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Books | Sports

November 6, 2009

The Basketball Bible, With Footnotes

Bill Simmons, Basketball Jesus's biggest fan, has written the ultimate guide to his favorite sport, complete with a Malcolm Gladwell foreword and 1,000+ footnotes.

Joseph Ax

Who, exactly, is the target audience for the The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons's new 736-page tribute to the NBA?

Bill Simmons at Professor Thom's. Photo by Joseph Ax.
"His passion is infectious—what other writer would inspire me to spend 20 minutes watching old Lithuanian videos of Arvydas Sabonis?"

Bill Simmons at Professor Thom's. Photo by Joseph Ax.

Is it hardcore NBA fans, who will appreciate the level of detail and historical context while having fun critiquing Simmons's arguments? Is it hardcore Simmons fans, who spend hours devouring his lengthy Sports Guy columns on and downloading his every podcast? Or, perhaps, someone in between?

It's a fair question, and one that I would have put to him last week had he not been mobbed by hundreds of fans anxious for an autographed copy and a chance to exchange a joke or two with America's most famous sportswriter. The scene at Professor Thom's, a Red Sox bar in the East Village, was like a frat-boy version of a Miley Cyrus autograph signing. "My life is complete!" yelled Sean Friedlin, a Long Islander who was the first to get his copy signed.

(Hold on, we're getting to the book, I promise.)

Simmons's appeal—aside from his humor, which is clever, crass and occasionally childish—is that he writes from the perspective of a fan, rather than a beat writer or a columnist who depends upon access for stories. "He speaks the same language," said Tadhg Ferry, age 22, who was reading the book while he waited for an autograph. "It's like having a friend that gets to do all these things and then come back and tell you what it was like."

But there's also something a little funny about a regular "fan" who draws hundreds of people to book signings, counts Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla among his buddies, and interviews David Stern and Malcolm Gladwell on his podcast.

Which brings us (finally) to the book itself, which is as long as one would expect for a columnist whose dispatches routinely exceed 10,000 words (and as ESPN proved via video, can literally stop a bullet). Simmons the fan is in full effect here, with more than 300 pages devoted just to laying out the top 96 players in NBA history for his imaginary Pyramid Hall of Fame, a section guaranteed to stir up some bar debates. (Patrick Ewing only at No. 39? Really? Behind Dirk Nowitzki?) He exhaustively chronicles the history of the modern NBA; examines the 33 biggest "what ifs" of all time; spends an entire chapter debunking the myth that Wilt Chamberlain was Bill Russell's equal; uses up 50 pages analyzing every wrongful MVP award since 1956; and creates the ultimate team of players to combat an alien squad intent on destroying the earth. And when he needs an assist from an expert, he calls on his roster of buddies, including a few celebrities. Thus we get Steve Kerr's analysis of the 1996 and 1997 Bulls and a foreword from Gladwell. (Gladwell tells us this is the longest book he has read since college—in case you were still unclear on how long, exactly, this book is.)

The overriding theme comes courtesy of Isiah Thomas, whose ineptitude at running everything but the point has made him a constant target over the years in Simmons's columns. It is the Secret, which Thomas imparts to Simmons while poolside at a Vegas casino, right after Simmons meets him for the first time and avoids getting his butt kicked. As Simmons explains, a book called The Franchise, by Cameron Stauth, which explored the 1988-89 Pistons, includes a section in which Thomas is explaining the secret of winning basketball to reporters—only he never really articulates what it is. So Simmons asks Thomas about it, and Thomas obliges: The Secret is essentially that every player must sacrifice his individual glory and statistics for the good of the team. Or as Thomas puts it: "The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball." And since Thomas was as good at winning on the court as he is terrible off of it, Simmons is on board.

That becomes Simmons's overarching test for evaluating players, which he does with rabid enthusiasm. He straddles the fence between using statistics and intangibles to measure players' worth, employing a dizzying array of numbers while insisting that the Secret is more than that, and he does so skillfully enough to avoid accusations of flip-floppery. His passion is infectious—what other writer would inspire me to put a book down and spend 20 minutes watching old Lithuanian videos of Arvydas Sabonis on YouTube? And, of course, there are the incessant, spot-on pop culture references that populate every page of the book, from comparing Kobe to Teen Wolf to likening Charles Barkley's 1993 MVP over Michael Jordan to Forrest Gump winning the 1994 Best Picture Oscar over The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction. Close readers will detect some recycled material from columns over the years, but those passages are sparse enough that the reuse never becomes a distraction.

The sheer amount of information in the book is pretty staggering, and will likely be off-putting to non-NBA fans. Simmons read close to 100 books while researching the book, and he has plenty of chances to show off how intimately he knows the league. Earlier this year, Simmons—who previously campaigned for the Milwaukee general manager job—announced his bid to become Minnesota GM after Kevin McHale was let go. Both campaigns initially appeared in jest, but Simmons seemed pretty serious—and if there's one notion he reinforces in The Book of Basketball, it's that the typical NBA GM runs his team like Lindsay Lohan driving home after a Saturday night cocaine-fueled drinking binge. (Obligatory Simmons-style joke? Check.) Indeed, the new GM of the Timberwolves, David Kahn, was roundly criticized for drafting point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back, then watching as Rubio decided to stay in Spain for at least two more years. The book gives Simmons a chance to delve into every boneheaded draft choice, trade, and signing over the past few decades and map out what might have happened otherwise.

Even the most devoted NBA or Simmons fan may find it tough to slog through the book in one sitting, or even one weekend, if only because sifting through the overwhelming amount of analysis becomes exhausting after a while. But there's a section of the book for almost everyone who enjoys the NBA or the Sports Guy, even in moderation. Think of it as 25 of Simmons's lengthiest NBA columns compiled in one volume, complete with more than 1,000 (!) footnotes that are pretty consistently hilarious, and you've got the idea. Isn't that worth a few hours here and there for the next month and a half? Simmons won't be writing too many columns while he's on his book tour, so you should have plenty of time.

Related in Gelf

• Simmons's intern contest terrified.

• We answered our questions for Simmons, since he wouldn't.

Related on the web

• The Wall Street Journal's review of The Book of Basketball begins with this brief paragraph: "Bill Simmons has never met a paragraph he couldn't lengthen."

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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