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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.
Tommy Craggs
"Placing the NBA in the heart of a certain kind of white-bread Americana."
12/15/09 at 10:15

Simmons as Iverson? Now there's a thought. We talkin' about Teen Wolf.

It's an interesting comparison, Jonathan. I do think we're underselling Iverson here with the suggestion that he appealed primarily to the shallower enthusiasms of basketball fans. (For a long time, he had little choice but to monopolize the ball. Remember, he spent half a career alongside Eric Snow, who is living proof that basketball is best played by men who do not have ball-peen hammers for hands.) But it's true that Simmons's indulgences—like Iverson's, I suppose—do eventually rankle. If it's not the breezy misogyny, then it's the trash-culture allusions, and if it's neither of those, then it's the nagging sense that he got his history off the back of a cereal box. We've discussed the first. Of the third I'll say only that Simmons is egregiously wrong about former commissioner Larry O'Brien, who helped establish labor peace and instituted a salary cap that very likely rescued the league from the brink of financial apocalypse, and who today would probably be credited with launching the modern NBA had Congress thought to pass the cable-TV act on his watch, rather than on David Stern's. (That's my Micro Simmons complaint, along with his criminal underrating of Oscar Robertson, who, like O'Brien, is penalized for perceived failures of style and personality and who, like O'Brien, is given zero credit for the dramatic changes he wrought in the structures of the sport.)

As to the trash culture, well, let me say first that I liked Sam's exegesis a few pages back, and I think it got at what Simmons does best: He actually describes basketball. (At one point in the book, Simmons catalogues all twelve of Kevin McHale's low-post moves, and the prose fairly swoons in its accumulation of detail.) This is something of a dying art; in the same way that film critics no longer describe how actors move across the screen, sportswriters rarely bother to describe the action on the floor, knowing it'll be on SportsCenter by the time they've filed for the early edition anyway. A handful of writers do this well, among them Shoals and his buddies at FreeDarko. Simmons can do it wonderfully. But then he goes and drops one of these: "I think in 10-15 years people will look at Shaq's career like they look back at Peter North's career ... dominant, but not the best." Don't get it? He helpfully elaborates in a footnote: "North was the master of the money shot; Shaq was the master of the monster 'don't try to dunk [sic] this or I will put your arms through the hoop with the ball' dunk." We can't talk about Simmons as a writer unless we talk about his weakness for this stuff, which, to run with Jonathan's analogy, is something like Iverson's taste for contested nineteen-foot fallaways. The problem with this particular metaphor isn't that it's tasteless; nor is it that the comparison is totally inapt (even though it is). The problem is that it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't enlarge our understanding of Shaq's career or, for that matter, Peter North's. It just sits there, inert and a little too pleased with itself.

This isn't simply about weak writing. Simmons came of age as a writer in the late nineties, just as the NBA began to worry cravenly that it was losing its white audience to various manufactured hysterias over cornrows and brawls and scary music. The context is important. I'm not saying this was ever Simmons's intent, but the effect of all the relentless analogizing in his columns was to place the NBA—increasingly alien to some reactionary types—in the heart of a certain kind of white-bread Americana. Kobe Bryant is just like Teen Wolf! Tim Duncan is just like Harrison Ford! In retrospect, it seems of a piece with an era that was leading, preposterously, to the league's dress code and its hiring of Matthew Dowd, one of Karl Rove's Baker Street Irregulars who came onboard in 2005 to help win back "Middle America." Which is not to say that Simmons was in on the plot; only that his writing bears a lot of the DNA of the period. He was helping to domesticate the game, one Karate Kid joke at a time.