- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL: THE NBA ACCORDING TO THE SPORTS GUY
By Bill Simmons
ESPN Books, $30, 715 pages
REVIEWED BY SEAMUS QUINN

If Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini” is the best book about fathers and sons and hoops, Bill Simmons‘ “The Book of Basketball” is runner-up. Mr. Simmons‘ genial father (“Sports Dad” to Bill’s “Sports Guy”) seems never to have mockingly asked young Bill whether he was going to “squirt some” after a Celtics loss. Nor is it likely he threatened to kick his son out of the house for backing down from an on-court fistfight (“Hit him or don’t come home!” bellowed the Great Santini). But Bill Simmons‘ father, like Pat Conroy’s, is plainly the decisive and perennial influence in his son’s life. Too bad Malcolm Gladwell, author of the foreword in “The Book of Basketball,” missed it.

Echoing psychologist Judith Rich Harris, Mr. Gladwell recently said that “parents provide less of an environmental influence on their lives, on the lives of their children, than do children’s friends, siblings, cohort.”

Did counterintuitive superstar Gladwell, while flipping through Mr. Simmons‘ impressive stockpile of stats and anecdotes, consider the obvious: “The Book of Basketball” is, more than anything else, a testament to positive paternal influence? If not, the satisfying revelation that Mr. Simmons‘ book, at 700-plus pages, is the longest Mr. Gladwell has read since college redeems his effort.

Regular readers of Mr. Simmons‘ blog at ESPN.com — we are legion — know well the central role Mr. Simmons‘ father plays in the writer’s life and work. To be sure, Bill’s cohort (pace Gladwell; “buddies” in Sports Guy-speak) are prominent players. So prominent, in fact, that the cheap innuendo Mr. Simmons passes along about Wilt Chamberlain on page 73 seems rather ill-advised. Nevertheless, Mr. Simmons senior dominates “The Book of Basketball.” The Sports Dad is Bill Russell to Gus, House, JackO, etc’s Big Dipper.

The story goes like this: In the mid-1970s the Sports Dad, in a tough marriage, bought season tickets to the Boston Celtics and started bringing his young son to rickety Boston Garden. Bill began a lifelong love affair with the Celtics, from Havlicek, Bird and Parish through Lewis, Ellison and Pierce. If you can identify what’s wrong with that list, you know a something about the Boston Celtics and will enjoy “The Book of Basketball.”

If you can’t, it will be a tough read. Of course, you don’t need to know port from starboard to get through “Moby Dick.” Time will tell whether “The Book of Basketball” enters the canon, but appreciating a thing done well can be its own reward. Bill Simmons does well by the NBA. His affection for the Celtics, and the NBA, is deep. A great historian and shrewd analyst of pro basketball, Mr. Simmons is honest about the source of what can only be called his obsession: his father. The old man’s devotion to the Celtics seems no greater than to Boston’s other stalwarts, the Patriots and Red Sox. But Bill is gaga for the Celtics, and the NBA.

Sure, Mr. Simmons revels in the success of Brady’s Patriots, and he contributed to the battalion of sentimental books about the Red Sox championship in 2004, but his writing about other sports lacks the emotional, personal connection he has to all things NBA. That connection, on gaudy display in “The Book of Basketball,” comes from attending so many games at Boston Garden, sitting in his father’s lap and cheering on a lot of great Celtics teams.

The 1986 team is his favorite. That squad, led by Bird (elsewhere called “The Basketball Jesus”), won 62 regular season games and cruised through the playoffs before securing the franchise’s 16th championship. The ‘86 Celtics played a style of basketball Simmons, and most other fans, like best. They helped each other on defense, they rebounded, they passed and screened away, they ran well but not recklessly, they could all shoot. Simmons, in the book’s weakest section, calls this style of unselfish play “The Secret,” as if it is a rare commodity known only to a few NBA champions. It’s not. It’s simply good, fundamental basketball, accessible to anyone who laces up a pair of high tops.

A man of his time, Mr. Simmons seems to mistake NBA marketing for NBA reality. The good news is that advertising behemoths like LeBron James and, much to Simmons‘ chagrin, Kobe Bryant both know the poorly kept secret of winning basketball — teamwork. Otherwise, Mr. Simmons makes his case for the NBA as a legitimate member of America’s “Big Three” with baseball and football.

Part Bill James in his knack for creating statistical measurements out of thin air then drawing definitive conclusions, part David Halberstam in his eye for a revealing story, Mr. Simmons surveys the NBA’s history and attempts to place the league in the American grain. He mostly succeeds even if, or perhaps because, there’s plenty to argue about: Allen Iverson, a ball-hogging, post-modern version of World B. Free, is the 29th best player in NBA history because Bill Simmons likes to be in the building when Iverson’s team hits town?; Julius Erving is no better than the 16th-best player in NBA history??; The ‘86 Celtics were better than the 72-10, hardly challenged in the playoffs, ‘96 Bulls???

Mr. Simmons also reinforces unassailable truths. When the Pashto translation of his book comes out, sports buffs in Lahore will not wonder why Michael Jordan is the best player in history. And Mr. Simmons commiserates with those of us too young to have watched Pete Maravich, a prodigy created by his notoriously overweening father/coach, play basketball: “Dad recalled that there was usually one nationally televised college game a week in the 1960s and ‘you tuned in every weekend praying LSU was on.’” I recall my father saying similar words and smile at the memory.

It is best not to dwell on what Mr. Simmons only hints at — the effects of divorce on a sensitive, talented child. Likewise the idea that important aspects of the father-son relationship exist at a certain level of abstraction, and are often communicated via safe media like sports, is hardly novel. “Go Celtics!” in uniting generations of New England men, has made a fool of Freud. And Mr. Gladwell.

Seamus Quinn is a writer who lives in Northern Virginia.