by Brian Phillips · November 9, 2010
I come today in my basketball warmups—the red ones, with the Jerry West signature appliqué piping on the right breast pocket—to alert you to a book. It has nothing to do with soccer, at least not directly, but I’d like to think that if you’re here at all, it’s because you care about what a moderately enthusiastic critic might call “transcendent sportswriting” and “pathbreaking, ingenious design.” And if you’re interested in one or both of those qualities, FreeDarko’s new Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball is, I am happy to say, The Book For You.
To dispense with the obvious counterclaim: Yes, it was written by some of my friends and collaborators, and I helped organize a weeks-long promotional event on FreeDarko itself. So this post narrowly misses the “lone scholar, adrift in space” standard of impersonality. On the other hand, I’m not sure it takes a hermit marooned on an asteroid to appreciate a description of Michael Jordan’s evolution as a player that turns into this comparison of dunks and jump shots:
The dunk takes an instant and an eternity; it’s both completely frivolous and totally domineering, a flash of light so blinding and brief that it might as well never have happened. A shot was the stuff of narrative; it was itself a story with a built-in arc, climax, and resolution.
Or to love a summation of Jordan’s legacy that concludes: “We now must decide the value of the achievements by Malone, Barkley, and Ewing in the same way that we try to determine the life spans of characters in the Old Testament.” Or a portrait of the Auerbach-era Celtics that points out: “This almost dismissive attitude toward individual glory was about as abrasive as well-balanced basketball gets.”
As those quotes hopefully make clear, this is a history of basketball written with a degree of conceptual complexity that’s just about unique in the canon of the sport. But it’s also an inviting, accessible narrative that doesn’t have to be praised in terms of baroque sociology: It’s funny, it’s crammed with good analogies (Earl Monroe’s “Rube Goldberg-like sequences of fakes and shimmies”), and the prose is genuinely informative as well as full of provocative arguments. I haven’t seen this pointed out anywhere, but it actually works as a history of basketball, not just as some kind of revisionist metacomment.
It’s also, and by some distance, the prettiest sports book I’ve ever seen. The illustrations by Jacob Weinstein are superb (Shaq as a sort of Kandinskified clown, the already iconic Jordan Shadow shot), but the book is also full of amazing infographics, including a branching bubble-map of NBA player fights and a tree of basketball movies. The chapter headings are beautiful. The font selection is cool. Taken in tandem with the prose, the design conveys a complete and unified aesthetic. It’s like a McSweeney’s you don’t have to pet.
So: If you are at all a basketball fan, you will find this thing delightful, and if you are not a basketball fan, you will admire its wit and style. I would pick it up if I were you. If you email them, tell them I sent you, as I am hoping to play Charles Barkley in the movie.
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