I bought my brother a copy of ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball for his birthday, and he talked it up so much that I wound up buying a copy of it for myself. I’ve been reading it over the past week, and it is a delight. If you like basketball, and/or the history of basketball, or smart, snarky sportswriting, any of them, the least little bit, then you’ve got to nab a copy. In thr introduction, Malcolm Gladwell compares the book to the basketball equivalent of the original Bill James Baseball Abstract, and he’s right — it’s that nerdy (nerdier), that funny (funnier), and that good.
One of Simmons’s charms is that he will do things like define criteria for the NBA’s MVP award, justify those criteria, and then go through every year in NBA history to figure out if the right guy won. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter that gives you some of the flavor of the book:
Question no. 2 [for determing the MVP]: In a giant pickup game with every NBA player available and two knowledgable fans forced to pick five-man teams, with their lives depending on the game’s outcome, who would be the first player picked based on how everyone played that season? Translation: who’s the alpha dog that season? The Finals answer this question many times… but not every time. We thought Kobe was the alpha dog in 2008, but after watching him wilt against Boston in the finals — compared to the way LeBron carried a crappy Cavs team to seven games against Boston and nearly stole Game 7 — it’s unclear. This question reduces everything to the simplest of terms: we’re playing to 11, I need to win, I can’t screw around with this choice, and if I don’t pick this guy, he’s gonna get pissed and kick our asses as the second pick. I mean, imagine the look on ’97 MJ’s face if someone picked ’97 Karl Malone before him in a pickup game. It would have been like Michael Corleone in Godfather Part II when Kay informed him about her abortion.
That’s the other Simmons signature — LOTS of pop culture references. The only thing this guy seems to do besides watch basketball is watch movies, over and over again, which endears him to me in ways I can’t quite express.