Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball reviewed.

Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball reviewed.

Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball reviewed.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 11 2009 4:43 PM

Bill Simmons: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

The Sports Guy's The Book of Basketball is a crude, fantastic mess.

Bill Simmons. Click image to expand.
Bill Simmons

To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss The Book of Basketball on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 27:30 mark:

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s executive editor.

In his foreword to Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, Malcolm Gladwell compares the 700-page hoops compendium to Bill James' 1980s-era Baseball Abstracts. Just like James' catalogs of baseball arcana, the new book from ESPN.com's Sports Guy is a collection of personal obsessions masquerading as an encyclopedia. To read The Book of Basketball is to brave the depths of Simmons' brain, a tangle of pet theories, personal halls of fame, and anecdotes about the size of Dennis Johnson's member. Yes, Bill Simmons is Bill James with dick jokes.

The Book of Basketball's ascent to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list leaves no doubt that the bard of the beer-and-boobs crowd has also become America's favorite sportswriter. Simmons was the first hugely popular sports columnist who didn't have an editor, or didn't appear to have one. He's a creature built for and attuned to the Web, the inventor of the digressive, referential approach that's become the house style of the sports blogosphere. It took an old-fashioned hardcover, however, to unleash the true, unadulterated Simmons.

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Simmons' basketball opus, his first book of predominately new material, is the Sports Guy at his best and worst. Over the course of those 700 pages and more than 1000 footnotes, Simmons' crazed genius and uncommon attention to the NBA stand out. The Book of Basketball mostly fulfills the writer's preposterous aim to relate the entire history of the league, lay out the philosophical underpinnings of winning basketball teams, and rank history's top 96 players. At the same time, The Book of Basketball exacerbates the worst tendencies of a writer who's never mistaken brevity for wit. Simmons luxuriates in the book's wide open spaces, spackling over his hoop thoughts with Teen Wolf analogies and endless references to the legends of pornography. The result is a shaggy, R-rated extension of the Sports Guy's ESPN columns, a frustrating mix of spot-on insights and aggravating shtick.

Consider the section on Moses Malone, part of Simmons' quest to identify the NBA's "pantheon." Simmons makes a surprisingly strong case that Malone, a guy most of us don't consider a hoops icon, is one of the top 12 players in NBA history. The Rockets and Sixers star was the greatest offensive rebounder ever, Simmons argues, thanks to his mastery of the "Ass Attack"—a maneuver in which he'd "sneak under the backboard … slam his butt into his opponent to create the extra foot of space he needed, then jump right to where the rebound was headed." This Ass Attack stuff is fantastic—an evocative, strange, funny, entirely apt sketch of Malone's greatness. Alas, in the same write-up, Simmons sees fit to list dozens and dozens of C-list celebrities who, like Moses Malone, "had one ploy that brought them inordinate success": Michael "Let's Get Ready To Rumble!" Buffer, Jeff Foxworthy, Vanna White, and on and on. He then decrees that Malone was "the Marilyn Chambers of rebounding. He was insatiable." Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bill Simmons' unfiltered internal monologue.

Simmons wouldn't be Simmons without the pointless asides. One of the Sports Guy's biggest flaws, though, is that he tries too hard to entertain: He'd be twice as funny—and a lot less repetitive—with half the jokes. Simmons clearly gets a rise out of mixing sex and sports. Three pages after the Moses Malone-Marilyn Chambers analogy, he says that Shaquille O'Neal is like porn star Peter North—"dominant, but not the best." He also likens Karl Malone to a "fake-boobed Asian stripper" and Jason Kidd to "a smoking-hot girl … wearing a 32A." (The small bra size is a reference to Kidd's poor shooting ability. It kind of makes sense in context.)  

Now, I'm not opposed to juvenile humor—the joke about Dennis Johnson's endowment that I mentioned earlier made me laugh out loud. It was so funny, in fact, that I even called a friend to relate the story. But the sheer tonnage of blue humor here is a sign of self-indulgence, motivated less by the book's subject matter than by the writer's intoxication with his freedom from the confines of a family sports site. (In an interview with the Huffington Post, the Sports Guy explains that his ESPN columns are authored by "Network Simmons" whereas the book comes from the desk of "HBO Simmons.") In the end, all the boob and stripper punch lines do little besides create a bad impression of Simmons' readership—you're left with the image of a bunch of guys whose main interaction with the female sex comes in the porn videos they switch on after the Jazz-Hawks game.

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The Book of Basketball's riffs on race, by contrast, have a legitimate connection to the NBA story. Race is the third rail of basketball, and Simmons wins points for being unafraid of electrocution. He doesn't ponder the hoops-race nexus as seriously as David Shields or Charles P. Pierce—in one footnote, he concocts All-Star teams of blacks, whites, and foreigners, concluding that the blacks would almost certainly win but that he'd be tempted to bet on the whites because of the superior odds. But it's refreshing to see Simmons think through his connection to a "black" sport. In the book's foreword, he explains that his early love of the Boston Celtics brought on a "racial identity crisis" that led him to sign his first-grade homework "Jabaal Abdul-Simmons." Later, he contends that the Celtics' John Havlicek isn't considered one of the all-time greats just because he's white—and the argument kind of makes sense.

There's hardly anything about hoops that Simmons doesn't ponder, categorize, and collate. He's the rare fellow who truly cares about and values professional basketball, a permanent side effect of growing up as a Celtics season-ticket holder in the Larry Bird era. Simmons' love of the game occasionally gives rise to nostalgia and sentimentality, as in the predictable belief that the game was better back when the players didn't socialize before and after games. He also sometimes mistakes cliché for hard-won wisdom. Simmons is obsessed with "The Secret," the hidden reason that certain basketball teams win. The secret, as revealed by Isiah Thomas at a topless pool (don't ask), is essentially that great teams get along and don't care about stats. If that's a secret, it's a pretty open one—probably the most-oft-repeated saw in the history of sportswriting.

At his best, Simmons channels his passion into celebrations of unfairly forgotten players like Bernard King and Sam Jones. One striking thing that Simmons shares with Bill James is his tendency to lavish praise on a personal favorite (or heap scorn on a guy he happens to hate), a welcome counterpoint to the coldly analytical school of sports journalism that treats every player as a walking box score. The essay on Elgin Baylor is Simmons par excellence—a fervent appreciation of the Lakers hero that documents how he "turned a horizontal game into a vertical one" even as he faced down the racial prejudice of the 1950s and 1960s. Simmons doesn't even compare Baylor to a porn star.

As should be expected in a long book of sports argumentation, the great observations—five of the game's most-notorious playoff chokers (Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, and Kevin Garnett) all relied on fadeaway jumpers—are interleaved with some howlers. The book's silliest sentence comes when Simmons praises the Celtics' Dennis Johnson for making the winning layup after Larry Bird's famous steal against the Pistons in the 1987 playoffs. "I can only pinpoint a handful of players who would have instinctively known to cut toward the basket there," Simmons proclaims. "MJ, Magic, Frazier, Stockton, Reggie, Mullin, Barry, Isiah (ironically, the one who threw the pass), Horry, Wade, Kidd, Iverson, Nash, Kobe and that's about it." Yes, the valorization of DJ's layup is representative of how Simmons overpraises the 1980s Celtics. But that's a crime of passion, easily forgiven. The notion that it's possible to compile a complete list of the NBA players who would cut to the basket in that situation is more ludicrous. (What possible rationale could there be for including these guys and leaving out Chris Paul, Scottie Pippen, Manu Ginobili, and five dozen other players?) While it's hard to take Simmons seriously here, you have to admire the man's faith in his NBA knowledge. And if you disagree—well, that's the expected outcome of any ultimately pointless sports debate.

For all of Simmons' flaws, this is the ultimate book for the connoisseur of sports minutiae, an exhaustively curated NBA guide for anyone who cares about Steve Nash and Oscar Robertson (or is in the market for five years worth of bathroom reading). Upon reflection, my Simmons overdoses are partly my own fault. The book is more a collection of extended blog posts than a work of literature, an anthology that's best read in short bursts. Instead of taking my time, I devoured the book in a couple of sittings because it was so fun to read—until it got a lot less fun when the jokes and pop-culture comparisons started repeating themselves. How's this for an analogy: Pounding on Bill Simmons for The Book of Basketball's excesses is like scarfing down 20 ice cream sundaes and blaming Baskin-Robbins for the stomachache.