There’s only one man alive who could have written a tolerable 700-page book about the NBA that includes a vignette about which current superstar most resembles the titular protagonist of Teen Wolf, so be thankful that he’s the guy who wrote it. Your Teen Wolf is Kobe Bryant; your author is Bill Simmons, a/k/a ESPN.com‘s Sports Guy, indefatigable Internet sportswriting superstar. Wildly prolific, ceaselessly witty, harmlessly crass, and generally wise, Simmons has built an everydude empire by triangulating the trashy pop-culture futon talk of Chuck Klosterman and the stats-heavy philosophizing of Malcolm Gladwell. Both are friends and occasional co-conspirators; Gladwell provides The Book of Basketball‘s foreword and admits it’s the longest book he’s read since college. Think about that for a second.
At full power, Simmons will dash off three 10,000-word columns a week, from oft-derisive weekly NFL picks (versus the spread, of course) to Boston-centric essays (he’s an only occasionally intolerable homer) to in-depth recaps of his trips to Las Vegas (way less tolerable) to daffy reader mailbags (wherein his fans often complain that their butts have gone numb from sitting on the toilet while trying to finish something he’s written). If you can actually die from butt-numbness, Basketball will cause multiple fatalities: Its brazen ambition, as explicitly stated in one of hundreds of footnotes, is to induce the sentiment “I’m burned out on Simmons for like nine months—that book could’ve been 200 pages less.” Yes. And yet. Part memoir, part revisionist history lesson, part nerded-out stat-head orgy, and part league-cheerleading manifesto, it reads like 10,000 or so 10,000-word columns stitched together, a hilariously daunting labor of love wherein the love usually manages to overpower the labor. Nobody cares about the NBA—nobody cares about anything—more than this guy.
Longtime Simmons readers are fully versed in his personal tics—”I will now light myself on fire,” etc.—and The Book of Basketball indulges them all, starting with the Boston thing. As we begin, it is 1973, and Bill’s father buys two (dirt-cheap) Celtics season tickets instead of a motorcycle; soon, his decidedly white six-year-old son is demanding that everyone call him Jabaal Abdul-Simmons, though Larry Bird worship inevitably follows. Cut to chapter one: a grown-ass Bill in Vegas, (topless) poolside at the Wynn, chatting nervously with none other than Isiah Thomas, a frequent (and justifiable) Sports Guy target who nonetheless deigns to reveal The Secret: the key to NBA success, and Basketball‘s overriding thesis. Basically, stats don’t matter as much as heart, and individual glory must be sacrificed for the good of the team. Bird is the hero; Vince Carter is the goat. Occasionally, Simmons’s point is that succinct—”Players win titles, and coaches lose them”—but then again, this book is 700 pages long.
So gird up for his thorough treatise on the NBA’s evolution from 1946 to 1984, wherein the fledgling Association battles public indifference, the dull pre–shot-clock era, a quasi-legitimate rival league (the ABA), cocaine, and rampant racism, the latter an unfortunately major NBA component, even today, and one that Jabaal addresses repeatedly, thoughtfully, and very carefully. Then, a more insidery hypothetical-questions chapter—lots of “What if X player had ended up on Y team instead” chatter, climaxing, naturally, with Portland’s somewhat vexing decision not to draft Michael Jordan in 1984.
Heaping derision on gaffes like this is a time-honored sportswriter tradition, but Simmons’s perfect hindsight trends into a hubris he indulges occasionally. Earlier this year, he launched an apparently sincere Twitter-based campaign to land an interview for the open Minnesota Timberwolves GM spot, and seemed genuinely pissed when they blew him off. But such a promotion would rob us of his true calling, simultaneously his greatest talent and biggest writerly crutch: incessant pop-culture references. Incessant. Nothing on this earth cannot be blithely compared to The Shawshank Redemption, Boogie Nights, The Godfather series, various Rocky and Karate Kid installments, etc., etc., etc. A mere list of every flick, band, TV show, pro wrestler, and porn star referenced would be a book in itself.
And thus an exhaustive “Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain?” debate (Russell, of course) is awkwardly likened to the O.J. trial. And Kobe is Teen Wolf. And Dirk Nowitzki is saddled with yet more David Hasselhoff jokes. This is typical Simmons, but the major innovation here is he can (a) swear, and (b) make a whole lot more stripper jokes: His argument that Karl Malone totally didn’t deserve the 1997 MVP is marred by a fairly risible tangent regarding a strip-club excursion ruined by “a mediocre Asian with fake cans.”
The stripper/pop-culture stuff reaches its simultaneous apex and nadir during the real heart of the book: Simmons proposes a new NBA Hall of Fame pyramid structure be built in French Lick, Indiana—Bird’s homebase—then spends about 300 pages detailing every player who should be in it, from #96 (Tom Chambers) to #1 (Jordan), with a full statistical and cultural analysis of each. Even as an episodic, blog-ish conceit, this is a mighty slog, so bizarre digressions on Pretty Woman (during the Paul Pierce section), a “gorgeous girl” with “tiny mosquito bites for tits” (Jason Kidd), and Tupac (Bill Walton) are somewhat welcome. But the cutesy stuff kills him when he tries to turn serious: His passionate discourse on Allen Iverson, one of the modern NBA’s most polarizing and fascinating figures (with, again, major racial undertones), is torpedoed by both a wan shower-rape joke and, unforgivably, a Sex and the City shout-out.
Basketball‘s last 100 pages are larded with uneasy asides about how horrifically overlong the book has gotten; by the time Simmons is unveiling his “Wine Cellar” team—aliens invade Earth, challenge us to a basketball game, and allow us to pick specific vintages of players (’92 Jordan, ’77 Kareem, etc.)—you’re too exhausted to be sufficiently impressed. Dip into it slowly and quickly, and throw it down whenever the VH1 talking-head chatter gets too toxic. I know the perfect place to keep it. And, most of the time, that’s a compliment.