For this week’s magazine, Will Leitch talked to ESPN.com super-columnist Bill Simmons, whose new book, The Book of Basketball, hit shelves yesterday. We’re running three expanded sections from the interview this week. The first discussed Simmons’s role as executive producer of the 30 for 30 documentary series that will be running on the network all this year. The second discussed the Knicks. Today, he talks about soccer, his book, and his own future with ESPN … or not.
You’ve developed a love for soccer in recent years. You imply in the book that it’s because soccer at the highest level seems closer to a greater understanding of “the Secret.” I know a lot of American fans who would like to get into soccer but feel too far behind; it’s not as ingrained socially. How did you catch up?
It happened organically: The seeds were planted with the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and it snowballed from there. There’s a tipping point that happens with soccer in which you just kinda get it. I was drawn to it because the best soccer teams play similarly to my favorite basketball teams — like the eighties Lakers or eighties Celtics — teams that emphasized teamwork over individualism and relied on passing as their biggest ongoing edge. But I am not even close to knowing everything I need to know.
For my column, I never wanted to be one of those old farts that pretended his day was better than the current day. And the truth is, sports changes all the time. In the late-seventies, everyone loved boxing, horse racing, and tennis; now those are niche sports. In the late-seventies, the NBA was struggling and baseball was thriving; now it’s the reverse to some degree. And in the case of soccer in America, the stars have aligned — between the Cup team, HD, ESPN’s involvement, youth soccer, the first generation of adults who were weaned on the 1994 World Cup, and some other factors — so that next decade really WILL be the decade when soccer could take off here. I don’t want to be the old fart grumbling, “Soccer? Who watches soccer?” on The Sports Reporters in five years as every young viewer says, “What an old fart, he just doesn’t get it.” Although that’s a bad example because they’d never let me on The Sports Reporters. I’m taller than five foot nine.
When did you start working on the book?
I started working on it the summer of 2005. I started watching old games, taking notes. Then in 2006, I went through basically every basketball thing I ever wrote. Pulling out different stuff that could be expanded, stuff that I could twist around, whatever. Then basically the entire summer of 2007, I wrote it, worked on it, and then really ever since then. So I would say I spent two actual years writing it. But maybe three, three and a half years working on it.
It’s very, very long.
I guess I could have split it into two books, but I never understood the purpose of that. I’m not doing a romance novel, I’m not writing a spy novel. This isn’t something that you have to read in four days. I never really cared about the length; whatever the length was was gonna be the right length for the book. It’s like, for instance, Mad Men does what, eleven episodes per year? If Mad Men did fifteen, would people say, “Ah fuck! That’s too many episodes! I don’t want to watch fifteen [episodes] of Mad Men. I only want to watch eleven”? Like, whatever. The length is the length.
So what’s the general format?
I would say it’s a narrative. My goal for the book is trying to figure out why some players matter more than others, why some teams mattered more than others. Were some people underrated, were some people overrated, and is there kind of a theme we can use to figure everything out? So when somebody says that Oscar Robertson’s the greatest guard of all time, that’s just kinda thrown out there. Nobody incorporates the era that he played, all of that stuff. So then the question became, to me: How do I figure that out? How do I figure out if Oscar Robertson was the sixth-best player of all time, or the eleventh? The Celtics won eleven titles in thirteen years: Could that ever happen again? So that basically led me to combing through history, trying to figure shit out. I think this book has been done in a lot of different forms, not as comprehensively, but in baseball it’s done over and over again, and people have picked apart every era of baseball — what did this mean, what did that mean? But basketball has never been done. I’ve been shocked by the lack of basketball books.
It sounds a little like the Bill James baseball encyclopedia, for the NBA.
I would definitely say there’s a little of that in there, but his was more of a straightforward encyclopedia. I think this book has some of that, but the biggest thing is trying to figure out: Is there a secret to all of this? That becomes the overlying theme of the book, but in the middle of that it’s trying to figure out all this other stuff. And obviously I have a million footnotes, I have a ton of dick jokes, they allow me to swear, I’m allowed to do stuff in the book that I could never do for ESPN. The book goes all over the place, but in a good way. You’ll be on your toes the whole time.
It sounds incredibly ambitious.
It was. Right near to the bitter end I was panicking that I couldn’t tie everything together. The problem is that I wrote everything out of sequence, and once the sequence kind of fell into place organically, then it was fine. But there was like a three-month stretch where I was like, “Holy shit, this is a fucking train wreck. I can’t figure out exactly how to have this all make sense.” But I have to say, I figured it out.
It was kind of a nice coup to have the Malcolm Gladwell intro, I would think.
Yeah, I didn’t even ask him. He volunteered. I’ve been talking to him about this book, and what I wanted to do, and he was really excited about it. And he said, “I’d love to do the foreword.” It was one of those things somebody says to you and you’re like, “I hope he actually meant that, and that he wasn’t throwing that out to be nice. So then a few months later they asked me who I wanted to have write the forward, and I was like, “Gladwell kinda said he would do the foreword.” And so they were like, “Was it confirmed?” and I was like, “I don’t know, I’ll ask him.” So I e-mailed him and he was like, “Yeah I’ll write the foreword!” He was excited to do it, and it’s a good foreword, too.
You writing another book after this?
Of course. It’s so much more fun than writing columns — not having deadlines, being able to swear, making fun of announcers, and working on the same section for a week until you get it right. I loved it. I want the Book of Basketball to do well if only so I can shop an absolutely ridiculous topic for my next book: like, a book about basketball cards, or an unauthorized biography of A.J. Daulerio. Something that would make a publisher say, “That’s an absolutely terrible idea, but his last one was a best-seller, so we can’t say no, and maybe he could pull this off.” I want to get to the stage professionally where you can get paid a lot of money for a loony idea that has like a 2.3 percent chance of working. I was always jealous of those people.
Although, the more I’m thinking about it, an unauthorized Daulerio autobiography is not a bad idea …
You just turned 40. Is it a coincidence that there’s so much stuff you’re doing this fall? Is this the next step for you? Are you going through a new phase now?
I’m trying to figure that out. I feel like at 40 I should figure out where my life is going. My contract with ESPN expires in 2010, and I don’t like to sit still. I gotta figure out what I want to do. I’m very pleased with how this decade’s turned out, but now I have to figure out the next one. There’s no way to predict it. Three years ago, I never would have guessed that I would be doing a podcast, because I didn’t know what a podcast was. I don’t know where things are going. I think I have a couple of good ideas, but it’s just gonna be a totally different landscape, and it’s gonna keep changing. I gave up the magazine column recently, and what shocked me was how good I felt about it. There was a time in my life when I felt like the magazine gave me legitimacy, but now I think digital gives just as much legitimacy, and, if anything, it’s where you want to be. So when you think how different that’s been over the last eight years … I kinda want to be a part of whatever’s gonna happen next. I think it’ll be fun.