Nitpicking The Book of Basketball

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My wife bought me The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons this week, and I’ve been picking through it ravenously, like a jackal ripping at scraps of a carcass before the alpha predators show up. Bit of Isiah Thomas liver here. Some Jerry West tendons there. Scamper away into the shade and pant. Let me share my impressions.

I’m a longtime Sports Guy reader, so it should be conceded that I like Bill’s writing style, and I’m one of his readers who actually gets into his over the top, borderline self-indulgent, basketball research. And he’s got basketball research in spades in this book. Stats, interviews, references to actual game footage – he uses every bit of evidence you could ask for to back up his conclusions, which basically amount to a series of lists and all-time fantasy teams, the sort of thing you’d find in his columns or even on this site.

Altogether, I think this would make a decent textbook for teaching the history of the NBA if it wasn’t quite so pointed in its opinions (though it would be whole lot less entertaining). He does back up those opinions with a ton of… back up. But I’ve got to say he undermines his own logic with mini-mistakes that just stand out and force the reader to step back and question everything.

Before an interview with Steve Kerr, which he uses to decide the ranking of the 1996 and 1997 Bulls teams in his list of greatitude, Simmons refers to Kerr as a “starter” which is blatantly wrong. It’s bizarre for someone who speaks with such authority on the sport, the era, the team, and the season to make such a simple mistake. Ron Harper and Michael Jordan were the starters for that team. Kerr didn’t even start when Jordan was retired. BJ Armstrong did. He makes another obvious error in the same section when he brings up the expansion that helped those Bulls to win 72 games with only one MVP type player and one other All-Star. Yes it was an expansion year, but Bill tells us that Vancouver and Minnesota joined the league in 1996. It was Vancouver and Toronto (and Toronto actually handed Chicago one of their 10 losses that year).

Now I make mistakes. All writers do. And copy editors miss errors all the time in novels (I’ve run across some typos in this baby too). It’s just unfortunate to have factual errors of this nature being presented as evidence to back up points in the book. It’s not crucial by any means, and I still recommend the book based on what I’ve seen so far. Considering that I’ve only read a tiny portion of the book though, and that my knowledge of the league only dates back to the mid to late 80s, for me to have picked out and been bothered by any errors at all at this point is surprising and distracting.

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