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Buy "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy" by Bill Simmons

Updated on September 1, 2012

The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy--A Review

I was browsing in my local bookstore when a friend pointed out a book she was certain I would enjoy. She was aware of my love for basketball and was intrigued that the store displayed twenty copies of this book, rather than the customary two or three. I grabbed one from the stack, parked myself in a comfortable chair, and leafed through “The Book of Basketball—the NBA According to the Sports Guy” by Bill Simmons. Just reading the back of the dust jacket brought a smile to my face. The author described his purpose as “evaluating why certain players and teams mattered more than others.” How could I resist that? I threw myself out of the chair, sprinted to the checkout counter and sped home to devour my new book. I was not disappointed. Between nodding in agreement at Simmons’ bold comments and opinions about the league and laughing out loud at his hoops anecdotes, I realized I just bought the best sports book since Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls” was published, nearly twenty years earlier—and a book on the New York Times Bestseller List, to boot.

Most books about the NBA fall into one of three categories: the biography of a player or coach, one season with a particular team, or a historical analysis, usually slanted to favor the modern game and its players. Bill Simmons gives us the whole package in one book! He breaks down the teams, the seasons, and the players and coaches, telling us why each were significant within the tapestry of the NBA’s storied history.

This New York Times Bestseller is a witty and engaging look at the NBA in its entirety

Who were the greatest players?  The best teams?  Bill Simmons isn't afraid to voice his opinions on any topic related to the NBA
Who were the greatest players? The best teams? Bill Simmons isn't afraid to voice his opinions on any topic related to the NBA

Bill Simmons has written the best sports book in two decades

There are distinct sections to this book that covers different facets of the NBA and its history and each is well written and unique. The first quarter of the book dispels popular NBA myths and attempts to answer questions that have been asked for decades. He tells us the secret of what made Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan great players—in Thomas’ own words. Simmons devotes a lengthy chapter to Wilt Chamberlain, articulating his views on the Chamberlain versus Russell debate in all its facets. He tells us why Russell was a winner and Chamberlain was not, and debunks myths about Russell’s teammates, the lucky breaks Chamberlain supporters claim the Celtics received, and why Wilt’s statistical dominance was misleading. (I believe Simmons came down a bit hard on Chamberlain, but his reasoning is sound and entertaining.) Simmons attempts to resolve every debate about these two giants, once and for all!

The next component of his basketball bible is my favorite part of the book. Bill Simmons takes us on a journey through the NBA, year by year, pointing out the significant events of each season and their impact on the history of the game. He leaves out nothing in chronicling the NBA’s storied history, on and off the court: George Mikan’s early dominance and ill-fated comeback in 1956; the emergence of Russell, Chamberlain, and other great players in the ‘50s and ‘60s; Red Auerbach’s retirement and the birth of the ABA; the upward spiral of player salaries and the NBA/ABA merger; the infusion of talent in the ‘80s leading to his conclusion that 1984 shaped the modern NBA. This chapter isn’t just about players—Simmons discusses the NBA’s drug culture, the All-Star game, television contracts, and even how George Mikan set the course for two leagues by bungling the ABA’s negotiations with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No stone is left unturned in Bill Simmons’ search for the reasons why the NBA became what it is.

The most compelling chapter in the entire book for me, however, is Simmons’ 33 “what-ifs;” those forks in the road created by circumstance and fate that determine the course of future events. What if Detroit took Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic? What if the Mavericks re-signed Steve Nash in 2004? What if John Thompson never screwed up the ’88 Olympics? What if Wilt Chamberlain ended up on the Lakers instead of the Sixers in 1965? What if Len Bias hadn’t overdosed? The topics are lively and varied, and Simmons spares no one in his analysis of how things that didn’t happen changed the NBA as much as the things that did.

Simmons next broaches the subject of MVPs and the random, arbitrary way the NBA selects them. He categorizes the questionable award winners into groups, from “questionable but okay” to “outright travesty.” In the end, Simmons offers us the crowning achievement of his book: his five-level pyramid Hall of Fame. Simmons imagines a real, five-story pyramid (plus a basement) serving as a monument to the 96 greatest players of all time. Each floor is smaller than the one below it and features the best of the best—the players that dominated, changed, and ultimately ruled the game. In the basement, his specialty categories are recognized: the pioneers of the game, the greatest role players of all time, or individual record holders. After that, each level is dedicated to the men that made the NBA great.

Simmons doesn’t just imagine his pyramid, however; he tells you every player that should be enshrined in it, in order. That’s right; he provides us his list of the 96 greatest players in NBA history and tells us why he places them where he does. He compares individual and team statistics, eras, personalities and more to justify every last selection. It is a magnificent bit of research, analysis and persuasive selling, and in the end we discover who Simmons believes should occupy the top floor of his pyramid, all by himself.

To round out the book, he lists his top twenty NBA teams ever, followed by his choices for an all-time team. He justifies his picks with the same persuasiveness applied to his 96-greatest-players selections. His process is hard to refute, even if you don’t agree with him. He is respectful of older players but cuts them no slack. If he thinks Chamberlain dominated an inferior league that didn’t play defense, he says so. If he believes Michael Jordan annihilated inferior and undisciplined talent in amassing six NBA titles, Simmons tells you. He also provides solid reasons for every conclusion he reaches, and in the end, that’s why you have to love this book.

The author

Bill Simmons, known to millions as’s Sports Guy, is an admitted NBA junkie who has seemingly read every basketball book ever published, attended NBA games since his infancy, and produced scores of articles about the league and its players. This man lives and breathes hoops! The beauty of his work is that it’s about him nearly as much as it is the NBA. This book isn’t just a statistical comparison of players and teams pasted together to support arbitrary choices—it is also an invitation into the life of Bill Simmons. We’re allowed to sit with him as he chats with Isiah Thomas and Bill Walton about basketball excellence. We’re made to understand what compels him to like the players and teams he enjoys through what he saw, read, and personally experienced. We are even allowed brief glimpses into his home life and work habits—all in a way that keeps us laughing throughout. A statistical analysis has never been funnier!

The Book of Basketball—the NBA According to the Sports Guy” is written by Bill Simmons and published by ESPN Books and Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, (ISBN 978-0-345-51176-8) ©2009.

Note: The opinions represented here are those of this reviewer only and are not endorsed by the author or publisher.

2012 Update

I enjoyed "The Book of Basketball" so much I felt compelled to add it to my library of books available to my Kindle reader. It was one of the first purchases I made for my Kindle, and I read the book virtually in its entirety again in this new format. I had forgotten how opposed I was to the author's treatment of Wilt Chamberlain, but I smiled when I re-read his interview with Bill Walton. I appreciated the level of thought and understanding that Simmons and Walton offered in analyzing Kobe Bryant, other great players and eras, and the game itself.

I was pleased to note that author Bill Simmons continued to work on his book, changing a few of his Pyramid player ratings to reflect his continued deliberations on who made a difference in the NBA, and why. Only a true basketball fan and analyst keeps working on the book after it has been published. His writing style and humor holds up under repeated readings, and I highly recommend this book to any fan of basketball.


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