November 17, 2009
BDL Book Review is a new feature in which our main man Devine — an honest-to-God journalist most days, a fibbing-to-Shamgod blogger others — reviews, well, basketball books. This week: Chris Ballard's "The Art of a Beautiful Game."
Chris Ballard shows the reader his cards pretty early in "The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA." On page 4, to be exact.
After an introductory anecdote about getting schooled in a pickup game by former Mavs and Pistons great Mark Aguirre, the veteran Sports Illustrated writer describes what follows as "a celebration of the game and those who play it at the highest level, the players for whom it is truly both an art and a science."
On that score, he definitely ain’t lying. Each of the book’s 12 chapters focuses on parsing out a specific element of what can make basketball and its greatest practitioners so engrossing and vital. From front to back, it’s a paean to the game — as well as the myriad games within the game, from the in-the-paint struggle to clear the glass to the between-the-ears battle of a shooter at the stripe — written by an utterly smitten dude.
(An utterly smitten dude whose gift with the pen produces epic wins like calling Aguirre’s low-post game a "Nor'easter of Ass" and comparing Marc Blount’s attempts at rebounding to "a kid playing Marco Polo and grasping for unseen prey." Such great heights help cushion the fail of one of the more heinous similes in recent memory, pinched off during Ballard’s recounting of a trip to Bradenton, Fla., to train with David Thorpe at IMG Academies: "Even though it is fall, the air is as heavy as a lover’s breath.")
At times, though, as the big heart of Ballard’s book beats from preface to postscript, you might find yourself feeling like the brain — that subtitular shoutout to "the thinking fan" — has kind of gotten short shrift. The really thought-provoking postulations in "The Art of a Beautiful Game" sometimes seem double-teamed by summations that don’t really get the synapses firing.
In the chapter on dunking, for example, one of Ballard’s more interesting suggestions — that basketball-as-art-form might be "entering the jam’s postmodern period, when the shot itself no longer evolves but our feelings about it do" — is followed quickly by some shallow throat-clearing ("Sometimes a dunk is more than a dunk") and a meandering discussion of whether or not Baron Davis’ monster slam on Andrei Kirilenko late in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals "mattered." (To be fair, the reverse also takes place. Later in the book, a breakdown of Steve Nash’s(notes) pure point-guard skills features a ludicrous departure into the Sun’s propensity to give teammates high-fives that are "more of a five-digit pat on the back." That’s soon redeemed by an insightful comparison of Nash’s leadership style to the operational tactics of an effective CEO.)
At issue, really, is the definition of the "thinking fan." While the term doesn’t necessarily have to stretch to include the breed of fan thirsty for the post-grad hoops ontology of FreeDarko or the NASA math of the various advanced statistics sites, the meaning offered here seems a bit narrow. Do you need to be an especially thoughtful basketball watcher to grasp the premise of the book’s opening chapter: that Kobe Bryant(notes) is mad competitive? Or that such a killer instinct — as Ballard calls it, a "freakish compulsion" — can’t really be taught ("If so, Eddy Curry(notes) would be a six-time MVP, and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his Hall of Fame induction")?
Similarly, does it take a keen basketball IQ to deduce that the most important thing for a shooter is confidence — "whatever makes a shooter believe he’s invincible"? Or to understand that the reason the game appears effortless to the NBA’s elite is because they’ve worked their tails off to get their bodies and skills in peak condition? I mean, in 2K9, we hold these truths to be self-evident, right? In "The Art of a Beautiful Game," those givens are often treated as destinations, which might frustrate readers eager to use them as starting points.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no validity to the claim that this is a book for thinking fans. There’s an awful lot of great information in "The Art of a Beautiful Game," and much of it deals in nitty-gritty nuances.
Detail freaks — you know, the kind of cats that dig on Kelly Dwyer’s more angular riffs — will love reading bits like Kobe’s breakdown of a flaw in Tracy McGrady’s(notes) floor game (the Mamba says T-Mac isn’t good at coming back to the ball after he’s given it up, making it easier for an active defender to deny him possessions). Schadenfreude-minded stat junkies will enjoy learning that nearly one of five shots taken by Reggie Evans(notes) during the 2008-2009 season was rejected. Technique purists will appreciate the analysis of Ben Wallace’s(notes) talents as a "lateral" rebounder with a gift for jumping to the carom rather than going straight up and reaching for it.
There are also plenty of fun little accents and drop-ins that spotlight Ballard’s sharp reporting skills. Fans of jokes, absurdity and MTV’s Oddities will be pleased to learn:
— That Damon Jones(notes) nicknamed former Milwaukee Bucks teammate Michael Redd(notes) “Bombs Over Baghdad” (“Sometimes he kills the enemy and sometimes he kills the civilians. And we [Bucks players] are the civilians”);
— That Yao Ming(notes) loves U2’s “Desire” so much that he doesn’t feel comfortable listening to it while behind the wheel (“I begin to drive too fast,” he says);
— That French media dubbed Vince Carter’s 2000 Olympic evisceration of Frederic Weis “le dunk de la mort” (“the dunk of death”); and
— That at the age of 14, the number one item on Shane Battier’s(notes) list of goals for the year was “Building a giant city out of Legos.”
Such wonderful grace notes appear throughout "The Art of a Beautiful Game" and would make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t include info on stuff like the drill Steve Kerr practiced to get comfortable with shooting as soon as he came off the bench.
It’s a sweeping, passionate book, the equivalent of a really good undergrad course on basketball theory. It’d be totally satisfying, if only the cover didn’t have you kind of hoping for a master’s class.