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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

Great book about the best sport

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Clockwise from left: John Havlicek, Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell (below,) LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kobe Bryant. Clockwise from left: John Havlicek, Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell (below,) LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kobe Bryant.
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Here's why professional basketball is the best pro sport in the country and maybe the best ever.

(Yes, the best ever.)

1. Football is unnecessarily violent, you can't see the players' faces, the coaches are authoritarian workaholics with a penchant for weird military analogies, and every year - every single stinking year - the Browns reek. Plus, the college bowl system is a farce.

2. Baseball is dull and the games seem interminable unless you have nothing else to do; and this comes from someone who once loved the game. But steroid scandals, ridiculous salaries, the over-saturation of the sport on TV, and the fact that every year - every single stinking year - the Reds reek, have rendered the sport personally obsolete.

3. Hockey's OK, but, like soccer, the professional version seems somehow distant unless you have a powerful rooting interest, which I don't. I'd rather go to a Walleye game or a college women's soccer game than watch the professional versions on TV.

Then there's basketball, the glories of which are captured with the perfect mix of passion, intelligence, and humor in Bill Simmons' exceptional The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (Ballantine Books, 715 pages, $30).

Scheduled to be released Tuesday, not coincidentally the first day of the 2009-10 NBA season, Simmons' tome is a wild romp through the sport's early years when slow white guys dominated all the way through the cocaine-fueled early '80s, the eventual renaissance that occurred when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the game, and the current NBA, which is better than ever.

Simmons, who writes a column as "The Sports Guy" on ESPN.com, captures the visceral joy of a true fan. When he writes about the Celtics, he refers to them as "we" and just that simple use of a pronoun connects the author to the reader and delivers him to a bar stool next to you. He's the funny smart guy spinning stories about Isiah Thomas, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Bill Walton.

The ambition of The Book of Basketball is daunting. Simmons' sets out to rank the top 96 players of all time, explain why he hates the basketball hall of fame, reveal "The Secret" as told to him by Thomas around a topless swimming pool in Las Vegas, explain why Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain, and run through the history of the league.

Simmons pulls it off with a mesmerizing mix of statistics, wild pop-culture riffs, and tons of humor. Basketball is perfect for his approach because it doesn't have the "field of dreams" cachet of baseball or the over-hyped warrior mentality of football.

It's a game in which one-on-one matchups make it endlessly fun to discuss things like, who's better, David Thompson in his prime or Michael Jordan? Who's the greatest center ever? How great would Pete Maravich have been if he hadn't blown out his knees? What player from the '50s and '60s would most succeed in today's game?

Simmons tackles it all and creates his own pyramid-style ranking system for the best players ever. That he can write intelligently about obscure greats like Bailey Howell or Jack Twyman with as much heft as he does iconic legends such as Bird or Magic, is a testament to his research skills and, once again, passion for the game.

The other element that makes The Book of Basketball so entertaining is Simmons' sense of humor, which falls off every page. The guy is truly funny, whether he's describing Dave Cowens' anatomy during the "Tight Short Era" or in the endless footnotes he sticks at the bottom of almost every page.

If 715 pages seems like way too much on one subject, oddly it's not. Simmons isn't just writing about basketball - he's writing about people. And just as importantly, he's writing about his own relationship to the sport and what it's meant to him.

In his three page section on Bill Walton (Simmons ranks him 27th best all time, right between Rick Barry and David Robinson), he manages to compare the big redhead to Tupac Shakur and it works; their careers - at least as Simmons compares them - really are similar. In the process, Simmons deftly bridges the pop culture gap between a '70s sports icon and '90s rap artist.

Perhaps best of all - and what makes the NBA game the best professional sport in the country now - is that it is centers on the players and always has. Unlike football, with its cult of coaches and baseball with its endless strategy and second guessing, basketball is fast and to the point. Guys like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Julius Erving and Michael Jordan and Pistol Pete Maravich were all about personal expression and combining freewheeling individualism with a hyper-competitive streak.

Simmons understands that and makes the connection between the sport's past with the modern game, which is better than ever. Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul ... the list goes on, and virtually every night you're going to see something exciting and strange.

Which is why this season you'll want The Book of Basketball within arm's reach to help you understand what's going on. And next time you see Howard block a shot into the 10th row instead of tipping it to a teammate to start a fast break you'll find yourself muttering, " Bill Russell never would've done something that dumb."

Contact Rod Lockwood at:

rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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