A good read for basketball lovers

Nov 6 2009 - 8:53pm

Here's why professional basketball is the best pro sport in the country and maybe the best ever. Yes, the best ever.

1. Football is unnecessarily violent; you can't see the players' faces and the coaches are authoritarian workaholics with a penchant for weird military analogies. Plus, the college bowl system is a farce.

2. Baseball is dull and the games seem interminable unless you have nothing else to do; and this comes from someone who once loved the game. But steroid scandals, ridiculous salaries and the over-saturation of the sport on TV have rendered the sport personally obsolete.

3. Hockey's okay, but, like soccer, the professional version seems somehow distant unless you have a powerful rooting interest.

Then there's basketball, the glories of which are captured with the perfect mix of passion, intelligence, and humor in Bill Simmons' exceptional "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy" (Ballantine Books, 715 pages, $30).

Simmons' tome is a wild romp through the sport's early years when slow white guys dominated all the way through the cocaine-fueled early '80s, the eventual renaissance that occurred when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the game, and the current NBA, which is better than ever.

Simmons, who writes a column as "The Sports Guy" on ESPN.com, captures the visceral joy of a true fan. When he writes about the Celtics, he refers to them as "we" and just that simple use of a pronoun connects the author to the reader and delivers him to a bar stool next to you. He's the funny smart guy spinning stories about Isiah Thomas, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Bill Walton.

The ambition of "The Book of Basketball" is daunting. Simmons' sets out to rank the top 96 players of all time, explain why he hates the Basketball Hall of Fame, reveal "The Secret" as told to him by Thomas, explain why Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain, and run through the history of the league.

Simmons pulls it off with a mesmerizing mix of statistics, wild pop-culture riffs, and tons of humor. Basketball is perfect for his approach because it doesn't have the "field of dreams" cachet of baseball or the over-hyped warrior mentality of football.

It's a game in which one-on-one match-ups make it endlessly fun to discuss things like, who's better, David Thompson in his prime or Michael Jordan? Who's the greatest center ever? How great would Pete Maravich have been if he hadn't blown out his knees? What player from the '50s and '60s would most succeed in today's game?

Simmons tackles it all and creates his own pyramid-style ranking system for the best players ever. That he can write intelligently about obscure greats like Bailey Howell or Jack Twyman with as much heft as he does iconic legends such as Bird or Magic, is a testament to his research skills and, once again, passion for the game.

The other element that makes The Book of Basketball so entertaining is Simmons' sense of humor, which falls off every page. The guy is truly funny, whether he's describing Dave Cowens' anatomy during the "Tight Short Era" or in the endless footnotes he sticks at the bottom of almost every page.

 

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