Books: Nothing but Net

ESPN.com's Sports Guy opens his brain and dumps it into a 700-page book.

Only one man alive could have written a tolerable 700-page book about the NBA that includes a vignette about which current superstar most resembles the titular protagonist of Teen Wolf, so be thankful that he's the guy who wrote it. Your Teen Wolf is Kobe Bryant; your author is Bill Simmons, aka ESPN.com's Sports Guy, indefatigable Internet sportswriting superstar. Wildly prolific, ceaselessly witty, harmlessly crass, and generally wise, Simmons has built an everydude empire by triangulating the trashy pop-culture futon talk of Chuck Klosterman and the stats-heavy philosophizing of Malcolm Gladwell. Both are friends and occasional co-conspirators; Gladwell provides a foreword to The Book of Basketball (Ballantine/ESPN, $30) and admits it's the longest book he's read since college. Think about that for a second.At full power, Simmons will dash off three 10,000-word columns a week, from oft-derisive weekly NFL picks (versus the spread, of course) to Boston-centric essays (he's an only occasionally intolerable homer) to in-depth recaps of his trips to Las Vegas (way less tolerable) to daffy reader mailbags. If you can actually die from butt-numbness, Basketball will cause multiple fatalities: Its brazen ambition, as explicitly stated in one of hundreds of footnotes, is to induce the sentiment "I'm burned out on Simmons for like nine months—that book could've been 200 pages less." Yes. And yet. Part memoir, part revisionist history lesson, part nerded-out stat-head orgy, and part league-cheerleading manifesto, the book is a hilariously daunting labor of love wherein the love usually manages to overpower the labor. Nobody cares about the NBA—nobody cares about anything—more than this guy.Simmons begins with his Boston thing: It is 1973, and Bill's father buys two (dirt-cheap) Celtics season tickets instead of a motorcycle; soon, his decidedly white 6-year-old son is demanding that everyone call him Jabaal Abdul-Simmons, though Larry Bird worship inevitably follows. Cut to chapter one: a grown-ass Bill in Vegas, (topless) poolside at the Wynn, chatting nervously with none other than Isiah Thomas, a frequent (and justifiable) Sports Guy target who nonetheless deigns to reveal The Secret—the key to NBA success, and Basketball's overriding thesis. Basically, stats don't matter as much as heart, and individual glory must be sacrificed for the good of the team. Bird is the hero; Vince Carter is the goat.The rest of the book is not so succinct, so gird up for Simmons' thorough treatise on the NBA's evolution from 1946 to 1984, wherein the fledgling Association battles public indifference, the dull pre–shot-clock era, a quasi-legitimate rival league (the ABA), cocaine, and rampant racism (yes, even today). Then, a more insidery hypothetical-questions chapter—lots of "What if player X had ended up on team Y instead?" chatter, climaxing, naturally, with Portland's somewhat vexing decision not to draft Michael Jordan in 1984.Simmons' greatest talent and biggest writerly crutch are his incessant pop-culture references. Nothing on Earth cannot be blithely compared to a movie or TV show. And thus an exhaustive "Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain?" debate (Russell, of course) is awkwardly likened to the O.J. trial. And Kobe is Teen Wolf. And Dirk Nowitzki is saddled with yet more David Hasselhoff jokes. This is typical Simmons, but the major innovation here is he can a) swear, and b) make a whole lot more stripper jokes: His argument that Karl Malone totally didn't deserve the 1997 MVP is marred by a fairly risible tangent regarding a strip-club excursion ruined by "a mediocre Asian with fake cans."The stripper/pop-culture stuff reaches its simultaneous apex and nadir during the real heart of the book: Simmons proposes that a new NBA Hall of Fame pyramid structure be built in French Lick, Indiana—Bird's home base—then spends about 300 pages slogging through every player who should be in it, from #96 (Tom Chambers) to #1 (Jordan).Also, the cutesy stuff kills Simmons when he tries to turn serious: His passionate discourse on Allen Iverson, one of the modern NBA's most polarizing and fascinating figures, is torpedoed by both a wan shower-rape joke and, unforgivably, a Sex and the City shout-out.I know the perfect place to keep The Book of Basketball. And most of the time, that's a compliment.books@seattleweekly.com

 
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