ALSO BY BILL SIMMONS
Now I Can Die in Peace:
How the Sports Guy Found Salvation Thanks
to the World Champion (Twice!) Red Sox
For my father and for my son.
I hope I can be half as good of a dad .
Not long ago, Bill Simmons decided to lobby for the job of general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. If you are a regular reader of Bill’s, you will know this, because he would make references to his campaign from time to time in his column. But if you are a regular reader of Bill’s column, you also know enough to be a little unsure about what to make of his putative candidacy. Bill, after all, has a very active sense of humor. He likes messing with people, the way he used to mess with Isiah Thomas, back when Thomas was suffering from a rare psychiatric disorder that made him confuse Eddy Curry with Bill Russell. Even after I learned that the Minnesota front office had received something like twelve thousand emails from fans arguing for the Sports Guy, my position was that this was a very elaborate joke. Look, I know Bill. He lives in Los Angeles. When he landed there from Boston, he got down on his hands and knees and kissed the tarmac. He’s not leaving the sunshine for the Minnesota winter. Plus, Bill is a journalist, right? He’s a fan. He only knows what you know from watching games on TV. But then I read this quite remarkable book that you have in your hands, and I realized how utterly wrong I was. Simmons knows basketball. He’s serious. And the T-wolves should be, too.
What is Bill Simmons like? This is not an irrelevant question, because it explains a lot about why The Book of Basketball is the way it is. The short answer is that Bill is exactly like you or me. He’s a fan—an obsessive fan, in the best sense of the word. I have a friend whose son grew up with the Yankees in their heyday and just assumed that every fall would bring another World Series ring. But then Rivera blew that save, and the kid was devastated. He cried. He didn’t talk for days. The world as he knew it had collapsed. Now that’s a fan, and that’s what Simmons is. The difference, of course, is that ordinary fans like you or me have limits to our obsession. We have jobs. We have girlfriends and wives. Whenever I ask my friend Bruce to come to my house to watch football, he always says he has to ask his girlfriend if he has any “cap room.” I suspect all adults have some version of that constraint. Bill does not. Why? Because watching sports is his job. Pause for a moment and wrap your mind around the genius of his position. “Honey, I have to work late tonight” means that the Lakers game went into triple overtime. “I can’t tonight. Work is stressing me out” means that the Patriots lost on a last-minute field goal. This is a man with five flat-screen TVs in his office. It is hard to know which part of that fact is more awe-inspiring: that he can watch five games simultaneously or that he gets to call the room where he can watch five games simultaneously his “office.”
The other part about being a fan is that a fan is always an outsider. Most sportswriters are not, by this definition, fans. They capitalize on their access to athletes. They spoke to Kobe last night, and Kobe says his finger is going to be fine. They spent three days fly-fishing with Brett Favre in March, and Brett says he’s definitely coming back for another season. There is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with that kind of approach to sports. But it has its limits. The insider, inevitably, starts to play favorites. He shades his criticisms, just a little, because if he doesn’t, well, what if Kobe won’t take his calls anymore? This book is not the work of an insider. It’s the work of someone with five TVs in his “office” who has a reasoned opinion on Game 5 of the 1986 Eastern Conference semifinals because he watched Game 5 of the 1986 Eastern Conference semifinals in 1986, and then—just to make sure his memory wasn’t playing tricks on him—got the tape and rewatched it three times on some random Tuesday morning last spring. You and I cannot do that because we have no cap room. That’s why we have Simmons.
You will have noticed, by now, that The Book of Basketball is very large. I can safely say that it is the longest book that I have read since I was in college. Please do not be put off by this fact. If this were a novel, you would be under some obligation to read it all at once or otherwise you’d lose track of the plot. (Wait. Was Celeste married to Ambrose, or were they the ones who had the affair at the Holiday Inn?) But it isn’t a novel. It is, rather, a series of loosely connected arguments and riffs and lists and stories that you can pick up and put down at any time. This is the basketball version of the old Baseball Abstracts that Bill James used to put out in the 1980s. It’s long because it needs to be long—because the goal of this book is to help us understand the connection between things like, say, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan, and to do that you have to understand exactly who Baylor was. And because Bill didn’t want to just rank the top ten players of all time, or the top twenty-five, since those are the ones that we know about. He wanted to rank the top ninety-six, and then also mention the ones who almost made the cut, and he wanted to make the case for every one of his positions—with wit and evidence and reason. And as you read it you’ll realize not only that you now understand basketball in a way that you never have before but also that there’s never been a book about basketball quite like this. So take your time. Set aside a few weeks. You won’t lose track of the characters. You know the characters. What you may not know is just how good Bernard King was, or why Pippen belongs on the all-time team. (By the way, make sure to read the footnotes. God knows why, but Simmons is the master of the footnote.)
One last point. This book is supposed to start arguments. I’m still flabbergasted at how high he ranks Allen Iverson, for example, or why Kevin Johnson barely cracks the pyramid. I seem to remember that in his day K.J. was unstoppable. But then again, I’m relying on my memory. Simmons went back and looked at the tape some random Tuesday afternoon when the rest of us were at work. Lucky bastard.
PROLOGUE:A Four-Dollar Ticket
TWO:Russell, Then Wilt
THREE:How the Hell Did We Get Here?
FOUR:The What-If Game
FIVE:Most Valuable Chapter
SIX:The Hall of Fame Pyramid
SEVEN:The Pyramid: Level 1
EIGHT:The Pyramid: Level 2
NINE:The Pyramid: Level 3
TEN:The Pyramid: Level 4
ELEVEN:The Pyramid: Pantheon
TWELVE:The Legend of Keyser Söze
THIRTEEN:The Wine Cellar
EPILOGUE:Life After The Secret
A FOUR-DOLLAR TICKET
DURING THE SUMMER of 1973, with Watergate unfolding and Willie Mays redefining the phrase “stick a fork in him,” my father was wavering between a new motorcyle and a single season ticket for the Celtics. The IRS had just given him a significant income tax refund of either $200
(the figure Dad remembers) or $600 (the figure my mother remembers). They both agree on one thing: Mom threatened to leave him if he bought the motorcycle.
We were renting a modest apartment in Marlborough, Massachusetts, just twenty-five minutes from Boston, with my father putting himself through Suffolk Law School, teaching at an all-girls boarding school, and bartending at night. Although the tax refund would have paid some bills, for the first time my father wanted something for himself. His life sucked. He wanted the motorcycle. When Mom shot that idea down, he called the Celtics and learned that, for four dollars per game, he could purchase a ticket right
behind the visitors’ bench. Nowadays, you can’t purchase four boxing pay-per-views or a new iPod for less than $150. Back then, that money secured a seat five rows behind the visitors’ bench at the Boston Garden, close enough to see the growing bald splotch on Kareem’s head. 1
My father pulled the trigger and broke the news to my mother that night. The conversation probably went something like this:
DAD: Good news, honey. I bought a season ticket for the Celtics. I’ll be spending thirty-five nights a year inside the Garden by myself, 2 not including playoff games, so you’ll have to stay home with Billy alone on those nights because we don’t have enough money to get a babysitter. Also, I used up nearly the entire income tax refund. But I couldn’t resist—I think they can win the title this year!
MOM (after a long silence): Are you serious?
DAD: Um … I guess I could take Billy to some of the games. He could sit on my lap. What do you think?
MOM: I think we got married too young.
If she did say that, she was right; my parents separated five years later. In retrospect, maybe the motorcycle would have sped things up. But that’s how close I came to missing out on a childhood spent inside the Garden. 3 If Mom had agreed to the motorcycle, maybe Dad would have wiped out and become the next Gary Busey. Maybe we would have missed five championship seasons. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared about basketball as much. Maybe you wouldn’t be kicking yourself for spending $30 on this book right now. Life is strange.
We bought into Celtic Pride at the perfect time: they were coming off 68 wins and an unlucky break late in the ’73 playoffs, when John Havlicek separated his shooting shoulder running through a screen and Boston fell to an inferior Knicks team. Despite the lost championship and a wildly popular Bruins squad that shared the Garden, the Celts had gained local momentum because of Havlicek and reigning MVP Dave Cowens, a fiery redhead who clicked with fans in a way Bill Russell never did. After struggling to fill the building during Russell’s astonishing run (eleven titles in thirteen years from 1957 to 1969), the Celtics were suddenly flourishing in a notoriously racist city. Was it happening because their best two players were white? Was it happening because of the burgeoning number of baby boomers like my father, the ones who fell in love with hoops because of the unselfishness of Auerbach’s Celtics and Holzman’s Knicks, who grew up watching Chamberlain and Russell battle like two gigantic dinosaurs on Sundays, who were enthralled by UCLA’s win streak and Maravich’s wizardry at LSU? Or was Cowens simply more likable and fan-friendly than the enigmatic Russell?
The answer? All of the above.4 Maybe the city would have accepted an African American sports hero in the fifties and sixties—eventually it accepted many of them—but never someone as complex and stubborn as Russell. The man was moody and sullen to reporters, distant and unfriendly to fans, shockingly outspoken about racial issues, defiant about his color and plight. Russell cared only about being a superior teammate and a proud black man, never considering himself an entertainer or an ambassador of the game. If anything, he shunned both of those roles: He wanted to play basketball, to win, to be respected as a player and person … and to be left alone. Even when Auerbach named him the first black professional coach in 1966, Russell didn’t care about the significance of the promotion, just that there was no better person for the job. Only years later would fans appreciate a courageous sports figure who advanced the cause of African Americans more than any athlete other than Muhammad Ali. Only years later would we fully empathize with the anguish and confusion of such a transcendent player, someone who was cheered as a basketball star and discriminated against as a human being. Only years later would Russell’s wary, hardened demeanor fully make sense.
Unlike Russell, Cowens didn’t have any baggage. There was nothing to figure out, no enigma to be solved. The big redhead dove for every loose ball, sprinted down the court on fast breaks, crashed the offensive boards and milked every possible inch of his talents. He hollered at officials with a booming voice that bellowed to the top rows of the Garden. He punctuated rebounds by grunting loudly and kicking his feet in different directions, which would have been fine except this was the Tight Shorts Era, so everyone constantly worried about his nuts careening out of his shorts like two superballs. When he stomped to midcourt to jump center with the towering Abdul-Jabbar, his nemesis and the league’s best player at the time, Cowens always looked like a welterweight preparing to trade punches with a heavyweight. There was something fundamentally unfair about the matchup, like our real center had called in sick. Then the game started and we remembered that it wasn’t a mismatch. Cowens lured Kareem away from the basket by draining 18-footers, robbing Milwaukee of its best shot blocker and rebounder. Defensively, Cowens made up for an eight-inch height difference by wearing Kareem down and making him work for every field goal attempt. Over and over again, we’d watch the same bumpy dance between them: Jabbar slinking toward his preferred spot on the low post, a wild-eyed Cowens slamming his chest against Kareem’s back and dramatically refusing to yield another inch, finally digging in like a Battle of the Network Stars competitor in the last stages of a tug-of-war. Maybe they didn’t make sense as rivals on paper, but they brought out the best in each other like Frazier and Ali—Cowens relishing the chance to battle the game’s dominant center, Kareem unable to coast because Cowens simply wouldn’t allow it—and the ’74 Finals ended up being their Thrilla in Manila. The Celtics prevailed in seven games, with the big redhead notching 28 points and 14 rebounds in the clincher. So much for the mismatch. 5
The ultimate Cowens moment happened when Mike Newlin flopped for a charge call against him. You didn’t do these things to Cowens; nobody valued the sanctity of the game more than he did. 6
He berated the referee under the basket, didn’t like the guy’s response, screamed some more, then whirled around and spotted Newlin dribbling upcourt. Sufficiently enraged, he charged Newlin from behind at a 45-degree angle, lowered his shoulder like a football safety and sent poor Newlin sprawling into the press table at midcourt. Watching it live (and I happened to be there), it was a relatively terrifying experience, like being ten feet away in Pamplona as a pissed-off bull targets an unsuspecting pedestrian. And that wasn’t even the best part. While pieces of Newlin were still rolling around the parquet floor like a shattered piggy bank, Cowens turned to the same referee and screamed, “Now that’s a fucking foul!” So yeah, Cowens was white and Russell was black. But Cowens would have been worth four bucks a game if he were purple. Same for Havlicek. Because of them, my father stumbled into a Celtics season ticket and never looked back.
Our first season coincided with the Celtics winning their first title of the post-Russell era and the suddenly promising Simmons era. My memories don’t kick in until the following year, when we moved to Chestnut Hill (fifteen minutes from the Garden) and Dad started bringing me more regularly. The people in our section knew me as a miniature sports encyclopedia, the floppy-haired kid who chewed his nails and whose life revolved around the Boston teams. Before games, the Garden’s ushers allowed me to stand behind our basket on the edge of the court, where I’d chase down air balls and toss them back to my heroes. I can still remember standing there, chewing my nails and praying for an air ball or deflected jump shot to come bouncing toward me, just so I could grab it and toss the ball back to a Celtic. When I say this was thrilling for a little kid … I mean, you have no idea. This was like going to Disneyland forty times a year and cutting the line for every ride. I eventually built up enough courage to wander over to Boston’s bench 7 and make small talk with the amused coaches, Tommy Heinsohn and John Killilea, leading to a moment before a Buffalo playoff game when a Herald American photographer snapped a picture of me peering up at an injured John Havlicek (wearing a baby blue leisure suit and leaning on crutches), then splashed the photo across the front page of its sports section the following day. 8 By the time I turned six, you can guess what happened: I considered myself a member of the Boston Celtics. That spawned
my racial identity crisis in the first grade (fully described in my Red Sox book) when I gave myself the Muslim name “Jabaal Abdul-Simmons.” I didn’t know any better. I wanted to play for the Celtics and most NBA players were black. Besides, I had more in common with them—my favorite sport was black, my favorite player (Charlie Scott) was black, my favorite comedians (Flip Wilson, Jimmie Walker, and Redd Foxx) were black, most of my favorite TV
shows (Sanford and Son, The Jefferson, Good Times, The Mod Squad) starred blacks, and I even made my mother take me to Roxbury in 1975 to see Keith Wilkes’ one and only movie, Cornbread, Earl and Me. 9 It pissed me off that I was white. So I made my first-grade teacher call me “Jabaal,” wrote “Jabaal” on my homework and tests, colored my own face in drawings, and that was that.
Meanwhile, the ’76 Celts were hanging on for one last championship run. Silas and Havlicek had seen better days. A washed-up Don Nelson—that’s right, the same guy who later coached Milwaukee and Dallas—was playing with a protruding potbelly that made him look like the beleagured dad in about ten different seventies sitcoms. Every key player (including Cowens and Jo Jo White, the best guys on the team) had already peaked statistically, only we didn’t have young legs off the bench because Auerbach had uncharacteristically butchered a few draft picks. Golden State looked like the prohibitive favorite until the defending champs self-destructed in Game 7 of the Western Finals under bizarre circumstances: in the first few minutes, Phoenix’s Ricky Sobers jumped Warriors star Rick Barry and landed a few punches before teammates pulled him off. 10 At halftime, Barry (a notorious prick) watched the tape and realized his own teammates hadn’t leaped in to save him. Fuming, he spitefully refused to shoot for most of the second half—no lie, he refused to shoot—playing hot potato anytime someone passed him the ball. And that’s how a 42–40 Suns team advanced to the Finals, upsetting the defending champs on their home floor as their best player played an elaborate game of “eff you” with his teammates.