Rewind Read: 'The Book of Basketball' Turns 10
Life has been largely good for Bill Simmons. His latest media venture (The Ringer) is a resounding success with a highly-popular podcast and scores of related content in a myriad of subject areas. He is a long way from his “Sports Guy” roots and removed even from his up and down days at ESPN (also Grantland) and now commands interviews with prominent personalities in sports, culture and entertainment. Simmons’ finest work, however, may still be his 2009 (and 701-page) magnum opus, The Book of Basketball. A decade later, it remains the best book on pro hoops I have ever read. I have read a large (and borderline embarrassing) number of books about basketball in my lifetime, so this is no small praise.
Simmons is currently releasing a sequel of sorts to this original book with a series of long form podcast episodes on The Ringer entitled “The Book of Basketball 2.0”, a series which largely captures the meandering and spirited take on all things fans of professional basketball will probably want to hear, including interviews with some of the game’s true heavyweights (players, coaches and reporters), focusing wisely on the years since the original publication, a truly transformative decade which has seen the game reach new heights in popularity and scope of play.
As good as his original book was, it’s hard not to conclude he put it out a bit early in light of the seismic events the NBA witnessed since its publication, from Lebron James’ “Decision” to the historic Golden State Warriors’ run of success to the most frenzied era of free agency the game has ever seen. And lots of three pointers. Tons of three pointers, actually. Simmons missed these things when his book came out a decade ago. For that reason, along with the new podcast series, it’s worth a look back at 2009’s The Book of Basketball.
In TBOB, Simmons offers up the single best and most entertaining overview of the history of the NBA I have ever read, complete with a breakdown of various eras and why the period from 1984 until the mid 1990s was the true Golden Age of the league (1984 is a major watershed mile-marker of the book for a variety of reasons).
Simmons offers “what if” scenarios far beyond the standard “What if Portland took Jordan?” or “What if Charlotte kept Kobe?” fare and delves into possible trades and externalities connected to trades and draft picks that never happened. When a writer can get you thinking of the possibility of Kareem, Magic and Bird playing on the same team (Simmons makes a compelling case that this was indeed a possibility) you know you have conspiracy theory gold. When he ponders some of the true head scratchers in league history, you will no doubt realize you never really knew as much about basketball as you thought.
He gives readers a tremendous and exhaustive 96-spot Greatest Players of All Time list (called “The Pyramid”) with more details and anecdotes than you ever thought you needed. Trust me, you’ll be coming back to this section more than once.
Simmons offers a particularly killer entry describing the genius of uber-champion badass Robert Horry (Pyramid Player #84); this passage alone is worth the price of the book. We should all miss Big Shot Rob. A lot.
This book also contains the best essay on Michael Jordan ever written. Trust me, I have read 98 percent of everything ever written about MJ and Simmons’ Pyramid entry about Number 23 is the best, no question (spoiler alert: he ranks MJ as the number one player of all time). You just have to read it. With all the debate surrounding MJ possibly having more company in the GOAT conversation (see Lebron, Kevin Durant, Bryant, etc.) Simmons makes the most compelling case I’ve ever read for Jordan being, in fact, The Greatest of All Time.
The staggering volume of footnotes in this book basically amount to a book unto itself, providing a completely sufficient and necessary sidebar of extra genius, inserting way more humor than should be allowed in a book of this magnitude (more than half of them are either extremely helpful or laugh out loud funny).
Simmons ranks the Greatest Teams of All Time, a list which offers a robust argument for the 1986 Boston Celtics as the Best Ever and why the ‘97 Bulls may have actually been every bit as good as the hallowed 72-win ‘96 Bulls. Simmons also makes a strong case for why the 2001 Lakers never get the proper love they deserve and just how awful champions the ‘78 Bullets and ‘79 Sonics really were (it was the late 1970s after all). In retrospect, Simmons would likely take a hard look at the 2017 or 2018 Golden State Warriors as possible challengers to the greatest champion ever throne, but it’s worth a studied read anyway. And he may still be right.
Simmons unveils a sensible (and infinitely more exciting) version of the Basketball Hall of Fame (seriously, his plan is so much better than what currently exists in Springfield, Massachusetts. Putting in a Subway sandwich shop doesn’t qualify as an upgrade, guys). He also rolls out a massive, intricate plan for an “in season” hoops tournament which would ratchet up the midseason NBA lull which inevitably rears its bored head every January just before the All-Star break. It’s a chaotic, messy, fun and ultimately genius plan, one which fittingly is currently under discussion by the NBA community.
He gives huge props to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Pyramid Player #3, still legit) despite spending much of the book letting us know how much he didn’t like him (he calls him a “ninny” most of the time and derides his 1983 autobiography as self serving. But man, did Kareem come up big as a player). Simmons cops to The Captain’s greatness in the end, citing his winning Finals MVP honors fourteen years apart and even suggesting he would have killed Celtic immortal Bill Russell if they had ever played head to head (for a Boston native and diehard sports nut like Simmons to admit to this is staggering).
He reveals his theory as to what makes a champion, calling it The Secret, a recurring theme of the book that ends up being an integral thread to the entire enterprise, ultimately giving the reader and fan a concrete and detailed measure of what separates the “really good” from the great to finally, the winners.
If you don’t get at least a little misty eyed while reading the epilogue detailing Simmons’ meeting with hoops legend Bill Walton, you are not a true basketball fan. You might not even be a feeling human being. The poignancy of Simmons closing out his massive tome of a love letter to basketball with a day spent with one of the greatest players of all time (and definite apostle of The Secret) is not only fitting but winds up being the most affecting part of the book. By all rights, Walton should have been a Top Ten Pyramid player but instead was betrayed by his body, battling injuries while winning bookend titles with the Portland Trailblazers (‘77 Blazermania) and the ‘86 Celtics not to mention championships under John Wooden at UCLA. Walton was a winner. Top shelf. But his intellect and graceful humility shroud his disappointment over a career derailed by things he could not prevent.
In today’s league, teams would have found a way for Walton to play. But this was a different time. He gets it, even changing up Simmons’ calculus a bit along the way (Walton offers up his version of The Secret, calling it instead The Choice, a term Simmons concedes is probably better). If you read no other section of the book, at least go to a bookstore somewhere, grab a copy and read this epilogue. It will take you five minutes but will stay with you long after your overpriced coffee goes cold. It’s that great.
I still have some quibbles with Simmons’ book, which in the end helps make it such a necessary and enjoyable read.
He spends a great deal of time discussing the legitimate misfortune of the 1980s Celtics and how they should have won at least three more titles (Simmons contends the team coughed up the ‘85 match against LA, Len Bias died in ‘86, the Big Three got hurt in ‘87 and the Houston Rockets got sidetracked by cocaine after beating LA in ‘86, thus enabling Magic’s Lakers to win back to back titles in ‘87 and ‘88). I understand his points but just don’t think he is being intellectually honest in his assessment, especially when he virtually ignores the lucky breaks enjoyed by the ‘89 champion Detroit Pistons (both Magic and Byron Scott ended up not playing in the series. Let me put this another way: after going 11-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, LA loses its entire starting backcourt in The Finals. Imagine doing this to any other team and see if they win a title. They don’t).
He gives Isiah Thomas a free pass for most of the book, using a meeting between the two to essentially say “hey, Thomas wasn’t so bad after all”, virtually ignoring his role as the lead dog of one of the most unlikable champions in NBA history. There was a reason the Pistons legend was left off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, but Simmons ends up rationalizing Thomas for half of the book.
There are some key areas that suffer because this book was originally published in 2009 (even though Simmons tried to go back in the paperback version to update things a bit with partial success and will certainly right the ship with his new podcast series). Clearly, Lebron James would earn a much better treatment in a current edition than he does in this one. He still gets due respect for 2009 (Simmons does rank him #20 all time) but the book came out before his two titles in Miami and the historic comeback championship in 2016, important components that virtually invalidate much of Simmons’ take on LBJ and certainly his meager ranking in The Pyramid. Kobe Bryant also suffers a bit here, despite getting a lofty ranking (#8) because it comes without mention of his team’s ‘09 and ‘10 titles, important because they came sans Shaquille O’Neal (#12).
Simmons comes off a bit hypocritical by overrating Allen Iverson despite spending most of the book deriding the very type of “hero ball” Iverson displayed most of his remarkable but often divisive career. Dirk Nowitzki also gets short treatment as his incredible (and eerily Bird-like) 2011 title run for Dallas goes unmentioned because of its print date. With this title, Nowitzki established himself as not only the best player ever from Europe but also one of the greatest players overall. This would not be such a significant point except for the fact that Simmons mentions more than once his view that if or when Dallas (and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban specifically) won a championship, it would be a sign of the hoops apocalypse (to be fair, Simmons addresses this subject with an extensive episode of "TBOB 2.0" reassessing the greatness of Nowitski, a show which actually is enhanced because of his earlier, less stellar, print assessment of Nowitski’s career).
For many sports fans, Simmons has become a tough guy to root as the once-up-and-coming writer became all that he railed against while staking his territory at ESPN, at once protesting the establishment while simultaneously helping to keep it in place, eventually becoming an important part of it all. His love of all sports Boston still irks many suffering from Patriots overexposure. In many ways Simmons can be too clever for his own good, the too-cool-for-school smart ass, liked by a small but dedicated group of precocious kids who worship sports as much as he does but largely reviled by everyone else.
Some would call Simmons a sellout genius. Others would say he is a fanboy hack who caught some breaks. Both views are largely unfair and ultimately inaccurate. Simmons is a fan of his time, a whip smart observer and recorder of all things basketball who makes no apologies for loving what he loves and questioning what he doesn’t, mistakes or oversteps be damned. He goes for the right take and isn’t afraid to say he may get it wrong. But he goes down swinging. And, more often than not, he gets it right. If he hears a better argument, he is willing to admit it. There is ample evidence of this throughout the book and in his podcasts and interviews since.
He wants us to care as much about basketball as he does, and spends an inordinate amount of space trying to accomplish this task in TBOB. This passion and dedication is worth a lot in today’s increasingly cynical, “hot take” sports culture, and Simmons’ idea that it’s just as important to care as it is to watch resonates even more today than it did ten years ago. In The Book of Basketball, Simmons weaves a modern day sports masterpiece, compiling a staggering, unprecedented account of the NBA, past, present and (kind of) future, creating what will undoubtedly be considered the Hoops Bible for years to come.