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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
"I'm reluctantly raising an issue that could swallow up this discussion whole."
12/11/09 at 19:15

I'll shoulder a lot of blame for the Macro eruption (if you read "Marco eruption" there, you're watching too much gay Spanish porn when your wife's at the spa!). I rarely get to mouth off about writing, but the NBA's my job. In addition, as someone who writes books about basketball, what Simmons does is very close to home. So I apologize if my baggage is spilling out all over the table.

First, a nod to Micro Simmons. I've always loved the Pyramid idea; I especially liked the idea of a special section for role players. It may have indirectly contributed to my idea that the All-Star Game include a remarkable sixth man on each squad. Gripe-wise, it's Bob Pettit at No. 17. BS goes out of his way to diminish Wilt's dominance by way of context, then turns Pettit into a test case for a "times were so different" meme. Pettit also reminds him of many Celtics.

As for the Macro, I've already pointed to Sam's Dr. J passage as some fucking great writing. That's why I'm having trouble handicapping Simmons on grounds of his blogginess and populism. Dude can write. When you can write, and don't, that disappoints me. That doesn't mean that his columns are no longer enjoyable, or that this book wasn't intensely readable, but I feel dangerously close to making a "writing! we're talking about writing!" joke.

From the Oscar Robertson section, here's a bit that really stuck in my craw, with notes:

"[Oscar is] a historical nomad. He belongs to nobody. And maybe it's better that way [BECAUSE THE MORAL BALANCE OF BASKETBALL REMAINS INTACT IF A PRICKLY GUY IS LEFT WANDERING THE PLAINS ALONE?]. To this day, Oscar remains damaged goods [LIKE A CHICK IN VEGAS WITH DADDY ISSUES?]—a victim of his vile racial climate [FAIR ENOUGH], someone who battled a rare form of post-traumatic stress disorder that can't be defined [IT'S PRETTY EASY TO DEFINE. IT'S CALLED AMERICAN SOCIETY]. As his teammate during Oscar's prime, you would have respected the hell out of him, you would have marveled at him ... but ultimately, I'm not sure you would have enjoyed playing for him that much [SOME INSIDIOUS "IN PRAISE OF THE LITTLE GUY," "ALL HAIL THE SECRET" LANGUAGE. WHO CARES?]. This was a man who decided during the epilogue of his book, 'Once I heard someone say that in order to write love songs, you have to have been through some bad times. To write a love song, you have to have your heart broken. If that's the case, I can state right here and now that I could write the greatest love songs in the world.' Of all the injuries that determined the ninety-six spots of my Pyramid, I can tell you this much: Oscar Robertson's broken heart resonates the most. [THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST AWKWARD SENTENCES I'VE EVER READ, AS WELL AS MOST CONDESCENDING, POSSIBLY, AND DEFINITELY A MIXED METAPHOR]."

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I'm reluctantly raising an issue that could swallow up this discussion whole. We've ascertained, or at least I have, that Simmons both can and can't write. We've decided that his style is marked by humor and some gimmickry. This is some fundamental high/low shit, and as we all know, the two are not mutually exclusive. There's no reason an entertaining essay on Jersey Shore can't be eloquent.

I know the counter: This is sports, fans are fans, drink the beer, spill the wine, and jerk off with DIRECTV up loud. My objection: There's a tradition of very good, very real writing about the NBA. Not just Breaks of the Game, but also David Wolf's Foul!, Bill Russell's Second Wind, Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, Nelson George's Elevating the Game, Pete Axthelm's The City Game, Robert W. Peterson's Cages to Jump Shots, and Ron Thomas's They Cleared the Lane. Plus Terry Pluto's essential oral histories Tall Tales and Loose Balls. Simmons leans heavily on these, and gives you a handy bibliography at the end of BoB.

Sports may be "low," but there's no reason that we can't think or write intelligently about them. I'm not saying that everyone should be as high-flown as FreeDarko, but how about some standards for a long book about hoops that places itself in this lineage, as opposed to a celebration of the fact that someone bothered to rank basketball players and lavish attention on them for 700 pages? Simmons could've put together a perfectly "low" book about this "low" human activity while retaining some of the "high" qualities we expect of—well, a reading experience that belongs somewhere else besides the bathroom.

Simmons could've added a cornerstone to the canon. Instead, he may have plunged it even further into obscurity.