bookmark_border7 Seconds or Less

Jack McCallum, who writes for Sports Illustrated, covered the Phoenix Suns for the entire 2005-06 NBA season for this book. The veteran reporter first accompanied the team in the preseason to write an article for his employer. This led to the idea of covering the Suns for the entire season and writing about the experience in a book. The title “:07 Seconds or Less” refers to the offensive tactics Mike D’Antoni installed with his point guard Steve Nash. D’Antoni believed that the chances of scoring were highest within the first 7 seconds of the shot clock, before the opposing defense had a chance to properly take their positions.

NBA Books - 7 Seconds or Less

McCallum especially spent a lot of time with the coaches, which provides interesting insight into the inner workings of an NBA coaching staff. He was present at important meetings and therefore almost like a part of the coaching staff. Above all, the different responsibilities and characters are described. Marc Iavaroni, who won a title as a player with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, was responsible for the defensive strategies of the offensive-minded team. Alvin Gentry brought long-term experience as a head coach in the NBA (and would also take over the Suns as head coach himself in 2009). Phil Weber was known not only for his boundless optimism and philosophical streak, but also for his girlfriends who made even Suns players green with envy. Dan D’Antoni, Mike’s older brother, previously coached in high school for decades and brought a view from outside the NBA.

The book focuses for the most part on the playoffs of that season. Each game in each series usually has its own chapter devoted to it. In the first round, they faced the Lakers with their lone star, Kobe Bryant. Although the Suns went into this series as favorites, they were already on the verge of an early playoff exit at 1-3. However, Raja Bell, who engaged in a feud with Kobe and defended him superbly, and his teammates turned the series around with three straight wins.

The regular season is covered in small intermediate chapters. For example, the focus here is on Amar’e Stoudemire, who had knee surgery just before the season began and only made three games before sitting out for good. His rehab and work ethic caused some frustration among teammates and coaches. It also details the past of some players, particularly leader and two-time MVP Steve Nash. Shawn Marion felt chronically underappreciated and let that come through repeatedly throughout the book. A secret star of the book is Eddie House, who is always good for laughs with his sometimes crude lines.

Afterwards they were able to defeat the other team from LA, the Clippers, in the second round, also in seven games. But exhaustion was a problem more and more. You can learn more about Nash’s physical problems in this book. The Conference Finals were against the Dallas Mavericks, Nash’s former team led by his buddy Dirk Nowitzki. After the first games of the series were close, the Suns’ physical and mental exhaustion became more and more noticeable. The Mavs advanced to the Finals, where they were to play a series that still leaves Mavs fans feeling uneasy 15 years later.

The book is especially interesting because it is very frank about the inner workings of an NBA team. McCallum also does not hide criticism and Shawn Marion is said to have been not too responsive to the author after this book. As an NBA fan, you usually only see the games and, if necessary, interviews in which players and coaches are mainly concerned with not saying anything controversial. You rarely get that kind of insight, and I kept noticing how I sympathized with this Suns team and coaching staff after the fact. Unfortunately, with D’Antoni, Gentry, Nash, Stoudemire and Marion, it was never going to be enough to win a title, but these teams shaped the NBA with their style of play like no other team at that time.

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Larry Bird – with the help noted Boston journalist and author Bob Ryan – wrote this book while he was still active. Since Bird missed most of the 1988-89 season due to injury, he had time to try out his literary skills.

Although a few chapters were added to Larry Bird’s career after the book was published (for example, his experiences with the 1992 Dream Team were still in the future at the time), this is a typical biography. It starts in Bird’s childhood and tells his first experiences with basketball and the steep rise in his youth. The early chapters are interesting and tell a lot about the problems and difficulties Bird and his family had to leave behind. Bird and his siblings grew up in poor circumstances and had to change homes frequently, sometimes living with their grandmother. The father committed suicide before Larry Bird played in his first game in the NBA.

The process of how Larry Bird came to the Boston Celtics in the first place is also interesting to read. He was drafted by them back in 1978 and decided to play one more year in college. The Celtics’ legendary general manager (and former title coach) Red Auerbach certainly took a risk here, as Bird could have re-entered the 1979 NBA draft, leaving the Celtics empty-handed. The contract negotiations before the 1979-80 season also turned out to be difficult and dragged on for a long time. Eventually however, Red Auerbach and Bird’s agent Bob Woolf were able to agree on a contract that satisfied both sides.

Despite some problems in the beginning, the relationship between Larry Bird and the Celtics was a success story from the start. In his rookie season, the Celtics won 32 more games than they had the previous season. Bird was named Rookie of the Year, well ahead of his rival and later friend Magic Johnson, and led his team to the Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. The Celtics won the title in just his second season. Prior to this title season, Boston drafted forward Kevin McHale and traded for center Robert Parish. The congenial trio shaped the franchise over the years and is still considered one of the best trios ever to stand on a basketball court.

What I would have liked to read more about was his relationship with Magic Johnson. The two rivals, who met on a big stage in the NCAA Finals before the NBA, later became friends after some bitter battles. Bird has few words about this, however. For those interested, check out Jackie MacMullan’s very good book When the Game Was Ours.

Bill Simmons, in his book The Book of Basketball, has a list of books he has read in the back appendix. He divides these into categories from “Influential Must-Reads” to “Not particularly helpful”. Drive he lists there in the “Helpful, not a total waste of time” category. One isn’t quite sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing at this point. Simmons, a longtime Celtics fan, is likely to have learned relatively little in this book that he didn’t already know about Bird.

Overall, the book is very interesting for basketball fans who would like to learn more about the history of Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics, and the NBA of the 1980s. However, it is not a must-read. It is written relatively soberly and does not polarize. You can tell that at this point – still during his active career – Bird didn’t want to piss people off. Maybe that would have looked a little different after his career, after all Bird was considered one of the biggest “trash talkers” in the league.

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bookmark_borderThe Book of Basketball

I had already briefly mentioned The Book of Basketball in the last (and first) blog post about The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Bill Simmons should be a household to most basketball fans around the world, be it because of this book or because of his podcast.

The book – at least the edition I own – is more than 700 pages long and probably contains at least as many footnotes. If you’ve listened to Bill Simmons’ podcast before, you’ll find his typical storytelling and humor here as well.

In the beginning Simmons tries to answer the question of whether Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain was the better player. Simmons is a self-confessed Celtics fan and has never made a secret of it. So it’s fair to ask whether he can even answer that question objectively. His Celtics fandom comes through here and there, and it’s not surprising that his verdict is clearly in favor of Russell. For all his commitment to Russell and the Celtics, however, he is able to justify this argumentatively. Wilt doesn’t come off too well in many places here. However, this does not only apply to him in The Book of Basketball.

After Russell and Wilt, there is a little NBA history lesson. Bill Simmons spans from the beginnings of the NBA to the league as it is today – although this is no longer current, as this edition of the book was published in 2010. This fact is interesting at some points throughout the book, for example when Simmons describes Dirk Nowitzki, who was still considered a loser at the time. A year after the book was published, he led his Dallas Mavericks to the first title in franchise history.

In another chapter, Simmons has a list of records that he considered more or less eternal. Two of them have since been broken. The Golden State Warriors won 73 games in the 2015-16 season, though Simmons didn’t imagine in 2010 that the then valid Chicago Bulls record (72 games in the 1995-96 season) would ever be broken. He also thought George McGinnis’ record of 422 turnovers in a season – then still in the ABA – was reasonably safe at the time, but James Harden, who had 464 turnovers in the 2016/17 season, had other plans. Russell Westbrook also had more than McGinnis in the same season with 438 turnovers.

Simmons then plays his popular “What-If Game.” Here he asks the question of whether and how the history of the NBA would have been different if a certain event had not occurred (or if it had occurred). He lists these what-ifs in order of importance. There are some classics here – for example, the now-famous 1984 NBA draft is addressed, in which the Portland Trail Blazers could have selected a certain Michael Jordan with the second pick, but chose center Sam Bowie instead.

After a shorter chapter on MVP trophies, which Simmons says were dubious to ridiculous, comes the main part of the book, which begins with the chapter “The Hall of Fame Pyramid.” Here Bill Simmons first addresses what changes he would like to make to the Hall of Fame. He then ranks – in descending order – what he considers to be the best NBA players of all time. He goes into such detail about each player that as a reader you can learn quite a bit about the history of the NBA and its greatest stars. This ranking list alone takes up pages 287 to 626, which shows how much effort and research Simmons put into this. Again, it should be noted that the book came out in 2010 and a lot has changed since then. LeBron James, who had not won a title at that time, finds himself ranked 20th here. Today, he is considered by most experts to be one of the top two or three NBA players of all time.

Simmons then wraps up this long book by ranking the best teams of all time and putting together a team he would pick to take on a team of aliens and save the world in the process.

The Book of Basketball is also sometimes referred to as the Bible of NBA books. Not without reason, in my opinion. So much information and so much background knowledge about the history of the NBA would otherwise have to be gathered in days of work in the depths of the Internet. I also found the humor (especially in the countless footnotes) very appealing.

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