Friday, January 14, 2011

An Evisceration of Bill Simmons's Book

I picked up Bill Simmons's The Book of Basketball (the paperback version) because I wanted Team of Rivals but didn't want to pay for shipping. In the prologue, Simmons writes passionately about his childhood, spent with his dad at the Boston Garden. It was effective and made me excited for the rest of the book. The next 670 pages were quite a disappointment.

Simmons's arguments throughout the book are often hypocritical and rarely convincing. He argues that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain. I disagree, but I can respect the point. It's not tough to argue that either was better. Russell was the best player on 11 title teams. Do you value that over Wilt's astonishing individual domination? Somehow, Simmons manages to make an extremely weak case for Russell.

Russell or Wilt?
He poses 6 myths about the Russell-Chamberlain debate. Four of them are inane; as a Chamberlain proponent, I wouldn't have argued them. Let's take his "debunking" of the other 2 myths. He describes Russell's and Chamberlain's supporting casts. Simmons only disparages Russell's teammates. K.C. Jones is considered to be a weak HOFer. Certain Celtics are "faded". Yet, Wilt's teammates are never categorized. We don't learn that Billy Cunningham was young when he teamed with Wilt. You never read that Paul Arizin was over the hill when he played with Wilt. He doesn't mention that Baylor had lost 1/8th of his kneecap and West's body had been beaten like a casualty at the Battle of the Bulge when Wilt joined the Lakers.

It gets worse. On page 62, Simmons says, in 1963, "Cousy and Ramsey are slipping and rookie Havlicek wasn't Hondo yet." But on page 631, in an attempt to praise the all-time credentials of the 1963 Celtics, he says, "Cousy and Heinsohn are still thriving... Ramsey and Havlicek coming off the bench." Cousy, Ramsey, and Havlicek's 1963 talents just magically improved in 569 pages, because Simmons argument depended on it.

Simmons mentions Sam Jones (his 33rd best player ever) twice during his dissection of Russell's and Wilt's teammates. In 1959, Jones was "promising" and in 1969, Jones is "running on fumes." What happened to the interim 10 years? It doesn't help Simmons's case, that's what.

Simmons tries to dismiss Wilt's statistics by saying that Wilt played for statistics. He manipulates the numbers, only counting certain games, to make it seem close. It's not. Wilt averaged 30.1 ppg for his career. He averaged 50.4 (18.8 ppg more than 2nd place) and 44.8 (10.8 more than 2nd and 16.4 more than 3rd) a game in successive years. In Russell's best year, he averaged 18.9 ppg (or 0.1 more than Wilt's per game scoring advantage over the NBA's 2nd highest scorer in 1961-2). Stats aren't everything, but when it comes to them, Wilt crushed Russell.

In the intro, Simmons claims "[I] fixed every factual error." Then I guess Isiah Thomas is the only player ever to play on a champion and a runner up in the same season (1988). Tim Duncan won the 2006 Finals MVP despite the handicap of getting bounced in the 2nd round. Michael Jordan played in more all star games than seasons. And the 1984 Philadelphia 76ers lost in the 1st round to Philly in 5. So, maybe not "every factual error."

The Secret
The theme of the book is The Secret, which is basically when a player sacrifices stats for the good of the team. He rates players based on The Secret (among other criteria). But his system is wildly inconsistent. Robert Horry makes the top 96 based on his perfection of The Secret. Big Shot Bob was a team player who came up big when it counted. But not once does Simmons mention Horry throwing a towel in the face of his coach, Danny Ainge, during the 1996-7 season. He was suspended and traded to the Lakers. It's conveniently left out.

Scottie Pippen also knew The Secret. Simmons does talk about the time Scottie quit on his team in the 1994 playoffs when his number wasn't called for a game-winning shot. Simmons, who kills other players for much less, defends Pippen. His argument? Pippen resented Kukoc's presence. Plus, Pippen apologize and his team forgave him. Then, we learn that Pippen was the best player on the '00 Blazers, which was news to me and everyone else who watched that team. But if you don't buy Pippen's greatness, Bill Simmons saw him play well in a regular season game against the lowly Celtics in 1996. So, you know, you're wrong.

The Celtics
Every Celtic, save Bob Cousy, is wildly overrated on his list. Simmons bases his list on hypothetical criteria such as: would the player succeed in different eras? He doesn't account for a player being an innovator to the NBA, as Cousy was. He also rates a player's peak instead of quality throughout the length of his career. Potential is privileged. It's the "What if?" factor. The problem is that it's easy to dismiss by simply saying, "Yeah, but it didn't." What if David Thompson stayed clean? What if Bill Walton stayed healthy? Yeah, but they didn't.

Getting back to the Celtics, Simmons expresses a homoerotic obsession with the Celtics (not that there's anything wrong with that). Each Celtic gets far more words than the other players. The tone often becomes sappy and drifts to corny (in contrast to the prologue). About Kevin McHale, "I miss those armpits." About Dave Cowens, "Now that's a guy I want in my NBA Foxhole." About Bill Walton, "And I don't even need to rewind the tapes to picture it."

About Paul Pierce, "In Pierce's case, he became everything we wanted him to be." What aggravates me more than the blatantly and homoerotically overrating of every Celtic is that he claims Paul Pierce is just about the toughest player to ever live. When Pierce read that, he probably pumped his fist, felt a tingle on his side, collapsed in a heap, started writhing around in pain, and had to be wheeled out of the Borders.

Then he came back in, over-dribbled at the top of the key and shot way too much while he was double teamed.

Period Contradictions
If Simmons wants to tout a 1950s/'60s player, the player endured long bus rides and a more competitive league with fewer teams. If he wants to skewer them, then the 1950s/'60s had a dearth of black (read talented) players and statistics were inflated due to style of play. As for more modern players- touts them: more talent in the league, a more competitive league. Skewers them: charter flights, expansion, better doctors and diet.

In Bill Simmons's mind, black people are better than white people at basketball. It's just a fact to him. Being black is a natural advantage. He thinks he's being liberal and sensitive. But the implication is that black men's bodies are better designed for basketball than white men's. Conversely, white men shouldn't be playing ball, they should be in an office somewhere using their minds. Simmons would never explicitly agree with this. But, by claiming that basketball is a black man's game, that's what he's implicitly saying.

The reality is that black players make up a majority of the NBA because of nurture, not nature. Otherwise, Africa would have the greatest players. Listen, if your friends play ball, then you'll probably play ball. Since America is still socially segregated, and because of current cultural conditions, more black players play more basketball than white players and, thus, tend to be better. There's nothing biologically racial about it. In 50 years, the league could very well be majority Mexican.

The book is filled with crude porn jokes and drug lingo. Simmons mocks the drug era and the players who used cocaine. He constantly talks about banging chicks. If he was 25 years old, you could forgive it. But he's a middle aged man with a wife and kids. It's just, well, sad. It doesn't help that he's a less handsome version of me, with an ever-so-slightly more annoyingly nasal voice than mine, and, strangely, does not possess a chin.

So, I wouldn't recommend the book.


Davis said...

What an awful, conceited book review. Take the book for what it was supposed to be: a wealth of historical data about the NBA and its best players, personal anecdotes and stories, and lots of witty, tangential commentary meant to entertain the reader. If you've ever read Simmons' column, you know that sarcasm and crudeness are essential to his writing style; and that's what his readers like. As someone who hates the Celtics, but loves the NBA, I thought the book was outstanding. Yes, he's biased toward Boston teams and players, but he's honest about it, he frequently backs up his claims with compelling data, and his bias never supersedes the theme and overall message of the book. For NBA fans with senses of humor, I can't think of a more perfect book to recommend.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

your discussion of racism is ridiculous. you say that if simmons were correct then africa would have the most basketball talent. the nature/nurture debate is not so simply settled. yes, many african AMERICAN kids grow up playing basketball, but few kids in africa have similar passion for the game. these are 2 different groups of people. additionally, white people spent a couple hundred years genetically selecting big/strong african americans that would be most advantageous for them.

Anonymous said...

The Book of Basketball is EASILY my favorite sports book of all-time.

By no means do I agree with everything Bill writes, and there are even a few times when I STRONGLY disagree with him. Doesn't matter. His love for the game is obvious. His knowledge of the game is obvious. His sense of humor is utterly fantastic. I've read the book several times from cover to cover, and honestly, it gets better each time.

It's definitely not for everyone, as he brings up race and cocaine all of the time, objectifies women frequently, and swears constantly. It didn't bother me a bit, though.

I absolutely LOVE this book.

Andy the Bball Fan ;) said...

Does Simmons have knowledge of the game and its history? Yes - he does have some. But he is also a homer (which is ok) but a homer that is on an obsessive mission to discredit and disparage Wilt Chamberlain for some weird reason.

Anyone with 1/2 a brain knows those Celtic TEAMS were amazing, and that Wilt was measured as an individual against those entire teams - it just so happened that Russell was the opposing Center for that team. There is no question that Wilt dominated Russell over the long-term, but Wilt's teams were usually not up to par when compared to the Celtics. Even with that said, Russell was a phenomenal player and leader and led that amazing team and he also should not be discredited for his achievements and for those of his team. But seriously Simmons comes off as petty with these types of things...

Here are just a few examples of his points and his book being skewered: