- Sam Anderson
- "I think Bill Simmons is a very good writer."
- 12/11/09 at 12:01
I think our discussion of The Book of Basketball is starting to unbraid into two strands, which I’m going to call Micro Simmons and Macro Simmons.
The “Micro Simmons” conversation is the one where we argue with BS, more or less on his own terms, about basketball: player rankings, MVPs, Wilt vs. Russell─all the book’s nitty-gritty superfan debates. (This, I’m guessing, is how most of BS’s longtime readers approach him.)
The “Macro Simmons” conversation wants to tackle bigger things: the ethics of his shtick, his methodology, his literary chops, his position in the sportswriting landscape, the strange new genre of the blog-derived book. (This is how we─a bunch of writers─seem to want to approach him.)
Both conversations are complex and fascinating─but trying to conduct them at the same time is like, oh, I don’t know, like trying to make out with a voluptuous stripper in the Champagne Room at a smokin’ hot Vegas strip joint in Vegas while also reciting (still in Vegas making out with the stripper) your ten favorite lines from The Shawshank Redemption. No matter how much you want to do both at the same time, you can’t. You just can’t. (I will now light my terrible Bill Simmons mini-impression on fire.)
So I am going to formally separate them in this post.
1. MICRO SIMMONS: A question for everyone: Which player (if any) is the most surprisingly, infuriatingly, unjustly misplaced on BS’s HOF Pyramid? (Or, to put it another way: Which player does BS most deeply misunderstand?)
I already told you my answer: Iverson, who yes, oozes aura and (as Simmons says) would probably have been the world’s greatest soccer player (!?), but who has so many basketball liabilities to go with his zero championships that I don’t think he deserves a spot above, say, McHale or even maybe Gary Payton. (This even though I still do backflips when I watch AI stomp over Tyrron Lue.)
But who would your pick be?
2. MACRO: I feel slightly afraid, but I’m going to say this outright: I think Bill Simmons is a very good writer. I’ve probably read 70 percent of the words he’s published online over the last five years (roughly 3 million words) and have yet to find myself thinking, This guy is a moron who has lost his old magic.
I’m tired of hearing Simmons critics dismiss him as a terrible writer without citing any hard evidence. (Not that you guys have done this, but it’s a webwide epidemic on sports blogs.) At least when BS rags mercilessly on Wilt or Ewing or Malone, he has the courtesy to bludgeon them with stats and quotes and anecdotes. So let’s get specific. Let’s take, for instance, a paragraph. I nominate Simmons’s description of Dr. J’s iconic foul-line dunk in the 1976 ABA Dunk Contest (page 123), which I think is actually quite good. Here it is, with my sentence-by-sentence color commentary in brackets:
Doc’s foul-line dunk had to be the most exhilarating basketball moment that didn’t happen in an actual game. [That’s already insightful─a category of basketball experience I’d never really considered in those terms.] For one thing, nobody had seen one of these contests before, so they didn’t know what to expect; once the dunks started coming, the fans were like thirteen-year-old boys looking at porn for the first time, almost overwhelmed by the sight of everything. [Yes, another porn metaphor─but I think this one works: It’s brief, immediate, and apt. And when you think about it, watching a dunk contest is a little porny: a repetitive, highly aestheticized performance designed to bring viewers instant pleasure without making them suffer through the grinding realities of the actual game.] You had the decade’s most memorable player facing off against a precocious upstart, with Thompson going right before Doc, firing up the crowd with a superb double pump, and finishing with an incomprehensible-at-the-time 360, playing the role of the talented young band that’s too good to be a warm-up band. (Think Springsteen opening for the Stones in ’75.) [Another familiar Simmons trope─a sports icon compared to a rock icon─but again I think it’s quick and vivid and serves its purpose well here.] You had Doc dramatically measuring his steps from one basket to another as the crowd shuffled in anticipation and wondered what the heck he was doing, finally realizing, “Wait a second, is he going to dunk from the foul line?” Then you had the dunk itself: Erving loping toward the basket and exploding from the foul line, his oversized hand making the basketball look like a golf ball, carrying and carrying and finally tomahawking the ball through the basket as everyone lost their collective shit. [Loping, exploding, and tomahawking are exactly the right verbs. “Carrying and carrying” is a nice touch─a repetition that imitates the gliding. And the image of the basketball as a golf ball is, while obviously exaggerated, memorable and vivid in a classic Strunk and White sense.] Doc’s dunk stands alone for originality, pent-up drama, sheer significance and lasting impact, even if he screwed up by not saving that dunk for last. Right guy, right place, right time, right moment. Basketball was starting to go up─literally─and it wasn’t a bad thing.
No, it’s not John Updike writing about Ted Williams, but then again it’s not trying to be. What Simmons gives up in old-fashioned essayistic lyricism he makes up with some kind of newfangled bloggy urgency and energy. And I like it, at least most of the time. I will defend that Dr. J paragraph against armies of blog commenters.
But if I’m wrong, and he really is a horrendous writer, somebody show me a passage that proves it.