Thursday, July 08, 2010

BOOKS: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

I've been a basketball fan a LOOOOOONNNNNNNG time. Long enough to have seen Chamberlain, West, Baylor, the Russell gang in Boston, the Big O in Cincy and Dr. J in the ABA. That makes me two things. A little bit older than Bill Simmons, The ESPN Sports Guy, and mostly entrenched in my opinions about pro basketball.

So, I finally got around to reading, The Book of Basketball, The NBA According to The Sports Guy by Bill Simmons. Simmons splits most readers. People either love him or hate him. Me, I'm the rare bird, sort of in the middle. I recognize a fellow hoops fan, who's old enough to have seen the guys he talks about. On the other hand, he's been almost a life-long Boston Celtic fan (including being a season ticket-holder with his father). And worse than that, he loves footnotes.

On the former ... Even when there were no Toronto Raptors, there were the Buffalo Braves. The Braves even played some of their home games on this side of the watery boarder separating Ontario from New York (the important bits, anyway). Then, along came John Y. Brown. And suddenly, the Braves were no more. Brown traded franchises to get the Celtics, leaving the once-proud Celtic franchise, with no allegiences to Western New York and Ontario, to skip town to San Diego. Where they became the Clippers. Karma has insisted that the Clippers, ex-Celtics and destroyer of Buffalo's NBA dreams forever, be stuck in purgatory for a like amount of time. Forever. Since I was a Laker fan before a Braves fan, I became a Celtic hater for honest and legitimate reasons. Thus, Simmons' love of the Green goes against everything I believe in.

On the latter ... As any but the briefest scanning will show, I am addicted to parantheticals, those pithy little comments between parenthesis that I populate (too many) of the paragraphs I churn out. BUT, you can read my stuff in one straight read-through. You might WANT to go back and read something again, thinking to yourself, "Did he REALLY just write that?!?!" But it isn't vitally necessary. Not Simmons. He likes to congregate extra repartee and facts at the bottom of pages and make you go back and forth, almost re-reading the book. That's WAAAAAAYYYY too much work for me.

Most of the time.

Fact is, if you are a pro basketball junkie, you'll do it. What Simmons has concocted with this book is a test of your beliefs. And sometimes you have to fact check his conclusions. Cuz he sure as hell doesn't jibe with yours. Problem for me is that he makes some pretty persuasive arguments against some of my long-held beliefs.

Let's start with the big one. I do not believe that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. On the short list and I won't say specifically that any of the other guys on my list are demonstrably better. But he's not head and shoulders above all others and maybe not even better than the other guys on my list of the potential bests. On the other hand, if you want to say best off-guard/wing ever, I will abide that decision.

If you say basketball player, surely you must mean a guy who can play ALL five positions on the court. Only one guy did, to stellar effect, in the NBA. That was Magic Johnson, who STARTED at centre in an NBA CHAMPIONSHIP game, one game after starting at point guard. He played the other three spots during his NBA career and did pretty well where ever he found himself lined up on the court. At any given time, he might not have been the best player at the position he was playing, but at NO TIME could any of the people on the list ahead of him played better at another spot on the floor. Except Jordan, who could have been a two or a three and maybe Bird who could have aced him out at three and four. Under the definition of being able to be the best or near the best at every position on the floor, Magic Johnson deserves to be in that greatest player discussion.

Then, there is Wilt Chamberlain. I believed for the longest time that he was better than Russell. A man who led the league in all the counting categories, scoring, rebounding, blocking shots and EVEN assists. Applying the same all-round criteria I applied to Johnson, but in statistics this time, I thought Chamberlain deserved more respect than he got. And here is something I now have changed my mind about. Simmons basically destroys Chamberlain in this book. He points out that the only number that counts, the ONLY stat, is who wins four games in the last series of the season. And further, he shows how Chamberlain padded his stats over the years, how he jealously claimed any missed free throws on the first of two, because they count in the statistics as rebounds!!! In all my years sitting at scorers' tables doing the P.A. announcing, I NEVER knew that! There are other details to the dismantling. But trust me, it's complete. That's not to say the high-jumping, volleyball-playing sexual satyr wasn't a great athlete. It's just that he wasn't as good as Russell, let alone in the best-ever conversation.

Which brings me to the guy I treasured as the best ever, Oscar Robertson. The Big O was every bit the mean, nasty player Jordan was. He averaged a triple double for a season. Actually, for a good chunk of his CAREER, he was a walking triple double. Think Jason Kidd with way more scoring ability, plus he could defend. Although Simmons doesn't mention it, the Big O was expert at martial arts. Back in his day, when pansies needn't apply to the NBA, hand-checking was allowed. Heck, it was required. Robertson responded to hand-checks with karate chops that left bruised fingers and the odd broken bone in their wake. He was a couple of inches shorter than Jordan and exceeded him as a rebounder and as a set-up man. He made teammates better, something I long held Jordan failed at. Jordan finally got his Pippen and started winning titles. Robertson had to make do with Connie Dierking until a late-in-career trade to Milwaukee allowed him to combine with Lew Alcindor and score his championship triumph.

Simmons certainly gives Robertson propers. He's not as enamoured with Robertson as I was because I don't think he saw him play enough as a younger-than-me kid. I was in my teens at the end of Robertson's career, Simmons just breaking into the double-digits. And that HAS to colour your perspective. From a numbers point of view, Simmons depends on a mediocre shooting percentage, a lack of competition (read: Black competition), a comparative lack of titles and the fresh memories of Jordan being not only a killer on offense, but a lock-down defender, to leave Robertson off the top of the podium. I saw them both. My gut tells me four robots and Robertson would prevail over the same four robots and Jordan.

Just my feeling.

This book was written to incite conversation. Simmons is up front about his Celtic homerism. He tries (and fails) to be totally objective. He's too much a fan of Paul Pierce, for example. But I think reading this book, with the green filter off, makes for a terrific experience, if you skip the footnotes. And a not-so-bad experience if you take the time to switch back and forth between the footnotes and the original citation, as I did.

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