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December 6, 2009

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Hacks on the hoops

PITY the sportswriter. Like the fletcher and the wheelwright, he seems fated to become that most tragic of figures - the craftsman rendered obsolete by technology. His predicament was ably summed up by one sports fan a few years ago: "Unlike the old days, we can watch every minute of every game on TV. We can watch the postgame press conferences. We can watch highlights and sound bites on ESPN. We can argue about the team with other fans on message boards and blogs. By the time most newspaper stories are published, the news always feels a little dated."

The fan who offered these thoughts is actually a sportswriter himself: Bill Simmons, who writes the Sports Guy column for But notice the "we." Simmons writes about sports from the fan's perspective. He avoids the press box, instead watching games from the stands or, more typically, on TV in his "man cave." And in the 12 years he's been writing as the Sports Guy. He's become, arguably, the most popular sportswriter in America, now scoring about 1.4 million page views a month.

Now Simmons has written "The Book of Basketball," a 700-page best-seller about his favorite sport that showcases the strengths - and, alas, the fundamental weakness - of this genre.

Simmons's passion for and knowledge of the National Basketball Association started at age four when his father, a Celtics season-ticket holder, began taking him to Boston Garden, where he watched a procession of basketball legends, most importantly Larry Bird. "I spent my formative years studying the game of basketball with Professor Bird," Simmons writes. Over time, he supplemented what he learned from Bird by marinating himself in hoops media: in his bibliography he says he consulted nearly 100 books and about 400 game tapes, along with "every relevant NBA feature from 1954 through 2000 in Sports Illustrated."

"The Book of Basketball" is a few hundred pages too long, but it's never boring. Because practically every page features Simmons performing feats like perfectly encapsulating the career of Patrick Ewing, the book is guaranteed to hold a reader's interest.

Chris Ballard admirably reaches for timelessness with "The Art of a Beautiful Game." Although he makes a few requisite head fakes in the direction of the new paradigm, this is a conventional work of sportswriting. Ballard, who writes about the NBA for Sports Illustrated, sets out to explain and deconstruct various facets of the game.

Ballard's book helpfully reminds readers why the revolution in sportswriting that Simmons kick-started was necessary in the first place. But it also highlights what's missing from that genre.

After reading each, I found myself wishing that Simmons, rather than merely holing up with a bunch of books and game tapes, had tagged along with Ballard on his reporting trips. After all, the strongest parts of "The Book of Basketball" are those that involved things Simmons experienced himself - whether as a youngster watching Bird at the Garden or as a journalist interviewing Bill Walton and Isiah Thomas. If these two books teach us anything, it's that even the best newfangled sportswriter can learn something from a conventional one - namely, that it pays to get out of the "man cave" more often.


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