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 Bill Simmons spans from the beginnings of the NBA to the league as it is today – although this is no longer current, as this edition of the book was published in 2010.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.

Buy The Book of Basketball at Amazon


bookmark_borderThe Breaks of the Game

Anyone who has read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons has already become aware of The Breaks of the Game there. Simmons, who wrote the foreword in this edition of Halberstam’s book, called it the best basketball book of all time.

The Breaks of the Game

The book is about the 1979/80 season of the Portland Trail Blazers. That Halberstam chose that season may seem a bit odd at first glance. After all, the Blazers had already won the NBA title in 1977 and Bill Walton had already left for the San Diego Clippers in 1979. The Breaks of the Game however, is much more than the story of one season. Halberstam tells the story of the Portland Trail Blazers here and the story of the NBA as a whole. He always managed to find connections to the 1979/80 season and used them to derive little stories about the history of an entire sport.

Halberstam also uses his book for short biographies of individual players. Not only Bill Walton or Jack Ramsay are given a closer look, but also role players like Kermit Washington. Washington was associated at the time (and still is) primarily with a situation that permanently destroyed his reputation. On December 9, 1977, while still playing for the Lakers, he struck down his opponent Rudy Tomjanovich (who won two titles as head coach of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995) with a fist punch. Tomjanovich suffered such serious injuries that his life was in danger at times. Kermit Washington was considered a persona non grata in the NBA after that and slowly tried to straighten out his reputation. Halberstam shows a different side of Kermit Washington in “Breaks of the Game.” He describes him as a shy and sensitive young man, a stark contrast to his public image.

An important part of the book describes the end of the relationship between the Trail Blazers and their former superstar Bill Walton. Walton could have gone down in NBA history as one of the all-time greats if his body had not failed him. In his third NBA season, he won the title with the Blazers and was voted Finals MVP. A season later, despite already sitting out more than 20 games due to injury, he was voted regular-season MVP. His two All-Star nominations would unfortunately remain his last. In the period from the end of the 1977-78 season to the 1982-83 season, he made, in more than four years, only 14 games in the NBA. “The Breaks of the Game” is also the tragic story of one of the most talented players of all time, whose body was not made for the sport at that level. The breakup between Walton and the Trail Blazers was very painful; today it might be called a “mud fight.”

Halberstam also describes the sometimes strained relationship between former teammates and good friends Walton and Maurice Lucas after the split. Walton named his son Luke (who was an NBA player himself and later became head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings) after Maurice Lucas, who was only called Luke by his teammates.

Whether Breaks of the Game is the best basketball book of all time, as Bill Simmons wrote, is hard for me to judge. Simmons has probably read way more basketball books than me. But I can appreciate that assessment. For me it’s also the best NBA book I have read so far. This is not just a book about one season and one team, but much more. The individual character sketches are beautifully written and the historical background is very interesting.

Get The Breaks of the Game at Amazon