I read Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. I enjoyed his book, as it is a fun survey of NBA history. The book isn’t just a numbers game or just breI read Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. I enjoyed his book, as it is a fun survey of NBA history. The book isn’t just a numbers game or just breaking down plays. It includes enough human interest elements that it should appeal to a casual fan or diffident parties (like me; I can count the number of basketball games I’ve seen – TV or live – on both hands.) Simmons does a fantastic job of conveying his love of basketball. For me, he really brought different basketball eras to life, inserting comments from players, coaches, and sportswriters. He also seems fairly astute in breaking down plays and describing the flow of the game.
Yes, I bought the book because I think Bill Simmons’s writing. If you enjoy his blog, you will find that same breezy conversation style here. The man has a gift for dropping pop culture references and making it germane to his arguments. But what I like most is that he is earnest in trying to understand and to make his readers appreciate the people who play a game for a living.
His segment on Elgin Baylor was moving, in showing how racism affected this one man; in some ways, it was probably more effective than if he just talked in general terms about the 1960’s. His whole book works because it stays at the personal level. Even in his discussion of teams and individual players, he takes pains to discuss how this person was and is regarded by his peers and teammates.
In this way, I think Simmons did a fantastic job of making a case that basketball can contain as much historical perspective as baseball. This is something that should not have to be argued. Baseball has a lock on “the generational game by which history can be measured” status. What seems important is that there are human elements that make it accessible between generations: things like fathers taking their sons to the games, talking about the games and players, the excitement of watching breathtaking physical acts that expand how one views the human condition, and the joy and agony of championship wins and losses. While baseball’s slow pace lends itself to the way history moves one (periods where nothing seems to happen punctuated by drama), it doesn’t mean other things happen in a vacuum. Style of play, the way the players are treated, and the composition of the player demographic all reflect the times. These games can be a reflection of society, and one can see the influence of racial injustice in something as mundane as box scores as integration occurred.
Simmons blend basketball performance, its history, and its social environment of basketball effectively, some examples could be found in his discussion of Dr. J, Russell, Baylor, Kareem, and Jordan. In discussing why there probably won’t be another Michael Jordan (or Hakeem, or Kevin McHale), he takes inventive routes. Most of his points relate to societal/basketball environment pressures. Players are drafted sooner, the high pay scale for draft picks lower motivation to prove their worth, and perhaps society itself would actively discourage players from behaving as competitively as Jordan did. I suppose it’s interesting, but I’m not sure if that matters so much if the player is perceived to be an excellent player. Regardless, it seems to me that Simmons has been thinking about these things for some time. And I found it fun to read his take on basketball.
And I liked this book because it gives the lie to the weird view that someone who hasn’t done something cannot make reasonable, intelligent statements about it. Simmons wasn’t a professional basketball player, but he certainly uses every resource available to absorb the history and characters populating the game. He read a fair bit, he watched and rewatched games, he talked to players, he talked to people who covered basketball and he watched some more. And he isn’t afraid to raise issues that occur to readers; you’ll see what I mean when you read his footnotes.
The book (and his podcast) confirms my opinion of Simmons as the smart friend who’d be a blast to have (one who bleeds Celtics green, watches sports for a living, and must keep up with Hollywood gossip, gambles, and pop culture because it gives him ammunition for columns).
There are some issues with the book, mainly in how statistical analysis of basketball is portrayed. I should be upfront and say that these issues did not detract from his arguments (for reasons that will be clear later), but I wish he would reconcile eyeball and statistical information. And because I’ve decided one focus of this blog should be how non-scientists deal with science (and scientists), I thought I should offer some thoughts on some of these issues.
What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who think that the pursuit of freedom (either in behavior, in intellectual pur
What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who think that the pursuit of freedom (either in behavior, in intellectual pursuits, from society.) Paul Johnson admitted that it was unfair to use the private lives of individuals to judge the strength of their thoughts, but nonetheless he spent the entire book documenting the deficiencies of men who talked big and lived meanly. The quality of the men never matched the beauty of their vision, prose, or poetry.
The futility of such an exercise is noted early, in the chapter about Shelley. Johnson admits that this cad was a wastrel who had no compunction about writing mean letters detailing the failures of his parents while concurrently asking for money. Shelley used people, seeing his family as nothing but a source of income and women no more than a means for physical pleasure. Naturally, he thought himself liberal, dispensing with archaic institutions of monogamy. He expected his wife to accept his mistress to share their apartment, but he graciously extended the same privilege to his wife (whom apparently complained about this arrangement.)
Regardless, all this is peripheral: Johnson thinks Shelley wrote beautifully, and his poetry moved Johnson. Johnson writes,
The truth, however, is fundamentally different and to anyone who reveres Shelley as a poet (as I do) it is deeply disturbing. It emerges from a variety of sources, one of the most important of which is Shelley’s own letters.”
Great. But why should the gap between artisanal accomplishments and the empty lives of artists be so surprising, in an age when starlets, athletes, politicians, authors, musicians, and entertainers behave as if they were competing for the favor of the Borgias? Johnson already conceded the point that he can appreciate the artistry, if not the artist.
There was one high point in the book, though. Johnson destroyed Karl Marx on both a personal and professional level. In this instance, it seems that there are elements in Marx’s personality that might have directly resulted in the shoddy intellectual quality of his work. Marx made a better short form than long form writer; the long form exposed Marx’s deficiencies as a researcher and investigator. Das Kapital contained a number of misuse of evidence. Marx did do a spectacular job of digging up dirt on his enemies, though.
In a coda, Johnson links 2oth century atrocities to both secular intellectuals ignoring atrocities committed in their name and to the social milieu they created that promoted nihilism (namely in excesses of Communist regimes.) It seems to me a simpler case that these mass murderers were ambitious, ruthless, and disposed to murder even before they encountered post-modern philosophy. As much as I detest social relativism, post-modernism, and religious dogma, I can’t fault these ideas as causing mass effects. I can, however, fault the men who, upon gaining power to commit atrocities, cloak their acts in the trappings of a recognizable philosophy. To suggest that terrorists or dictators valued life until reading a book seems to be placing the cart before the horse.
In the end, I do agree with Johnson in that it is so disappointing that philosophers rarely reach the ideals they espouse. So what else is new? ...more