) Rampant egotism.

I know, I know, pot kettle black. But every time that Simmy Boy plays the "Boston fans suffered more from bad basketball, because we know what we've lost" card, I am reminded why Boston Fan has become the most hated fan base in America in the last decade. Take this to its logical end, and you'll have why rich people should never be poor, pretty people should never age, and a whole host of things to say about blacks and women that are best left on the cutting room floor.

So when you finish this book -- and you will finish it, because Simmons brings just enough research, interesting anecdotes and trenchant analysis to keep you moving forward, and after a while, you just want to be able to stop carrying the damn brick -- you might have the following reaction; you no longer want to watch hoop. As mentioned before. And here's why.

1) Because any league where only two franchises really matter isn't worth the time.

2) Because the Hall of Fame is an absolute speed bump, and probably isn't getting any better. On this, I completely agree with the writer.

3) Because good small players almost always come up short in the playoffs against good big players.

4) Because the Association doesn't really change that much from year to year, and there's rarely any interesting upsets.

5) And, finally, because Simmons like the league so much, and being anything like him just makes your skin crawl.

So, um, go read it, I guess. Or make me an offer for my copy; most of the abuse that happened while reading it involved the book being kept a safe distance from harm, because hurting books just seems wrong on many levels. And don't worry, I'm sure that having the #1 book on the New York Times best seller list will do nothing but good things to help rein in his bad tendencies, or his maddening biases...

5 comments:

Hef said...

Great work. I'll give you 1 Schrute buck and 12 Stanley Nickels for your copy.

/surprisingly, this reference isn't dated enough for Billy to use yet

Dirty Davey said...

"And if you are like me, by the time you are done with it, it's something of a relief. And you'll find yourself less interested, not more, in watching hoop."

So it's time to get some hockey watching going, no?

DMtShooter said...

No.

snd_dsgnr said...

I'd have one more thing to add to the list of problems non-fans have with the NBA.

It's petty, I know, but the canned music and sound effects drive me insane. I watched a bit of the Cavs-Bulls game last night, and had to turn it off because I literally couldn't stand the "*thump**thump* Defense *thump**thump*" stuff from the arena PA system a minute longer.

You're telling me these big cities don't have old band dorks that wouldn't jump at the chance to attend games? Watch a college basketball game sometime and try telling me that the marching band doesn't add more to the atmosphere than canned music could ever hope to.

DMtShooter said...

Excellent point. I get why teams do it, but it is freaking maddening.