Furiously patting myself on the back for sucessfully introducing Nick Hornby’s masterpiece, High Fidelity, to my 17-year-old daughter, I’ve decided to make a tradition of aping the protagonist’s habit of breaking down pop culture categories into top five lists. (See my post on Top Five Breakup Songs here).
And now that the depression of March Madness has dissipated, and the ennui of the NBA playoffs has set in, there’s no better time to pick up a great book (or five) about basketball.
Unfortunately, with the qualifiation of the word “great” in the sentence above, there are not many to choose from. While the literary elite has focused its attention on the diamond or the gridiron, hoops have been sorely neglected.
There are, however, some exceptional exceptions. Click on the book covers below to preview and/or purchase):
1. The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam
The best book on basketball — and in my not-so-humble-by-any-means opinion, the best book on any sport, exclamation point — celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. You probably have never heard of it, and I wouldn’t have either, had I not read Bill Simmons’ The Book on Basketball (See #3 below). The late, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Halberstam followed the 1976-77 Portland Trailblazer NBA Champs in the years following their title, through injuries (most prominently to star center Bill Walton), dissension, trades, discontent, and sometimes, triumph. Halberstam eloquently illustrates through his prose that basketball — as I argued in my inaugural RP post, “Why March Madness Matters” — is the ultimate communitarian sport: Players and teams only can achieve greatness when individuals put aside their selfish needs to advance the common good.
The best book on college hoops was born when John Feinstein was granted permission to spend the year with the University of Indiana Hoosiers and its coach, Bobby Knight, who is perhaps the most controversial and polarizing team leader of his generation in any sport. This uncensored examination of how the pressures of the sport affect a coaching staff and its mostly teenage squad of players captures brilliantly how big-time college sports has emerged to transcend (some will say, offend) the Athenian ideals of amateurism, and become a professional institution of its own. And remember — this was written after the 1985-86 season, in the infancy of the March Madness phenomenon, which many argue began with the 1979 NCAA Championship, pitting a different kind of hoosier — Indiana State’s Larry Bird — against Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Michigan State.
3. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons
To be clear (as admitted in the subtitle, “The NBA According to the Sports Guy”), this is really “The Book of Professional Basketball.” But despite mostly ignoring the finer collegiate variety of the game, this is a fascinating read — the kind of book that both provides tidy places for reading breaks, but also encourages you to read on and on. Simmons is at times hilarious, profane, and viciously jingoistic (He is a self-admitted Boston Celtic fanatic). The reader’s thirst for hoops information is fully slaked through reams of statistics, colorful stories, and witty pop-culture-laden metaphors, but Simmons also weaves through the book a wonderful narrative theme, borrowed from his favorite basketball tome, Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game (See #1, above): “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball…Teams only win titles when their best players forget about statistics, sublimate their own games for the greater good and put their egos on hold.”
4. The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith
The book that famously tarnished the uber-Man Michael Jordan myth created by Nike and the NBA (and discussed brilliantly by David Sirota in his new book, Back to Our Future), vividly captured the human side of the living legend: his temper tantrums, his biting critiques of his teammates, and his emerging super-sized ego. But the book also demonstrates how Jordan’s Zen-master coach Phil Jackson was able to direct Jordan and his teammates to emerge as one of the greatest squads in NBA history, by focusing the star’s attention (Here we go again!) away from personal scoring statistics to unselfish team play.
In this touching — sometimes even moving — confessional memoir, former Duke University All-American center, Christian Laettner, apologizes to college hoops fans everywhere for the arrogant attitude of his squad, of the Duke student body, and most importantly, of himself. A key chapter is dedicated to his asking for forgiveness for his famous foot-stomping of Kentucky Wildcat reserve Aminu Timberlake during the historic 1992 NCAA Regional Finals, and his admission that the Blue Devils’ NCAA Championship that year should be vacated and given to the Kentucky Wildcat squad that almost beat them during the Greatest Game Ever Played/Worst Moment in World History.
OK, OK. I might have made up one of the books above. (I told you this genre was bereft of classics!)
Please guess which one is the fake in the comments below. Or let me know what great hoops books I’ve missed.