You've read Will Leitch's essay about the Sports Guy. Now here's Charles P. Pierce, sportswriter and author, with a somewhat different take. UPDATE: A year later, Simmons responded to this review by scrubbing two mentions of Pierce from the paperback edition. More here.
I swear to Christ, there's a book in here somewhere, and probably a pretty good one. Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that I'm going to need diamond-tipped drill bits, Bruce Willis from Armageddon, that rock-eating thing from the original Star Trek, 5,000 pounds of gelignite, and several members of the Leakey family to unearth it. But I know it's there. It has to be. After all, The Book Of Basketball is at the top of The New York Times bestseller list, and it already has done the world the great service of dumping from that spot Mitch Albom's latest exercise in Flintstones Chewable Eschatology. And it may just be big and heavy and lumpy enough to keep Sarah Palin's upcoming tome, My Vengeful Screaming Vagina, out of the top spot. This volume already has done much good for American letters in general. In gratitude, we should do it the favor of digging down through its many layers to find the book itself, wherever it may be. Therefore, let us first decide what to discard.
1.) Malcolm Gladwell Should Shut Up: Anybody who writes, "The other part about being a fan is that a fan is always an outsider" is pretty plainly from Neptune. And that is not even to mention the fact that, as we shall see in a moment, Simmons long ago stopped being any kind of an "outsider," even though he may never shut up about the fact that, long ago, the editors at the Boston Herald failed to recognize his genius.
2.) I Am The Cosmos: Not my line. The late Molly Ivins used it in her epochal takedown of the egregious Camille Paglia. But it applies just as well here. Skip any passage having to do with Bill's gambling, Bill's taste in movies, Bill's friends, and Bill's ongoing wonderment that there are bars in this great land in which women take off their clothes for money. Also, lose most of the footnotes. You're not the cosmos, and you're not David Foster Wallace, either.
3.) The Deep End Of The Pool: Oh, Lord, reading Simmons on race and/or history is like watching those guys in The Wages Of Fear drive the nitroglycerin down the mountain. As to the latter, anyone who can claim, seriously, that "having Larry O'Brien for a boss and then Stern was like jumping from Single-A to the majors," and even leaving aside the fact that the simile doesn't make a lick of sense, needs to do more work. The assertion is completely ahistorical. It was O'Brien (along with Players Association head Larry Fleisher, who gets one mention in the book) who carved out the 1976 and 1983 CBAs that ultimately allowed the NBA to survive long enough to make it possible for Stern, who'd worked on both of them himself, to become, in Simmons's words, someone we "don't need to waste words blowing." (You first, Bill.) And, as to race, he dances frenziedly around the topic, even at one point ruminating that, "I'm not nearly black enough to write this paragraph" before proposing an altogether banal plan for his revamped Basketball Hall of Fame. I have no idea what he means by "not black enough," and I'd rather not try to figure it out, but it's an oddly timorous contention from someone who is fulsome throughout the book about his affection for David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game. It's hard to conceive Halberstam ever thinking he wasn't "black enough" to write about Billy Ray Bates, say, or John Lewis. And, as I recall, Halberstam was pretty much as white as Bill Simmons is.
Someone long ago should have pried Bill Simmons loose from The Phenomenon. (Read 700 pages of Simmons and you start typing in Capitals about Important things that you seek to Emphasize. It's like reading one of those Pamphlets from 1772, except that the Author's name is not spelled, "Fimmonf.") He is an amusing writer who saw the vast potential of the Internet before just about anyone not named Gates or Gore. He has carved out a remarkable career. However, and I know this may break hearts around this place — Good Lord, earlier this week, the former Landlord hereabouts wrote this, apparently while weeping over a portrait of Simmons in a heart-shaped frame — but that's the sum total of what he's done. He is not a transformational figure. He did not reinvent sportswriting, or even the way people write about sports, which is not the same thing. He didn't even really break down the formidable "kicked in the gonads" barrier as far as the language of journalism goes. (Did anyone arguing that point ever actually read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail? Hunter Thompson wrote some pretty wild stuff before he got to ESPN.com.) He didn't pioneer the use of pop culture reference in sportswriting; Andre Laguerre's Sports Illustrated did that and, anyway, Simmons's vaunted pop-cult knowledge is carved out of a very thin loaf of Wonder Bread. He did very little that was new. But he did it on the Internet. He created a gig for himself and sold it well. That should be good enough.
But, alas, he seems to have bought into a lot of this messianic bullshit, and it shows. Witness the celebrated — at least, among his fans — anecdote about his epic encounter with Isiah Thomas. It's 12 pages long. You can't miss it, unless you get sidetracked somewhere in Bill's hilarious account of playing drunken blackjack with his buddies in "Vegas." (Bill loves "Vegas." Reading Bill on "Vegas" is what the original Ocean's 11 would have been like, had Anthony Michael Hall been in the Rat Pack.) Simmons, it seems, had regularly ripped Thomas in his column, on the highly empirical grounds that the former Detroit Pistons star pretty much sucks worse at being a human being than he does at being a GM. Simmons spends a couple of pages trembling about the imminent confrontation — the kind of thing, it should be noted, that all those workaday sportswriters, the ones whom we are told Bill has rendered obsolete, have to deal with practically every day. When it finally ensues, well, this happens:
"We shook hands and sat down. I explained the purpose of my column, how I write from the fans perspective and play up certain gimmicks. ... He understood that. He thought that we were both entertainers, for lack of a better word. We were both there to make basketball more fun to follow."
Having established their mutual bona fides as Important Figures In The Glittering World Of Show Business, Bill and Zeke then talk basketball and Zeke imparts to Bill what Bill calls The Secret.
"The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball."
It was about at this point that the book flew across the room. Who the hell is this guy when he's at home, as my Irish grandmother used to say.
Jesus Mary, you spend your career rightfully pointing out that Isiah Thomas is a transcendent dickhead, and then detente is established because the transcendent dickhead, your Fellow Celebrity, hands you a threadbare bit of wisdom like that? (Hint: People have been ladling out that kind of hooey in reference to baseball literally for centuries.) You've got to be pretty damn easy for that scam to work. It's a wonder he's not doing his book tour swathed in aluminum siding.
I suspect that the actual book here involves one man's love for a game, and not himself. As an argument starter, this is the best one since Dave Thompson's I Hate New Music. (God, is Simmons wrong about Oscar Robertson and, in a shrewd cameo defending Wilt Chamberlain, Chuck Klosterman demolishes the basis for Simmons's entire anti-Oscar argument.)
And, most surprisingly, Simmons actually reveals himself to be a better than passable memoirist; the passages about his father are touching, and they hint at a family subtext that actually would have been worth exploring in a little more depth. The book ends with a warm pilgrimage to the home of Bill Walton. There is some real writing in this section. Unfortunately, it is interrupted by Bill's wondering if Walton will read his book and Walton's assurance to Bill that he will, and Bill's leaving the Walton manse, apparently on a golden cloud. You are not the cosmos, son. Get the fuck over yourself. But, prior to the universe's once again becoming Bill's personal hand mirror, there is something very, well, sweet going on here. Somewhere in these pages is a real book, and somewhere in that book is a very real heart and a very redeemable soul, and that just may be worth the digging.
Charles P. Pierce is a journalist whose most recent book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, will be out in paperback in June. He's also the author of Sports Guy; Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer's Story; and Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything.
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