Book Review: The Book of Basketball

Following on the Elgin Baylor post, I recently finished Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Though it is not Book of the Month time, I thought I’d toss up a review. The next few days, the posts will probably reflect some thoughts sparked by Simmons. But first, the book.

The closest comparison to The Book of Basketball is Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract. James covered the history of baseball, then he did detailed player rankings both by position and overall. Simmons, similarly, gives an introduction to the history of basketball through 1984, then he follows by ranking the top 96 players of all time. Along the way, Simmons mixes a couple of separate essays, including one of the better in-depth treatments of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The book revolves around one theme and one idea. To get Simmons’ point, we need to delve into each for a bit.

According to Simmons, by way of Isiah Thomas, the key to basketball is players dedicating everything to winning basketball games. Individual statistics must be subsumed in order to pursue the ultimate goal of winning championships. Players’ greatness, then, is measured by how well they pursue team success. Who are the greatest players ever? They are the players who won. Simmons is not completely captive to the notion that the players with the most titles are the best, but he comes pretty close. This view, which I find ridiculous in baseball and football, makes some sense in basketball. Basketball players play every aspect of the game, and each member is 20% of his team. In football, you are one of 11 and play only half the game. In baseball, you are one of 9, and if you are a pitcher you pitch every five days. In basketball, one great player can have a bigger impact on his team than any other sport.

Second, Simmons aspires to transform the Basketball Hall of Fame. He sets up a pyramid of great players, ranking them in 4 levels before progressing to the Pantheon, the 12 greatest players ever. This system is similar to that used in our last book of the month, Stat One. I liked it then, and I like it now. Simmons can accurately get at the distinction between legitimately great players. Sure Gail Goodrich (#88, Level 1) was great, but he was not nearly the player Bob McAdoo (#61, Level 2) was. Kevin McHale (#35, Level 3) cannot stack his career up against John Havlicek (#13, Level 1). Finally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#3, Pantheon) was qualitatively better than the players in the lower categories. The Pyramid gives Simmons an excellent and thought-provoking way of organizing his rankings.

How is the execution? Given the two key points, the commitment to winning and the Pyramid, Simmons writes an interesting book. I would not recommend reading it all at once. After a while, his style, heavy as it is on jokes and pop culture allusions, can be taxing. In smaller doses, the book is particularly enjoyable. It has weaknesses, of course, including too strong a belief that modern basketball players are better than those who went before, but it also has strengths, including a passion for the game of basketball that matchless. I’ve already written appreciatively of Simmons’ respect for Elgin Baylor, and he also shares my belief that Hakeem Olajuwon was the best center since Abdul-Jabbar. His rankings, though, are lopsided. His pantheon (top 12) includes 6 centers (Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mose Malone), while it has 4 guards (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson) but only 2 forwards (Larry Bird and Tim Duncan). It is possible that forwards are not really that important, but it seems unlikely that 40% of a basketball team is so dramatically worse than the rest in the all-time rankings. I think the list would make more sense if he elevated Baylor (#14) and Julius Erving (#16) and dropped O’Neal and Malone, but those debates are the joy of the book.

I would highly recommend The Book of Basketball to anyone who likes basketball or is interested in the history of the game. The book is by no means perfect, but it is interesting enough to be worth a read.  he debates are fun, and Simmons make a legitimate contribution to them.

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