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Court of Opinion

  • The Book of Basketball
  • By Bill Simmons, October 27, 2009
  1. 1.Sam Anderson:The wisdom, the blasphemy, the stripper anecdotes ...
  2. 2.Sam Anderson:The inconsistency drives me crazy.
  3. 3.Sherman Alexie:The genius of Simmons: He is an obsessive-compulsive basketball populist.
  4. 4.Bethlehem Shoals:Simmons mistakes going too far, and wallowing in excess, for taking risks.
  5. 5.Jonathan Lethem:I felt starved for something booklike in this book-resembling object.
  6. 6.Tommy Craggs:The Secret: A hopelessly banal point about chemistry and sacrifice.
  7. 7.Ben Mathis-Lilley:Some thoughts on the book's horrible sexism.
  8. 8.Sam Anderson:I think Bill Simmons is a very good writer.
  9. 9.Bethlehem Shoals:I'm reluctantly raising an issue that could swallow up this discussion whole.
  10. 10.Sherman Alexie:The Last Great White American Player Syndrome?
  11. 11.Jonathan Lethem:Let me try a small stunt here.
  12. 12.Tommy Craggs:Placing the NBA in the heart of a certain kind of white-bread Americana.
  13. 13.Ben Mathis-Lilley:We can’t knock Simmons as an overcompensating tourist in hip-hop culture.
  14. 14.Sam Anderson:Good-bye to the soul-searching, the Vonnegut references, the Iverson jokes.
Jonathan Lethem
"Let me try a small stunt here."
12/14/09 at 17:00

Okay, I am here to confess that I am a hypocrite who will not wade into the comments section (actually, it is for fear that my wife and child and book-in-progress would never hear from me again), but will allude to some of the goings-on there from the imperial perch of the bully pulpit. Specifically, give me (and Shoals) a break: It wasn't us who dragged David Halberstam into the conversation, it was Simmons. Again, and again, and again. If you check the index under "Halberstam" you might think Halberstam is only discussed on six pages, but if you then check again under "Breaks of the Game" the total is doubled.

And hey, we all agreed to do this because the book was exciting, energizing, plainly worthy of discussion. I said in my first post that I devoured it like Cap’n Crunch. But to determine that a book—or a basketball player, pop culture reference, or a blog post—is good enough that you want to ask more of it—well, that's why we're alive, folks. It isn't elitist unless you're the Handicapper General from Vonnegut's “Harrison Bergeron.”

And I agree: Chuck Klosterman on Ralph Sampson is one of the finest sports essays I've read in a long time.

Let me try a small stunt here and try to suggest that Micro Simmons and Macro Simmons are actually the same issue. That's to say: If there's a "Secret" to book writing, too, then which player is Simmons? A Vince Carter, who has the tools but doesn't care? I don't think so. A Patrick Ewing, laboring indignantly above his natural level? Nah. I think he's—yes!—Allen Iverson, blessed with a crazy oversupply of Secret-defying capacities utterly irresistible to put into action and, for many, irresistible to behold—until the day comes when they suddenly rankle. No wonder Simmons burns his thesis to make room for Iverson—that was what Iverson would do if he were writing a book. It would make a highlight film, and then someone would point out that the team lost the game that the highlight came from.

My favorite player section in the book, when I read the whole thing again, was an odd one: Robert Horry. Simmons lets an old blog post stand in for the whole, and he's right to do it, because the piece just sings—not with flashy writing, but with affection, charm, reason, and even what I'd like to call "emotional intelligence." When Simmons says that he'd want Horry's career, I believe him, not only in a way I sometimes (often) don't elsewhere when he's telling me something about his life, but in a way that makes me feel that, as a writer, he's discovering something about himself at the moment that he writes the words. (I also adore the comparison to John Cazale. What an incredible thing, to be a minor film actor and yet be in all those masterpieces. Another guy like that is Tim Holt: Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine. Name three Gary Cooper movies as good.)

And now, with Horry as my beacon, and though I may be the weakest wonk here, let me attempt a wonkish criticism—it's only an inkling, but it crept up on me as I reconsidered the book: I simply think, given the alchemical nature of basketball, the degree to which teams are defined by the Robert Horrys—by the rotation, by the sixth men, by the indefinable catalysts and flow among a group of players whose achievements are ultimately inextricable, perhaps sometimes even by the fans and tradition inside a given building (Celtics, anyone?)—that Simmons weighs "titles won" too highly in ranking individual accomplishment. Sure, he gives a nod here and there to this notion (“How would we think of X now if he'd been on Y championship team?”). But then, having nodded, he just plunges ahead—which results in his relatively boorish treatment of men like Karl Malone.