The Evolution of an Idol
In August 2001, I fell in love with Bill Simmons.
Let me clarify.
In one of his early “Sports Guy” columns for ESPN.com he exquisitely murdered Summer Catch, an alleged baseball movie starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jessica Biel’s breasts. I was hooked, and began looking for his columns. Soon, I started to crave them. I had never read a sports columnist who married sports and pop culture, who wrote the way I thought, not in newspaper speak. The man was a revelation: There was a place for the fan as sports columnist, and Simmons was the perfect pioneer—funny, wickedly opinionated, and blessed with common sense.
It turns out that I was not alone in my love of the Massachusetts native. His massive popularity contributed to an expanding universe of sports blogs written by fans. Simmons even found time to put together a 2005 best seller, Now I Can Die in Peace, a collection of previously published essays (with copious footnotes) covering his tortured relationship with the Boston Red Sox.
I remember getting a Barnes & Noble gift card in October 2005 and racing to a store that same day to pick up a copy. Holding that book, I felt a wave of paternal pride. My boy had done it. With the release of Simmons’s second book, The Book of Basketball, I have mixed feelings. He’s my boy, and always will be, but he now belongs to the public. The same guy whom I revolved my Friday lunch break around gets a nifty foreword from Malcolm Gladwell. New York magazine enlists a distinguished panel to dissect the book, including Jonathan Lethem and Sherman Alexie. Acclaimed sportswriter Charles P. Pierce goes on Deadspin.com to ravage the book, doing everything but putting out a contract on Simmons’ family. The book lands atop The New York Times bestseller list. What the hell happened?
Simmons realizes his new status. Yes, the book is important—I can’t remember any basketball book having this kind of crossover appeal—but it feels important, notably its heft (700-plus pages) and its ridiculous title and Monty Phytonesque cover (reminiscent of his last book) featuring a God-like finger balancing a basketball in front of a heavenly background.
The best way to look at Simmons’s opus is as several long pieces—one on the NBA’s all-time best teams, one on rebuilding the hall of fame, one comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, etc.—connected with the central theme of “the secret” behind great teams, which is basically teamwork and selfless behavior.
I devoured the book, but that’s because it’s by Simmons (he could write a book of Larry Bird-inspired haikus, and I’d buy it) and it’s about basketball (my longtime passion). Cover the book in chocolate sauce, and I’d be set for life. Simmons throws himself into arguments, using books and articles and game footage and memories to explain why certain players matter. He eschews nerdy analysis and fan-boy rants for clarity, passion, and wit. A player like Adrian Dantley—who at 6'3", survived on inside moves and foul shots—has been obliterated by the basketball camp assembly line. Moses Malone was great at rebounding because he mastered an unheard of skill: using his ass to get position. Kevin McHale’s dazzling array of post-up moves was akin to combination dinners at Panda Express. Simmons also shows the truth behind the statistics. Oscar Robertson and Rick Barry put up gaudy numbers, but their corrosive personalities obliterated any chance at them becoming NBA ambassadors. In his chapter on Chamberlain versus Russell, Simmons illuminates Chamberlain's weakness. He “cared more about statistics than winning,” so much so that he was obsessed with not fouling out, a goal that doesn’t correlate with playing passionate basketball.
Putting my idolatry aside for a second, The Book of Basketball doesn’t live up to the hype it’s generated or to Simmons’s presumably lofty expectations. A truly important book appeals to all readers, not just basketball lovers or fans of the author. Two of Simmons’s favorite books, Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot and David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, are better options. I’d never recommend Simmons’s book to non-hoops fans; the minutia here will make them check their bookstore’s return policy. That makes The Book of Basketball appearing anywhere on the Times’ bestseller list an astounding achievement.
Also, it’s hard to establish why Simmons is a basketball authority since he’s writing from the fan’s perspective. Isn’t that at odds with being an expert? Isn’t that more the domain of a longtime basketball writer like Bob Ryan, who’s seen more players in person than just about anyone? That balance looks even shakier when Simmons admits that some of his player rankings (which take up several chapters) will change. Footnotes, a habit he has to curtail soon, promising revisions, and offering apologies don't help.
What makes Simmons a wonderful columnist doesn’t translate to book writing, especially when those quirks occur over 700 pages. Examples: the “hey, I’m a regular guy like you” shtick, the name-dropping (e.g., Matt Damon, Michael Jordan, Kate Bosworth), the cutting and pasting of material from past columns. Simmons’s book is essentially a collection of really long columns. It’s clear that he’s established his own style, and that he’s not budging from it. And why should he? He’s become an Internet titan with over one million Twitter followers and a bestseller that’s caught the public’s attention.
That power should provide the freedom of opportunity. Simmons should use his next book to do something truly important, not just offering super-sized portions of the same thing, regardless of how great it is. Simmons has redefined the sports column; he can redefine the sports book.
What can I say? I’m still in love with the guy.Books mentioned in this column:
Now I Can Die in Peace: How The Sports Guy Found Salvation Thanks to the World Champion (Twice!) Red Sox by Bill Simmons (Ballantine Books, 2009)
The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons (Ballantine Books, 2009)
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2009)
The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey (Mariner Books, 2004)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.