Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 3, 2010

Roundball Artists Share Their Craft

Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard got everyone from Kobe Bryant to an octogenarian free-throw specialist to offer their insight into beautiful basketball.

Justin Adler

As a diehard NBA fan, I often struggle to defend the league against an ever-growing stream of disparagement. "They don't play any defense," I am told over and over again. Or, "They only play for money." Forming a response to remarks like these is an exercise in futility. I love the game for too many reasons—including its ludicrously high salaries.

Chris Ballard. Photo by Gene Lower, Sports Illustrated.
"At first I'd do stupid stuff like try to relate to players through hoops, as if playing Div. III has any relation to an NBA guy's experience."

Chris Ballard. Photo by Gene Lower, Sports Illustrated.

Thankfully Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard gets it and wrote a book explaining exactly what makes basketball so glorious so I don't have to. And while I don't know if the NBA-bashers will have the motivation to read a chapter that psychoanalyzes Shane Battier's defensive intuition, they should. The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA rationalizes the irrational. The book is chock-full of fascinating analysis and anecdotes from the NBA's best players, and the trainers and coaches behind their successes.

Ballard's analysis is informed by more than just extreme fandom. He played the game his whole life. His sports journalism career started when he covered the basketball team for his high-school paper, a team for which he also happened to be the leading scorer. Upon graduation he went on to play for the Div. III Pomona College Sagehens. So it is with the insight of a guy who has "been there" that Ballard is able to break Kobe and LeBron of their monotonous, endorsement-riddled characters and reveal the giddy hardwood nerds within. He writes with equal admiration, and interest, of a 71-year-old retired podiatrist who holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive made free throws. All told, Ballard interviewed over 150 subjects, students, scholars, and rejects of the game.

Gelf interviewed Ballard over the phone to talk about trying to relate to Kerry Kittles, the beauty of help defense, and if there is any hope for his beloved Warriors. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: It appears you talked to anyone remotely related to the game. Was there anyone you did not get to interview?

Chris Ballard: The guy I originally targeted for a chapter on perimeter defenders and lockdown guys was Bruce Bowen, but he said he did not want to give up his secrets, which I respect to a certain extent. But amazingly, almost everyone was open, or as open as you could get with certain athletes. Sometimes it was not so much a matter of them not wanting to help as it was a matter of them not being able to put their expertise into words. Often they would say, "That's just what I do." I would have to ask them different questions to figure out what to them seems like second nature.

Gelf Magazine: An interesting component of the book was the analysis of players on the losing side of history—for instance, Nick Anderson and his four missed free throws in the NBA Finals. Another excerpt focused on Craig Ehlo getting burned by Jordan in what is perhaps Jordan's most memorable game-winner. What made you focus on those players, and who are some of your other favorite players remembered for all the wrong reasons?

Chris Ballard: I always found those guys so interesting because when you think about it, they spend their whole lives doing this one thing and they make a career out of it, and then they get remembered for the one moment they mess up. Like Ehlo and Nick Anderson, Shawn Bradley will always be remembered for getting dunked on as much as he is for anything else. He was a testing ground for young dunkers in the NBA; before you were any good, you had got to dunk on Bradley.
Chris Webber for a while was remembered for his infamous timeout at Michigan, which followed him into his NBA career.

Gelf Magazine: When did you start covering hoops as a journalist?

Chris Ballard: I went to a very small high school, Marin Academy, and we didn't have a school paper until I was a junior, so as a senior I was in the awkward position of writing about the basketball team on which I was also the leading scorer. Let me tell you, that was some journalistic objectivity.
In college, I did the campus paper route, spent a summer interning at the Camden Courier-Post in New Jersey, and then, after graduating, wrote a book about pickup ball called Hoops Nation. That led to my first experiences in NBA locker rooms.
Then, in 2000, after a year at Columbia Journalism School, I joined SI and immediately went to the NBA beat. It took a good two or three years to get the hang of it. At first I'd do stupid stuff like try to relate to players through hoops, as if playing Div. III has any relation to an NBA guy's experience. It's akin to someone talking to Wes Anderson and saying, "Hey, I make iMovies too!" My most embarrassing moment came when I tried to "relate" to Kerry Kittles about the little blisters you get on your palm from dunking. He looked at me—short-ish, white doofus in khakis and button-down—and thought that was hilarious. So that was the end of me talking about my own hoops experience.

Gelf Magazine: It might not reflect the "beautiful" part of the game, but have you interacted with World Wide Wes at any point during your sports journalism career? What do you think of his role in basketball?

Chris Ballard: I've met him and seen him around but never more than that. He certainly is omnipresent and, for writers who cover the nitty-gritty of the league, a crucial guy to be familiar with. As for his role, I think it's a necessary one, even if people don't like it. Every industry needs middlemen and confidantes and, since the NBA structure isn't set up to encourage them, people like Wes fill in the cracks. And clearly he's good at it. Plus, a few years ago, when Henry Abbott of True Hoop was on Wes's trail, he took on this larger-than-life aura, which I thought was actually pretty cool. It helps the league to have some mystery.

Gelf Magazine: What do you watch that most casual fans do not notice in an NBA game?

Chris Ballard: Off-the-ball movement. It's such a ball-following sport for the casual fan, especially when you watch it on TV. When people go to the games, they have a much easier chance to watch the guys off the ball.
Rip Hamilton for instance, if you watch the way he comes off screens, there's a huge amount of movement all without the ball. Once he gets the ball you think he's a decent midrange shooter, but all the work that he does before he gets the ball is what makes him excellent. Reggie Miller was like that too. Their work away from the ball is incredible.
On defense it's the same. I like watching a really good help defender who knows exactly where to position himself. If you watch Rasheed Wallace or Shane Battier, the way they position themselves, it's small, but you'll notice that when they leave the game and someone comes in and gambles on defense it changes the entire context of the half-court set. It's not really sexy to watch, but it's interesting to watch.

Gelf Magazine: On the flip side, are there any teams or players you can't stand to watch?

Chris Ballard: I'd like to watch the Knicks more because I like Mike D'Antoni, but they are just abominable. I feel bad for D'Antoni and I feel bad for Knicks fans.
Corey Maggette is another guy—he's an effective NBA player. I'm not going to say he should not be in the league—he certainly should not have gotten that much money—but I really don't like watching him play, because he has no sense for ball movement, or if he does, he actively chooses to ignore it. If you watch him, he'll go one on three with two guys wide open and he won't even look to make the pass. There are a handful of guys like that in the league.

Gelf Magazine: What did you think of Bill Simmons's new book? And do you wish the two books didn't come out so close together?

Chris Ballard: I haven't read Simmons's book but have heard good things. There's been this perception in the publishing industry that no one buys basketball books but now you've got two—his and Jackie MacMullan's excellent Bird-Magic tome—entrenched on the bestseller list, so hopefully that bodes well for those of us who write about the game. (And on a side note, there's another, I think erroneous, perception that there aren't many great basketball books. But I'd put The Last Shot, A Sense of Where You Are, Heaven Is a Playground, Life on the Run, and The Breaks of the Game up against most any sports books out there).
As for the timing, yeah, I'm sure it would have helped if my book hadn't come out the same month, especially considering the heft and scope of the ESPN marketing machine. Still, the response has been great, especially from the hoops community—I've heard from college coaches who are giving it to their players, which is pretty cool, and it pretty much made my year when we received a jacket quote from Bill Bradley, a hero of mine growing up. Anyway, I learned after my first two books not to agonize too much about that stuff. Just try to write the best book you can and then do your best to promote it.

Gelf Magazine: If you were to add a chapter to the book about the ultimate NBA fan, who would you model it after?

Chris Ballard: I would not want to do a celebrity like Jack Nicholson, because that's not really the essence of fandom. My chapter would be about that long-suffering Warriors fan, someone who really has been in the trenches with a bad team for years and years—someone who did not have the allure of meeting the players. I would like to get in their heads about what has bonded them to their crappy team.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of the Warriors, I know you were raised in the Bay Area and currently live in Berkeley. Is there any hope for the Warriors?

Chris Ballard: It is sad. They had that great first-round win over the Mavs and everyone out here felt it was the turn of a corner. They could theoretically be half-good this year. I don't think they will be. Stephen Curry, Anthony Randolph, and Anthony Morrow—they are all really talented, but they don't all really mesh. Hopefully in two to three years maybe they'll be good. It's probably more like five years.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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