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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.
Bethlehem Shoals
"Simmons mistakes going too far, and wallowing in excess, for taking risks."
12/09/09 at 16:00

It’s amazing how much trouble I’m having finding something to say about a 700-page slab of writing. I’m not sure if that reflects poorly on Simmons or on me, but it’s not what I was expecting. So I’ll go right for the jugular: Bill Walton as Tupac, I simply cannot abide.

The Book of Basketball has undeniably brilliant moments, and no one can accuse Simmons of not having done his homework or loving the NBA. But it’s a work that mistakes going too far, and wallowing in excess, for taking risks.

Simmons’s best writing has always been about the NBA—it’s smarter and more deeply felt than his usual “voice of the fan” stuff. His trade-value column has always been an annual event, and his Boston homer-ism is most affecting when it revolves around him, his dad, and the Celtics. I’d long held that The BoB would bring out the best in the Sports Guy, even after his nods to the distant past started popping up as columns that read like book reports.

Instead, we get Bill Walton as Tupac, an analogy almost as predictable as it is bizarre (beating out Kurt Cobain because Walton is so white, it’s funnier that way). It’s truly outrageous, and the man wants it that way! And it’s a microcosm of exactly why—no matter how lyrically he describes Dr. J’s free-throw-line dunk, or casts Moses Malone’s game in terms as elemental as his grunts—The Book of Basketball is so maddening. By default, Simmons may have written the definitive history of the NBA; there’s certainly a shit-ton of information in here. But it’s also bogged down by self-referential brinkmanship.

In place of of Bill Simmons, we get a series of jacked-up, often conflicting, conceits snaking through an entertainingly anecdotal take on the league's six decades. More than ever, the pop-culture references reek of someone trying to prove his credibility, capacity for irony, or both, especially when he harps on hip-hop or The Wire. There's way more about strippers, porn, dicks, and Vegas than I ever need to hear from a fairly vanilla Hollywood dad who prattles on about cocaine like he's spent his whole life debating whether or not he should try a line this weekend. Much of the Boston stuff is endearingly memoir-ish, but what exactly is exciting about reading a Celtics fan revile Kareem and Kobe? And while ranking players across eras makes sense for baseball, trying to do so for basketball leaves you with nothing but a relativistic mush.

That’s maybe why, after tearing through The Book of Basketball in two days, I’m left strangely indifferent to it and, really, the Sports Guy himself. Part of what makes a writer great to me is a sense of balance and order. They can be over-the-top, but you at least want the sense that they’re in control of their impulses. What Simmons is lacking here is self-control. I’m not just saying, as so many have, that he could’ve used a better editor. I wish it actually felt like there were an author hiding underneath all the noise.