Bill Simmons is a writer for ESPN that you probably have heard of. He's probably the biggest "celebrity" writer on the internet and is responsible for roughly 1/5 of the posts at Deadspin. Despite influencing roughly every sports blog on the internet and setting a gold standard that anyone who thinks that it's a good idea to write on the internet should try to attain, he is one of the most divisive figures in the sports blogging world. Often accused of being smug, a name dropper and overusing the same references time and time again (I once emailed him begging him to stop with the Battle of the Network Stars references) Simmons is generally un-apologetic over his style. His style is his style. He has his fans (which I count myself as one) and his detractors, but in the end there's not much you can say negatively about him. His "voice of the fan" perspective has become skewered a bit over the years, but it still is a "voice of the fan" because when it comes to baseball, the NFL or gambling on the NFL he doesn't know what he's talking about most of the time (just like a real fan.) However, when it comes to basketball Bill Simmons leaves the "voice of the fan" behind and becomes something wholly different, one of the greatest living basketball writers alive.
Now, I've never been the biggest basketball guy. I think it's a great sport to watch, but there have been one too many times in my lifetime when the officials have clearly affected the outcome of a game and you can't tell me any different that the league didn't influence these decisions. The most egregious example would of course be the Dallas/Miami Finals from a couple of years back. I know that I'm not the only one who feels this way and was completely turned off by this series, but somehow the NBA always finds ways to pull me back in. Whether it's Lebron James or Brandon Jennings, I always find a reason to end up watching some games and a lot of this can probably be attributed to the writing of Bill Simmons. His passion for the game in his columns is infectious and there have been more than a few times I have ended up watching a playoff series because he will not shut up about it (Bulls/Celtics from last season is a great example.) When I found out that Bill Simmons had written a 700 page book about basketball I pre-ordered it right away. I've always enjoyed him as a writer and he is far too serious about the sport of basketball to mess this up. When The Book of Basketball arrived eight days ago I dug right in and I wasn't disappointed.
The Simmons detractors will find a lot not to like in this book. He uses the "insert witty subject" All Stars gimmick (white guys with black names! white guys who play like black guys! ugly players!) more than a few times, he references Teen Wolf and Boogie Nights heavily, talks about his dad and his buddies, takes constant cheapshots at Kobe, Wilt and Kareem and does basically everything you expect Bill Simmons to do including namedropping. While some people may hate it, it's actually the namedropping that make up some of the best parts of this book. Stories and contributions appear from Matt Damon, William Goldman (a big part of the book, somehow), Chuck Klosterman, Bill Walton, Malcolm Gladwell and David Stern as well as encounters with Isiah Thomas, Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel. These contributions inform the arguments, add weight to them and Simmons makes no apologies for his heavy use of them. Make no mistake about it in the writing of this book Bill Simmons is not a fan, he is an expert who really cares about this stuff and that's a good thing because the topic he tackles, basically, "Who are the most important basketball players of all time?" is not one that can be handled lightly. Of course with Simmons being Simmons it takes almost 300 pages to get to that section of the book and then another 300 pages to get through it, but that's kind of the fun part. As Bill Walton would probably say (most likely referring to a Grateful Dead song) "It's about the journey, not the destination." Some rankings will surprise you, but most don't and the interesting part is that the rankings aren't what matter as much as his explanation of those rankings. It's no surprise who #1 is, but his defense of why we'll never see another like that person is a real highlight. (Spoiler: It's Jordan.) If I have any complains about the book it's that when he ranks players I've never even heard of (and he has never seen play) the book can drag. I wish at some point he would have just said "50. Dolph Schayes. Seems about right." and moved on because honestly, who cares about some white guy from the 50s? If Dolph played Dwayne Wade (#53) one on one he probably wouldn't score a single point. That's just the way it is. Why act like you care when you don't and you know we don't? F Dolph Schayes.
Throughout the book there were multiple times that I put the book down and went on the computer. Not because I was bored, but because he described a moment that I simply HAD to see. A good example would be this clip of Rick Barry dissing Bill Russell. After reading about it, I had to see it. I couldn't wait til later and that has to count for something.
I did this so many times in the first 200 pages that I briefly considered starting "The Book of Basketball Blog" compiling every relevant YouTube clip and story that people might google during reading. I mean, if I was doing this than everyone else who was reading it had to be too right? (And this was just in the first 200 pages) Eventually I decided against it because this project was too big for me. That's how big this book is. I hope someone does it though. That'd be a hell of a blog.
(Also, I was highly disappointed that I couldn't find a definition online for the popular NBA sex act referred to as "The Trinity" in the book. Seriously, I went through three different sex act dictionaries looking for it. My best guess would be (using inviso-text for younger readers):( using all three holes on the female body in a single session. V-to A-to M. I feel dirty now.)
The Foreword in the book is written by Malcolm Gladwell and I kept thinking of his book Outliers throughout my reading. In Outliers he talks about how many hours it takes to be an "expert" in something and how sometimes you need a little luck to be successful. Bill Gates spent 10,000+ hours working with computers before he broke it big and he had the "luck" to go to a high school with one of the most advanced computer systems in the world. To me, Bill Simmons is an Outlier and it surprised me that Gladwell never actually came out and said it. Look at the facts: Bill Simmons' dad had season tickets to the Celtics since his childhood and he saw one of the greatest players in history for most of the games of his career. He definitely has spent more than 10,000 hours watching basketball and that's not including that he's read every relevant book on the sport. He was "lucky" to have a dad that truly cared about basketball as well as best friends that cared about it as well and he was "lucky" to come along at the right time when the Celtics were a powerhouse and the NBA was at it's height to hook him for life. You can't repeat what he did, you can't just sit down one day and decide to write this book. It's his obsession with the sport that turned him into an expert on it and that is what truly informs this book. While it may not be a perfect book, I never questioned his credibility and I never thought he made a point that was anything but well informed. That is huge.
Say what you want about Simmons, but the fact is that he knows basketball and this is a good book about basketball.
**** 1/2 out of 5
REASON TO BUY: It's winter time. What else do you have to do?
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