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Capsule Reviews (III): On Simmons on Basketball, Goudsouzian on Bill Russell, Anderson and Millman on Pick-Up Ball, and Jackson on the 2004 Lakers

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A "broseph"'s biblical Book of Basketball, makes me laugh (a little) and cringe (a lot); a scholar writing an elegant history of one of the game's noblest stars; a couple of journalists publishing their subterranean history of the country's street games with the major press of the British New Left; and perhaps the greatest coach ever offering major revelations that turn out to have been rendered false by the passage of time. It's all here in my latest Capsule Review (remember each book is rated on a scaled of 1 to 5 basketballs).

Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball (2009). Hmmm. This book was a major event for sports fans when it came out as Simmons writes one of the most popular fan sites on the web. I had a mixed experience with it, due primarily to Simmons’ style. Simmons shtick is that he is the regular sports fan, just like you, who finally gets his voice heard in the media. As you might expect, hearing the voice of the regular sports fan amplified by the media is both refreshing and unpleasant, reminding me that journalism is actually a skilled profession. Simmons’ unwieldy tome (697 pp.) is, I must admit, surprisingly coherent considering the variety (and varying lengths) of the chapters: it really just consists of variations on the very simple theme that basketball is a team game and so the players that most thorough understood and consistently embodied that truth are the ones most worthy of celebrating and remembering.

The Prologue and First three chapters are especially tight, moving from Simmons recollections of the birth of his passion for the game to an assertion of the importance of chemistry, teamwork, and a passion for winning as the secret to hoops success, to a reassessment of the most storied rivalry in the game’s history (between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – spoiler: Chamberlain comes off really badly), to a more general history of the NBA – all from the vantage point of deeply ingrained lessons in the importance of unselfishness and teamwork. After this we get, well, the kind of things that obsessive sports fans obsessively argue about such as who should be in the Hall of Fame and what would make it a cooler place to visit (taking up more than half the book), a discussion of MVP voting, what’s wrong with it, and how it should have played out, and the “What-If Game” where Simmons imagines the fall-out from any number of NBA road-not-taken scenarios (my favorite: what if the Pistons had not taken Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic with the # 2 pick in the 2003 NBA draft?)

In this course of this, Simmons seems never to have met a feeling or thought of his own that he does not consider worth writing down. His hampered editorial faculty leads both to comic gems and to cringetastic turds. Simmons is more informed than the average Buffalo Wildwings Broseph, and funnier too (in fact, he’s most of all a comedian whose material revolves around sports). But he seems also to have an almost hysterical compulsion to say “the thing he thinks we think he wouldn’t dare say”, as though he’s forever trying to get us to say “Oh no you didn’t!” And he then covers his embarrassment by trumpeting that “Hey, at least I’m honest.” I should say that there’s nothing I found truly offensive in here. But I bet Michael Kors would "question his taste level.” Funny sometimes, unpleasant sometimes, insightful on rare occasion, but as a compulsion, Simmons need to say everything finally grows tiresome and spreads like a oil spill through what could be a very well informed, more intelligent than average, and humorous take on the history and culture of the NBA.

Lars Anderson and Chad Millman, Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America (1998) I found this a fascinating, and mostly entertaining, reading. Anderson and Millman cover a surprisingly broad range of forms of pickup ball from the 1940s to the present, from the well-known like Rucker Park to the (to me) less well known like prison and reservation leagues. Along the way, they show a socially informed sensitivity to the issues that have prevented great pickup players (men and women) from making it in organized professional leagues like the NBA and WNBA. Vivid, but understated, descriptions of the various streetball venues, with profiles of individuals supported by interviews with them (or, if they have passed away, with players who know them), as well as smartly paced narratives of particular games keep the book moving along nicely. One of the striking things about these tales is how they weave in and out of, approaching and then veering away from the better-known histories of mainstream organized basketball. A bonus is Anderson and Millman’s awareness of the way in which streetball is as much about the stories that get told about legendary players, moves, and games as it is about those players, moves, and games themselves. I'd call this an essential addition to any basketball library. 

Aram Goudsouzian, King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (2010) Excellent biography of Russell, weaving together what he did that was new on the court, with what he did that was new as an African-American in the league, with what he did that was new as an athlete involved in politics. Goudsouzian is a historian and a good one and he sticks to what he does well. There's not much depth or subtlety on the motivation and psychology of Russell, but it doesn't feel like a deficiency. On the contrary, it comes off as an appropriate cautiousness. He's writing about what he feels he knows for sure, in order to illuminate and inform, not to be exploit drama.

Goudsouzian manages to combine a highly readable style with complex, interlocking portraits of an individual, a profession and its surrounding culture, and a society. Like all the best sportswriting, King of the Court is unafraid of the contradiction, complexity, and ambiguity that must inevitably arise when one looks thoughtfully at professional athletes in this country (thus we see Russell, wealthy, famous and celebrated, facing discrimination when trying to buy a house in the city he entertained and inspired); indeed when one looks thoughtfully at any single human life (we learn that Russell was insecure and fiercely proud, intensely self-disciplined and wildly self-indulgent, principled and pragmatic). This is the sort of thoughtful, compassionate, and honest treatment that all remarkable figures, really, that all of us deserve. Anyone with an interest in the NBA, the Celtics or Russell in particular, post-World War II US history, especially as regards race, will profit from and enjoy this work.

Phil Jackson, The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul (2004). This is an odd book, in part just because I read it six years after it was published, when the course of history not only belied its title (Jackson didn’t retire, but rather went on to preside over the Lakers rebuilding process culminating in back to back NBA titles in the last two years) but also its central drama (Jackson and star Kobe Bryant’s relationship, in this book apparently deteriorated beyond repair, seems now to be stronger than ever). In this sense, the book was like a time-capsule, or perhaps more like an old yearbook – “look at Dad’s hair!” “Mom, you actually wore that?!”. If I’d bought and read this in 2004, when it came out, I no doubt would have felt – as I believe most who reviewed the book did at the time – that I was getting an illuminating behind the scenes look at the implosion of one of the more stunning under-achievements in recent NBA history (Jackson’s heavily favored Lakers, featuring four future Hall of Fame players, was dismantled 4 games to 1 in the NBA finals by a Detroit Pistons team with no star). Reading it now, in the wake of subsequent events, it seems like it doesn’t tell me as much about that Lakers team as it does about Phil Jackson’s mind at work.

Certainly, there is something interesting about Jackson’s thinking about particular basketball issues that came up during the season, how to contend with certain match-ups and so forth. But the book is mostly about how Jackson plots a narrative and that, finally, isn’t all that interesting, perhaps even less so on account of the diary form of the book, which somehow rings false. Jackson’s a coach, a very good one, maybe the best ever, and at times we catch a glimpse of what makes that so (although I feel that Sacred Hoops did that better). But he’s not much of a story teller, doesn’t really even seem to like telling stories. And so the kick of this book for me, mostly came from measuring the difference between how things looked then and how they turned out. Fun, and probably worth the minimal time and effort that it takes to get through this one. 


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