Bill Simmons Writes Sports Tome in The Book of Basketball

In the foreword of The Book of Basketball, Malcom Gladwell relays a small anecdote about how Bill Simmons lobbied for the job of general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. For historical context, this was shortly after the time that Stephen Colbert began his mock campaign for President of the United States. The Simmons campaign made sense for the very reason that it’s the kind of thing a fan would do in his position, and it is perhaps not as insane as it sounds. Its incipience did presage the irony of David Kahn, a former sportswriter for The Oregonian; now presiding as president of basketball operations for Minnesota (then again, Kahn also has a law degree).

Perhaps we are quickly heading toward the day when a fan rises from the low ranks of the bleachers to be appointed as GM or as something like an ombudsman to veto dumb moves of the GM. The precedence is rising every passing year. Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner recently met with two disgruntled fans about the future of the team, while other team managers monitor the airwaves for raging fan reactions. Whether fans invariably think that they can do a better job at running the team, there is the token saying that wisdom can be found in crowds, like the proverbial monkeys at the typewriter collectively hammering out the works of Shakespeare, but as Simmons might say, it only takes one managerial monkey to tank the team.

That might explain why, in the strange world of the NBA, Bryan Colangelo can win NBA Executive of the Year while simultaneously making colossally corrosive decisions that threaten the future of his club. Simmons would probably not make a very good GM, although the current managerial landscape might make you think twice about it. But a sportswriter need not join or collude with the ranks of the sport he is covering just to aspire to greatness. Bill Simmons proves that he can do it just by being a sportswriter.

The secret of his appeal isn’t really much of a secret: it’s obvious from the first word of his column. He’s the guy who you would want with you while watching a game, bartering back and forth in the style of couch diplomacy, where fans formulate strange what if scenarios (he devotes an entire chapter to questions such as “What if Memphis instead of Cleveland landed LeBron?”) and various theories, like the Ewing Theory and Levels of Losing, that help tether together all of the unseen connections in the sporting world. He’s the guy who says, “I can do better than this GM,” and you might believe him, if you don’t think too much about it.

So it’s not surprising that his writing is without pretenses or affectations. He describes that a Larry Bird fight with Dr. J was like “seeing Santa throw down with the Easter Bunny”. In a recent column, he said that he watched Tim Thomas “stare at JumboTrons during timeouts like a stoned college student gazing into a fish tank”. His comparisons between Kobe Bryant and Teen Wolf are relentless. There is no end to pop culture references in sports writing, but most columnists come across like parents trying to understand their kid’s cultural infatuations. The writing of Simmons instead feels effortless, personal, and affable. The book is told in such a loquacious, conversational style that it’s easy to imagine this 700 page behemoth as a simple bar room talk over a couple of drinks.

Fortunately, the book also gives him license to unleash the barrage of barely concealed vulgarity and dirty jokes just hiding beneath the surface. At ESPN he must have been an ombudsman’s worst nightmare, not because he’s edgy and controversial, but because that’s the way a buddy talks to you when you’re sure that no one is listening. But in his case, he has to write as if everybody is listening, so some people may feel that he is in bad taste. I am not one of them. As Mel Brooks once said, “Madam, my film rises below vulgarity.”

Simmons is a notorious dyed-in-the-wool Boston Celtics fan and writes unsparingly about them, devoting an entire chapter to Russell vs. Chamberlain, but his thoughts and feelings should translate universally. He is almost unbiased about his bias: he quickly confronts his tendency to joke about and disparage certain players and teams. There is little delusion that you’re getting a writer who is doing it for anything other than good, harmless fun, since he is never one to sound angry or transgressive, no matter how serious the subject material.

Simmons describes the book as “about the NBA, how we got here, and where we’re going,” the moments and memories that define one man’s passion for the game, creating a kind of an NBA “roundball universe”, according to the book. In the process, he tries to settle old feuds and basketball debates that have been raging for decades.

Simmons speaks often of the way in which opinions change through time and receding memories, while conventional wisdom is obscured, and certain players are devalued or overvalued because of their lasting image. It feels like he is writing for a younger audience, an audience that he can transport back to the moment (or, perhaps, bring the moment to us in the present). For the older fans, his book is a chance to relive decades of NBA history.

Either way, his book is intended for serious sports fans; it’s a sort of Basketball Prospectus, because it is filled to the brim with facts and stats that belie a breathtaking amount of research and knowledge, written in the style of a sports writer like Rick Reilly. He cites eighty-two books during the course of his research, leaning heavily on writers such as David Halberstam and Terry Pluto, so that he can devour anything that will help him understand his subject matter.

There are more footnotes and discursions and digressions here than in a David Foster Wallace novel. A year by year recap of NBA history suddenly shifts to a list of unbreakable basketball records or best players turned worst broadcasters. That’s his motif, which works in a short column, but the book is kind of caught in flux: readers may think that he’s doing too much or far less than he could, depending on one’s perspective. Either it’s unfocused and sparingly mediated, or it’s densely-packed and laconic. In truth, it is both at once; his year by year recap stops at 1984, even though you want him to press forward, and yet he devotes 400 pages to the top ninety-six players of all time. Simmons sort of admits that his book is at once structure-free, so that a method to his madness materializes only at the end, while short enough to allow room for a sequel.

And so there is the sense that it is attempting to be love letter, biography, history book, and comedy tour all wrapped into one. Like M. Night Schyamalan, you get the idea that he’s simply trying to write down everything that comes into his mind, except that what he thinks happens to be really interesting, which makes The Book of Basketball a rousingly good read. So I must demure to Simmons: perhaps there is method to his madness, and it all comes together in the end, even if you’re not sure why.