The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy

The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy



The Pequod Review:

Bill Simmons's The Book of Basketball (2009) is a bold but probably futile project -- a wide-ranging, 700+ page history of the NBA that includes so many pop culture references and player rankings that it was ensured to become out-of-date soon after it was published.  But if you are a fan of Simmons -- who due to his rare combination of humor and intelligence has become the most influential sportswriter and podcaster of the last 25 years -- this ephemeral book has it all: detailed analyses of the game's greatest players and teams, a review of the changing styles and cultural impact of the NBA, and a discussion of the factors that lead to successful basketball teams. Here is a representative sample (an appreciation of Elgin Baylor, whom Simmons ranks as the 14th best player of all-time):

Jesse Owens. Jackie Robinson. Bill Russell. Jim Brown. Elgin Baylor. Oscar Robertson. Muhammad Ali.

Elgin doesn't belong on the list. That's what you're thinking. Not the guy who wore goofy sweaters to the lottery every year. Not the unofficial caretaker for the worst franchise in professional sports. You might accept him on the Worst GM list, or even the Celebs Who Looked Most Like Nipsey Russell list. But not the list above. Not with Jesse and Jackie and Russell and Brown and Oscar and Ali. That's a stretch. That's what you're thinking.

So come back with me to 1958, the year Elgin graduated from the University of Seattle and joined the Lakers. If you don't think the city is teeming with black people now, you should have seen Minneapolis in 1958. America hadn't started changing yet. Blacks were referred to as "Negroes" and "coloreds." They drank from different water fountains, stood in their own lines for movies and were discriminated against in nearly every walk of life. When Elgin entered the NBA, the unwritten rule was that every team could only employ two black players. Nobody challenged it except the Celtics. Elgin strolled into a league where nobody played above the rim except Russell, nobody dunked and everyone played the same way: rebound, run the floor, get a quick shot. Quantity over quality. That's what worked. Or so they thought. Because Elgin changed everything. He did things that nobody had ever seen. He defied gravity. Elgin would drive from the left side, take off with the basketball, elevate, hang in the air, hang in the air, then release the ball after everyone else was already back on the ground. You could call him the godfather of hang time. You could call him the godfather of the "wow" play. You could point to his entrance into the league as the precise moment when basketball changed for the better. Along with Russell, Elgin turned a horizontal game into a vertical one. He averaged a 25-15 and carried the Lakers to the Finals as a rookie. He scored 71 in New York in his second season." He averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in his third season -- as a six-foot-five forward, no less -- and topped himself the following year by somehow averaging that incredible 38-19-5 on military leave (page 231). When he carried the '62 Lakers to the cusp of a championship, he came within an errant Frank Selvy 10-footer of winning Game 7 in Boston? He would never come closer to a ring. Elgin wrecked his knee during the '64 season and was never the same, although he still made ten first-team All-NBAs and played in seven Finals. During the first two weeks of the '72 season, Elgin believed he was holding back a potential champ and retired nine games into the season. The Lakers quickly rolled off a 33-game streak and cruised to a title. How many stars have the dignity to walk away when it's time? How many would have walked away from a guaranteed ring? When does that ever happen?

Elgin lived through some things that we like to forget happened now. Lord knows how many racial slurs bounced off him, how many N-bombs were lobbed from the stands, how much daily prejudice he endured as the league's signature black forward. Russell bottled everything up and used it as fuel for the next game: he wouldn't suffer, but his opponents would suffer. Oscar morphed into the angriest dude in the league, a great player playing with an even greater chip on his shoulder. Elgin didn't have the same mean streak. He loved to joke with teammates. He never stopped talking. He loved life and loved playing basketball. He couldn't hide it. And so his body soaked up every ugly slight like a sponge. Only a few of those stories live on (like the West Virginia exhibition game on page 239). If you read about black stars from the fifties and sixties, everything comes back to the same point: the respect they earned from peers and fans was disproportionate to the way they were treated in their everyday lives. When Russell bought a house in a white Massachusetts suburb, his neighbors broke in, trashed the house and defecated on his bed. When Elgin was serving our country in 1961 and potentially sacrificing his livelihood, there were dozens of towns and cities strewn across America who wouldn't serve him a meal. Black stars felt like two people at once, revered in one circle and discriminated against in another. Just because America changed over the last four decades doesn't mean those guys stopped remembering the way it used to be. Throw in today's nine-figure contracts and the babying/deifying/celebritizing of today's basketball stars and you can see why they might be bitter.

Do modern players realize that someone like Elgin paved the way for their eight-car garages and McMansions with the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston, or how the mood in the locker room turned defiant only when Lakers owner Bob Short tried to order Elgin and West around like two busboys? The story never developed legs historically, although we hear about Curt Flood and Marvin Miller all the time. That just goes with the territory with Elgin. Only die-hard fans realize that, by any calculation, Elgin was the third best forward ever. From a historical standpoint, it definitely works against him that he never won a title or that there just isn't enough "I can't believe how good he was" videotape of him. He lacked that signature "thing" to carry him through eternity, nothing with the legs of Oscar's triple double or Russell's eleven rings. You rarely hear Elgin mentioned with the big boys anymore. Unless you're talking to an NBA fan over the age of fifty. Then they defend Elgin and berate you for not realizing how unbelievable he was.

He also has a good section on Tim Duncan (ranked #7):

Now, I'm not a fan of the whole overrated/underrated thing. With so many TV and radio shows, columnists, bloggers and educated sports fans around, it's nearly impossible for anything to be rated improperly anymore. But I say Tim Duncan is underrated. You know what else? I say he's wildly underrated. Four rings, two MVPs, three Finals MVPs and nine first-team All-NBA nods... and he's still going strong. Do you realize his best teammates were Robinson (turned thirty-three in Duncan's rookie year), Ginobili (never a top-fifteen player) and Tony Parker (ditto)? Or that he never played for a dominant team because the Spurs were always trapped atop the standings, relying on failed lottery picks, foreign rookies, journeymen, aging vets and head cases with baggage for "new" blood? Maybe that's one reason we failed to appreciated him: he never starred for a potential 70-win juggernaut that generated a slew of regular season hype. Another reason: even at his peak, he always had a little too much Pete Sampras in him. He lacked Shaq's sense of humor, Kobe's singular intensity, KG's menacing demeanor, Iverson's swagger, LeBron's jaw-dropping athleticism, Wade's knack for self-promotion, Nash's fan-friendly skills or even Dirk's villainous fist pump. The defining Duncan quality? The way he bulged his eyes in disbelief after every dubious call, a grating habit that became old within a few years. His other "problem" was steadfast consistency. If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who's going to notice after a while?

There's a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, "Wait a second -- Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!" From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn't until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn't anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it.

Will the same happen for Duncan someday? 

You need to be at least a casual fan of the NBA to appreciate this book -- and even then at least half of it will be incomprehensible -- but otherwise it's an impressive achievement that is equal to or better than most of Simmons's published essays.