To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss The Book of Basketball on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 27:30 mark:
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In his foreword to Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, Malcolm Gladwell compares the 700-page hoops compendium to Bill James' 1980s-era Baseball Abstracts. Just like James' catalogs of baseball arcana, the new book from ESPN.com's Sports Guy is a collection of personal obsessions masquerading as an encyclopedia. To read The Book of Basketball is to brave the depths of Simmons' brain, a tangle of pet theories, personal halls of fame, and anecdotes about the size of Dennis Johnson's member. Yes, Bill Simmons is Bill James with dick jokes.
The Book of Basketball's ascent to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list leaves no doubt that the bard of the beer-and-boobs crowd has also become America's favorite sportswriter. Simmons was the first hugely popular sports columnist who didn't have an editor, or didn't appear to have one. He's a creature built for and attuned to the Web, the inventor of the digressive, referential approach that's become the house style of the sports blogosphere. It took an old-fashioned hardcover, however, to unleash the true, unadulterated Simmons.
Simmons' basketball opus, his first book of predominately new material, is the Sports Guy at his best and worst. Over the course of those 700 pages and more than 1000 footnotes, Simmons' crazed genius and uncommon attention to the NBA stand out. The Book of Basketball mostly fulfills the writer's preposterous aim to relate the entire history of the league, lay out the philosophical underpinnings of winning basketball teams, and rank history's top 96 players. At the same time, The Book of Basketball exacerbates the worst tendencies of a writer who's never mistaken brevity for wit. Simmons luxuriates in the book's wide open spaces, spackling over his hoop thoughts with Teen Wolf analogies and endless references to the legends of pornography. The result is a shaggy, R-rated extension of the Sports Guy's ESPN columns, a frustrating mix of spot-on insights and aggravating shtick.
Consider the section on Moses Malone, part of Simmons' quest to identify the NBA's "pantheon." Simmons makes a surprisingly strong case that Malone, a guy most of us don't consider a hoops icon, is one of the top 12 players in NBA history. The Rockets and Sixers star was the greatest offensive rebounder ever, Simmons argues, thanks to his mastery of the "Ass Attack"—a maneuver in which he'd "sneak under the backboard … slam his butt into his opponent to create the extra foot of space he needed, then jump right to where the rebound was headed." This Ass Attack stuff is fantastic—an evocative, strange, funny, entirely apt sketch of Malone's greatness. Alas, in the same write-up, Simmons sees fit to list dozens and dozens of C-list celebrities who, like Moses Malone, "had one ploy that brought them inordinate success": Michael "Let's Get Ready To Rumble!" Buffer, Jeff Foxworthy, Vanna White, and on and on. He then decrees that Malone was "the Marilyn Chambers of rebounding. He was insatiable." Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bill Simmons' unfiltered internal monologue.
Simmons wouldn't be Simmons without the pointless asides. One of the Sports Guy's biggest flaws, though, is that he tries too hard to entertain: He'd be twice as funny—and a lot less repetitive—with half the jokes. Simmons clearly gets a rise out of mixing sex and sports. Three pages after the Moses Malone-Marilyn Chambers analogy, he says that Shaquille O'Neal is like porn star Peter North—"dominant, but not the best." He also likens Karl Malone to a "fake-boobed Asian stripper" and Jason Kidd to "a smoking-hot girl … wearing a 32A." (The small bra size is a reference to Kidd's poor shooting ability. It kind of makes sense in context.)
Now, I'm not opposed to juvenile humor—the joke about Dennis Johnson's endowment that I mentioned earlier made me laugh out loud. It was so funny, in fact, that I even called a friend to relate the story. But the sheer tonnage of blue humor here is a sign of self-indulgence, motivated less by the book's subject matter than by the writer's intoxication with his freedom from the confines of a family sports site. (In an interview with the Huffington Post, the Sports Guy explains that his ESPN columns are authored by "Network Simmons" whereas the book comes from the desk of "HBO Simmons.") In the end, all the boob and stripper punch lines do little besides create a bad impression of Simmons' readership—you're left with the image of a bunch of guys whose main interaction with the female sex comes in the porn videos they switch on after the Jazz-Hawks game.