- Ben Mathis-Lilley
- "We can’t knock Simmons as an overcompensating tourist in hip-hop culture."
- 12/15/09 at 15:15
Tommy, your interpretation of Simmons’s cultural metaphors as a means of making the NBA more white-palatable is very perceptive, but unfairly limited, I think. We can’t knock Simmons as an overcompensating tourist in hip-hop culture and someone who helps quasi-racists in their quest to understand a black league on white terms. He likes cornrowed players like Iverson, despises Utah’s own Karl Malone, and rightfully gives props to Elgin Baylor ahead of white-guy favorite Pete Maravich. If you want to follow the NBA without coming into contact with hip-hop culture, Simmons’s column isn’t the place for you. And on that topic, I seem to be in the minority in this group, but I’ve never found his references to hip-hop to be contrived: He just knows too much about all of this stuff to be ... well, fronting. He doesn’t claim his own life is reflected through gangster rap and The Wire; he just talks about those things. Do we really think that a writer who’s as clearly impulsive as Bill Simmons is going to spend his time listening to music that he doesn’t like from a culture he has no affection for simply to maintain some disingenuous veneer of “with it”-ness? I really doubt it. Dude isn’t out there repping Clipse. His heart’s with Tupac; that might be outdated or misguided, but it’s not bullshit.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a tendency to see a man’s character in the way he throws a ball in a hoop. To which I say—fine! Basketball isn’t baseball, a game of entirely individual contests. It’s not football, in which eleven men execute assignments as perfectly as possible lest an old man scream at them after he ignores his wife and children to spend 72 straight hours watching a tape to figure out whether everyone did exactly what he told them to do. (And no, basketball isn’t even jazz, whose participants take a pre-determined series of turns leading the group.) Basketball is only basketball, and (as we have learned from Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, and Isiah Thomas) its essence is a fluid series of interpersonal interactions in which the need to step up or step back must be precisely calibrated at every moment. It is, of the major American sports, the one that provides the most opportunities to succeed simply by hustling or fail simply by loafing.
Our postmodern minds must admit what our hoops-playing hearts already know: Basketball is the place where the clichés are true. There IS a right way to play the game, and Vince Carter doesn’t know it. Off-court jerks are on-court jackers. Empathetic go-along-to-get-along guys make winning point guards. A loyal friend will scrap for rebounds until he makes himself sick with the effort. I’ll be happy to argue the specifics in the comments, but let’s just leave it at this: Who do you think is going to have a more successful, content life after basketball—Tim Duncan, who shares the ball and rotates on D, or Zach Randolph, an offensive black hole who’s blocked a total of 146 shots in ten seasons despite being six-foot-nine? I know what Simmons would say, and on this, the biggest point of them all, the central argument of The Book of Basketball, I think—I know—that he’s got it right.