Category: Grantland Writers

“The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy” by Bill Simmons Review

basketball

The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy

Author: Bill Simmons

Release Date: October 2009

Bill Simmons is an NBA super fan, and he set out to write the definitive Book of Basketball, settling arguments and ranking the top 96 players of all time. How did he do? First, Bill’s credentials: He’s a lifetime NBA season ticket holder, a long time opinion columnist for ESPN, Grantland, and the Ringer, and sometimes host of Any Given Wednesday and The Bill Simmons Podcast. My own credentials? I’m a lifetime Utah Jazz fan, long time NBA League Pass subscriber, and religious reader of any articles by Zach Lowe, Kevin Pelton or John Hollinger. I’m also a big fan of Bill Simmons, so I think I can be fair in evaluating his polarizing styles.

What Simmons got right: this book is written like a 700+ page version of his annual Trade Value column, so if you like his writing you’ll be pleased at the style of his prose. He also wrote some interesting sections on the History of the NBA through 1984 and some of the most honest writing about race in the NBA I’ve ever read. He obviously read a ton of older books about basketball, and has some great anecdotes and opinions from each players contemporaries. More than any other source he uses, the old magazine articles and books provide additional knowledge about NBA greats that I didn’t have prior to reading.

What Simmons got wrong: As much as it pains me to say, after reading 700 page of Simmons thoughts on the NBA, it’s questionable how much Simmons understands the game of basketball. Simmons does a great job of understanding players histories and personalities, but for the actual game of basketball you’d get a much more informed opinion from somebody like Zach Lowe on what makes a player great. Simmons routinely emphasizes one moments from a player’s career to justify calling them clutch or a choker, completely ignores longevity or distance between record holders and the next closest guy, and routinely forgets that the NBA is a team sport and players are stuck on bad teams sometimes. Simmons kind of acknowledges this with Kevin Garnett, but seems to grasp that Garnett was still the same player regardless of whether he ever came to Boston or not.

Simmons ranks Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time. That’s fine with me. He also talks about how two of the Bulls teams were two of the best six teams ever. Also, how nobody was beating MJ those six years. Logically then, the second best player of all time could be playing those six years, and not win a ring. Bill Simmons also puts Bill Walton on a pedestal for his career; Walton only played about 6 fulls seasons. Are you seeing the problems with his logic yet? Basketball is a team sport, and I’m sorry but Robert Horry should not be mentioned in the same sentence with Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. Also, by the same logic, no way Bob Cousy should be ranked so high if Bill Russell was as amazing as Simmons is saying.

So yeah, I got frustrated at times with the double standards for Bill’s guys versus everybody else. The writing was still fun, with plenty of great footnotes tying the situations in the game to popular tv shows, movies and other pop culture (even Ric Flair made two appearances), and I laughed a few times out loud. But as an expert opinion settling debates? Sorry, nothing here I trust to pull out during an argument with another NBA fan.

Random bits:
A particular pet peeve was Simmons basing his opinion on players from the times they’d come to Boston.

In the Nowitzki chapter (written before Mavs won title) he stoops for Dirk because he crosses a ’42 threshhold (points plus assists plus rebounds average for playoffs) and explains how that puts him on elite list that overruns his prior playoff chokes. On the list twice? Karl Malone, who gets dinged for the memorable play with Jordan in 98 finals. Nowitski also gets dinged for never having won a title, which of course he did shortly after the book came out. Again, he was the same player before and after.

Celtics like Dave Cowens, Sam Jones and Bob Cousy were ranked way too high for team accomplishments.

This book had some of the best discussions of race in the sport that I’ve ever read.

Note **I wrote a much longer review for this one, but then my Firefox window closed through some keyboard shortcut I wasn’t aware of and I can’t find a way to recover what I had written.**

3-star

 

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“Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos” by Jonah Keri Review

up

Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos

Author: Jonah Keri

Release Date: March 2014

“Up, Up and Away” is the latest entry in a series of books which I’ve been reading based on the shared former employer of their authors. For a few years, I’d check the website Grantland every day on my lunch break and basically click on anything non-Football related under the (usually correct) assumption that whatever the article was about I’d either learn something, or be kept entertained for its duration. Around this same time, I discovered Twitter which further allowed me to follow authors and reporters that I enjoyed and not only become aware the instant they wrote a new article, but also their humor and interests outside of their writing. With Grantland having closed up shop, several of the writers have relocated to The Ringer, while still others are easy enough to track in their new writing gigs through Twitter. Several of my favorite authors from the website have since (or previously) published full novels, which I’ve tracked down. That’s a long way of explaining why I read a book about the Montreal Expos, a baseball franchise that I never cared about or had any interest in.

To be clear, I love baseball. Along with basketball, it’s my favorite sport. While definitely a Cubs fan, with the exception of the Cardinals and Yankees I don’t really dislike any franchises and have a pretty solid knowledge of all the teams and their best players throughout history. This includes trips to both Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame and Museum and Kansas City for the Negro Leagues Museum, and trips to ballparks in cities from Florida to Arizona and most everywhere in between. So, why did I not appreciate this book more, when it’s about a sport I love, by a talented and knowledgeable author that I have read and enjoyed before this? I have several theories, and a few personal reasons that detracted from the overall enjoyment.

My biggest theory regarding why the book didn’t work was its scope. Telling the history of a franchise, from creation to relocation in 400 pages means some things will get glossed over and every instance the author chooses to focus on becomes paramount. Here, Keri did tons of interviews with former players and personnel but in most all instances the resulting inclusion is just a line or two of supplementary material that left few moments a reader would be sure to remember long after reading the book. Where a long conversation with Felipe Alou was referenced in the acknowledgment section, I can’t help but think the reader would have benefitted (and preferred) more of that conversation framed together at once than several one sentence comments sprinkled throughout the book. Likewise, Keri’s inclusion of stories of several game recaps from games he personally attended with friends serves the purpose of bringing a fan element to the book, but could have (should have) been replaced with expanded information on player and personnel trades/departures and additional financial information to support or refute his position on the importance of the team in the community.

Perhaps narrowing the scope of the book to just the playoff team or just the exodus of the Expos would have been more enthralling for the reader. While there is a lot of information covered here, the relatively small amount of time spent on each era ends up making this a resource somewhat comparable to Wikipedia (which is a great resource, but not what I’m looking for when purchasing a new book).

Another possibility for why this book didn’t work as well as it could have was the inherent dichotomy between the subject matter and the author’s attitude. Keri obviously loved the Expos and the new afterward on the book was tacked on to show all the other Montreal citizens who felt the same way. A book just highlighting something worthy of that admiration would have made sense, but here a complete history of the team leaves Keri unable to excuse the awful facilities, the rampant drug use, the multiple losing seasons, and final exile of the franchise. The warts and all approach is historically accurate, however a non-Expo fan is not likely to come away from the book with a new appreciation for the former franchise. The closest I came to changing perspectives on the team for the better was in reading Pedro Martinez’s comments following his World Series victory. Again, more focus on the individuals and their recollections of the legacy of the team might have improved the read as opposed to an overly brief complete history that we are left with.

Finally, as much as I enjoy Jonah Keri’s writing, as a disciple of the Bill Simmons school of writing he is likely to alienate some of his readers with his own personal beliefs coming through in his writing. With a column online, or his twitter account, you kind of know what you’re getting, but for the random reader picking up his book it can be a bit objectionable. At times I was reminded of the individual at work who begins telling you their political views in hushed tones with the expectation that you must surely agree with them. I’m used to ignoring Keri’s views on legalization of drugs, PED’s and discounting lucky hits from MVP candidates online, but while reading his book more of the same prejudices came out. It’s clear he sides with the players on labor issues, hates Bud Selig, and believes small ball strategies are inherently wrong. In an article putting forth those views he can defend them and put forth an argument the reader can accept or reject. Here though, the views were usually included with either no supplementary information, or just enough to give the worst facts against his target with no balance or attempt at objectivity for the other side. Just one more hazard of writing about a very broad topic in a short amount of space.

So I didn’t care for this book. Keri’s still a talented columnist and seems like a good guy online. I’m sure I’ll also check out his other book about the Tampa Bay Rays as soon as I track down a copy of it.

2-star

“Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” by Mark Harris Review

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Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Author: Mark Harris

Release Date: January 2009

I’m embarrassed to admit something, but first some background info: My friends and family know I love movies. Beth and I watch a new release every weekend and have for about 5 years now, but we also own tons of dvds and watch them regularly as well. Our viewing isn’t confined to genre fare (although we happen to love horror, sci-fi, western, etc.) or American (Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, etc. are all well represented in our home), and most years we even try to see all the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. My favorite actor of all time is probably Paul Newman, and he was nominated for Best Actor in one of my favorite movies ever, “Cool Hand Luke” in the year 1967, and “The Dirty Dozen is another of my favorites released that year. So, my confession? I’ve never actually seen “The Graduate,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” or the original versions of “Dr. Dolittle” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in their entireties.

I mean sure, I’ve seen the ending of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Graduate” enough times to instantly recognize when they are being parodied by “Wayne’s World II” or whatever else is referencing them. Likewise, I know who Mr. Tibbs is, and I’ve seen the remake of “Dr. Dolittle” and probably watched most of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in various intervals while my mom’s had it on tv. However, none of the films had been a must see for me because they were always around, or replaying on tv somewhere. Why should I sit down and commit to a film where I already know the ending, one that’s been spoiled, or spoofed, or recreated in homage in twenty other films while I could be watching “Tremors” on USA again?

“Pictures At a Revolution” is a microhistory of film in 1967, with a recurring thesis statement that it was the year the New Hollywood ascended and Old Hollywood was left behind. New Hollywood types like Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Mike Nichols became rich and successful in the industry, while others like Jack Warner, Sydney Poitier and Spencer Tracy either peaked or made their final imprints on that same industry. The five movies chosen by Harris to focus on are the best picture nominees for that year, which opens up a whole other can of worms. Harris writes the book from an objective perspective, sharing critical reviews by critics from 1967 to show how films were received. The result is that “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and “Dr. Dolittle” are considered failures compared to the other three films, and less deserving of their nominations (Dolittle in particular received it’s nomination through some shady studio lobbying/bribery). Many of the best anecdotes in the book are from the troubled “Dr. Dolittle” production. The end result is the biggest negative I can say about this book is that by limiting it to the best picture nominated films, I was left wanting to hear more about the “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Camelot” and other productions that were referenced as taking place. A film like “The Whispers” is one I know nothing about, but critics seemed ok with somebody winning Best Actress and that’s all I can remember about that film now that I’m done with the book.

Those are quibbles about a really fantastic book though. One twice as long about the entire industry in that year would have been great in my opinion, but as it stands, this book reads like “Project Greenlight” in studio and independent American cinema, and that’s a great thing. Harris has always been one of my favorite Grantland writers (RIP, guess I’m reading Vulture now) for his ability to take subjective topics like accolades and provide context for how the nominating decisions are made and what they mean. Likewise, his knowledge of box office data is second none, and he shows off both areas of expertise frequently in this book. (Nick Hornby also frequently cited this book as one of his favorites in his “Ten Years In the Tub” collection of articles for the Guardian that I recently finished.) I understand his next book is a biography on Mike Nichols, which I’m slightly disappointed in as he really seems to work best when comparing big ideas. While Nichols was an interesting cog in this book, his story seemed less interesting than that of Poitier, Hepburn, Jewison or Beatty to this reader.

This is highly recommended for fans of film, or great non-fiction storytelling in general.

5-star

“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team” by Ben Lindbergh Review

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The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team

Author: Ben Lindbergh

Release Date: May 2016

I’d describe this book as a less accessible version of Moneyball for the general public, or perhaps a more realistic version of Moneyball for hardcore baseball fans. Instead of focusing on a Major League Baseball team, “The Only Rule Is It Has to Work” is the story of the Sonoma Stompers, and Independent League team with almost zero budget in a league roughly ten leagues away from the majors. I was familiar with Ben Lindbergh from Grantland, but not Sam Miller so I was a bit worried when the premise of each writer alternating chapters was implemented. Overall it provided an interesting narrative with different viewpoints, but if I have one criticism of the book it’s that some times I would have liked to read both authors thoughts on a particular point and was left with only one (this is particularly true with the epilogue).

Overall though this was a fantastic read. Numerous ball players you’ve never heard of and will never hear of again become interesting characters as their reasons for being in the league (and chances of being promoted for it) are all unique and at times depressing, hopeful and even funny. The managers, Feh and Yoshi are also treated fairly over the course of the book, with their strengths and weaknesses admitted to even when disproving the “wisdom” of the writers. Although the authors admit to not being able to accomplish all they set out to do the reasons for that are understandable particularly with the limitations on personnel, finances and other resources. The book culminates in a one game winner take all situation that also shows why sports books and movies are often so successful in keeping the reader/viewer invested.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this for non-baseball or even casual baseball fans. But for anybody that’s ever read an article on why one player is better than another or enjoyed drafting their own team on a video game or a fantasy league, this is a must read.

5-star

“Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me” by Steven Hyden Review

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Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

Author: Steven Hyden

Release Date: May 2016

I found myself enjoying this book for what it was (the stories of why different musical artists have feuded, and what that means about society and ourselves) but also being a bit disappointed by what it wasn’t (a comparison of the two bands, and who is the winner). Most of the fun in arguing about music is elevating one artist/album/song over another, and while this book had some of it, I would have preferred more.

Enough with the criticism though. Overall Hyden brought his easy writing style and vast knowledge of many different areas to make rivalries I didn’t care about (White Stripes vs Black Keys for instance) interesting enough to read about.

For his next book, I suggest he brings his overrated/underrated column to the next level with deep dives into band discographies.

4-star

“The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed” by Shea Serrano Review

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The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed

Author: Shea Serrano

Release Date: October 2015

I love music, but I’ve had a hard time finding rap music that I really enjoy. Besides some classic stuff (RunDMC, Public Enemy, Digital Underground) I only knew a few guys that I couldn’t stand (hello Ja’Rule) and a lot that I didn’t know very well. I thought this would be a good book to introduce me to some variety in the genre and have a few laughs, with the writer being one of the funnier Grantland alumni.

Having finished the book, I think it succeeded in introducing me to some better songs in the genre, but didn’t exactly blow me away in terms of variety of songs chosen. Ever single year, the song of the year is a male vocalist, and most of the variety then comes from what the content of the song is about, but a few of them are pretty redundant. For example, one rapper will be very important for making rap from Atlanta main stream, and a few chapters later, the rapper will be picked for being from Texas and making southern rap mainstream, and this is all built off of the Tupac/Notorious B.I.G. rivalry of east coast vs west coast. This is expanded to their proteges like Snoop Dawg, and all of a sudden 1/2 of the songs in the book are just about bragging about the singer’s geography.

The humor was great though, I laughed a lot while reading it. In particular, when Shea Serrano tells stories from his youth about being allowed to say ‘hell’ while rapping along to Will Smith or his two real life experiences meeting pimps I felt more like I could relate to the music. It also made me realize that most of Serrano’s fandom was ingrained from a young age, and that likewise I’ll probably never find something in the genre I enjoy more than the aforementioned 80’s hip hop groups. Between learning that, and that Ice Cube was actually a pretty great rapper, reading the book was a net positive overall.

4-star