In 2009 Bill Simmons (then of ESPN) published his second book, the aptly named, The Book of Basketball. “The Sports Guy” took his lifelong passion for basketball and turned it into an opinionated, sometimes funny and incredibly well researched book. Simmons’ column (then on Page2) was massively popular, but how would the public accept a 700-page book, solely dedicated to basketball? The public responded quite well, actually, debuting on the New York Times Best bestseller list.
When the book first came out I tore through it and felt like I had learned a ton. It instantly became one of my favorite books I had read. Recently, I started to wonder how it would read seven years later and with a more nuanced mind towards basketball history. Over the summer I decided to reread the book in chunks and, naturally, I had some thoughts.
As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up attending hundreds of San Antonio Spurs games in the era of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, the sections of the book where Simmons talks about going to Celtics games with his dad are especially memorable. Some of the stories are enlightening and really fun to read about. Forgive me if I am sounding elitist or just annoying, but you really do get a different experience out of NBA games when you can be there and sit close to the court. Hearing an assistant coach yell out instructions, watching two teammates bicker, or watching a guy tune out his head coach adds a visceral component to the experience that is absolutely fascinating. Most notable though, is the memories he has watching with his father. I, too, have a lifetime’s worth of those.
The meat of the book focuses on Simmons’ idea of the Hall of Fame Pyramid. Basically, some players matter more than others so how do you put them all into context? He eventually ranks the 96 greatest players of all time and places them in tiers on the Pyramid. If his Hall of Fame actually existed then it would be significantly more interesting than the current Basketball Hall of Fame.
Upon reread, I found the Pyramid section of the book perhaps even more impressive than when I first read it. The amount of research put into it is nothing short of totally admirable. You can argue about where Simmons ranks certain guys all you want, that is kind of the point, but you have to respect the sheer amount of work put into it.
After the Pyramid section the book starts to drag, just a tad. Simmons delves into which team had the greatest single-season of all-time and what single-season versions of players would you use to construct the greatest roster of all-time. I understand why he saves these topics for after the Pyramid, because he uses some of his own rankings for why certain teams were better than others, but it did feel slightly anti-climactic. I still really enjoyed these chapters, though, and burned through them pretty quickly. Again, you can argue on whether or not he is right, but he clearly gets you thinking about each topic.
A couple of the main criticisms of the book are its length and its sexism. I’ll tackle the length first. I don’t really care about that one at all. If something is great, or is a topic you really care about, then it doesn’t really matter how long it is. Plus, it kept in theme with the length of his columns back then. It takes time and pages to flesh out some of the broad topics he wants to cover. As for the sexism, on reread it is just bizarre. A lot of the sexist jokes just aren’t funny, even if they were acceptable. They honestly sound like a horny high school kid wrote them. Some of the pop culture references and comparisons with movies or TV shows are amusing and I’m sure were needed to spice up a 700-page book, but there really is no place for the sexism.
After all of that being said, I was reminded during my reread why it ignited my passion to delve even further into basketball history. Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball is a 700-page tome to the history of the game that, while flawed, is a must read for basketball fans and it belongs on the list of most important books ever written about the NBA.