I like Simmons for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he approaches sports like I approach international relations--with a passion and via the application of pop culture analogies. He is about five years younger than me, so most of his references play quite well (Karate Kid to name a very frequent one) with me. And he is exemplar of what one can do with a Poli Sci degree.
Anyhow, I read his book and enjoyed it immensely, although he admitted himself in one of his many, many footnotes (and, of course, the academic in me loves the explanatory/elaboratory/extraneous additions at the bottom of the page) that he not only had a Boogie Nights reference quota, but that he was exceeding it. In 700 pages, there is just a smidge of excess. But given that I am not a fan of basketball, it says something that I greatly enjoyed the book and learned a great deal.
The heart of the book is not so much the alleged Secret (that teams win when individuals focus on team achievement rather than individual goals, which he hits hard early with the comparisons between Bill Russell, the epitome of the former and Wilt Chamberlain, very much the model of the latter) but a desire to evaluate the entire history of the NBA--ranking teams, comparing players, and telling a lot of good stories about players, strategies, coaches, himself, drugs, and racism along the way.
Simmons identifies himself as a fan and not an expert or insider or journalist except he really is all three. He gets to meet a bunch of the legends, he has had the commissioner, David Stern, on his podcast, and the book ends in Bill Walton's living room. Still, it is a fan's perspective, where he provides many opinionated stands--some based on stats, and other based on Kareem being a ninny, despite his appearance in Airplane. Simmons proposes building a new NBA Hall of Fame as a pyramid, with each level occupied by a decreasing number of ever-better players with the top level "Pantheon" occupied by the very best (Moses Malone at 12, followed by Shaq, Hakeem, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Tim Duncan, Wilt, Bird, Magic, Kareem, Russell, and Jordan at the top). I have no expertise to suggest that he is wrong, particularly as one of the factors is: would you want to play with this guy? I am not sure that MJ surpasses Russell on this measure, since Michael was pretty brutal to his teammates until his baseball sabbatical.
So, what did I learn?
- That Bill Simmons must have watched too much Lord of the Rings, as his book keeps having additional endings--which would be his wine cellar team? Which team would be the best for taking on the aliens?
- That writing about something that is current and changing is dangerous. The 2009 season ended after the book was in press, so he could only make some modifications. And Kobe Bryant's performance changed Bill's perceptions about not only about the most divisive figure in basketball in the Aughts but also about Shaq.
- How racism played out in this sport. I have a decent idea of how segregation played out in baseball, but not so much in basketball. This is not just about the restriction on how many African-Americans per team in the 1950's (which causes as much confusion about statistics in basketball as it should in baseball's history), but also how a sport that came to be dominated by African-Americans is perceived by and marketed to whites in the US. Not just the Artest melee but how Iverson is still perceived and so much more. Indeed, one could read this book as a discourse on the influence of racism on modern American life. With jokes about male and female anatomy (Boogie Nights and then some).
- That I should watch more basketball.