Three shots, one foul

By Andrew Ervin
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A guide to new books about basketball.

Unlike baseball, America's purported national pastime, basketball is most definitely homegrown. It originated in Springfield, Mass., thanks to a Canadian immigrant who had forsaken the ministry for a life in physical education -- a tough decision for a man who grew up believing that athletics were "a tool of the devil." In James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball (Temple Univ., $27.50), sportswriter Rob Rains teamed up with the legendary coach's granddaughter Hellen Carpenter and gained access to a cache of Naismith's personal papers, making this biography a hugely valuable addition to our understanding of the sport's earliest days.

It started in 1891 as a way to keep some bored young men busy indoors during a nasty New England winter. Naismith rounded up a couple of peach baskets, codified the game with 13 rules thumbtacked to a gymnasium bulletin board and became responsible for what may have been the fastest-growing sport in history. (He's also credited with making the first football helmet.) He soon took his new game with him to the University of Kansas, where he established the iconic college team. Carpenter's introduction in particular demonstrates just how much the sport has changed since: "My grandfather never profited from inventing the game. . . . He turned down endorsement offers, and he never sought a patent on the game, which would have earned him millions of dollars in royalties." What would he make of today's NBA?

Outside the Limelight: Basketball in the Ivy League (Rutgers Univ., $24.95), by Washington Post sportswriter Kathy Orton, provides a welcome look at a frequently underappreciated side of college hoops, one that Naismith would have been proud of. The Ivy League is unique, Orton writes, in that it doesn't use a tournament to decide the championship. The eight schools don't offer athletic scholarships, they still travel by bus to their away games, and they play a style of basketball that harks back in many ways to a simpler game. Understandably, perhaps, it's not every season that an Ivy League team participates in the hysteria surrounding the annual March Madness tournament, yet the teams share a long and exciting history of extremely competitive basketball.

Orton spent the 2005-06 season closely following Cornell, Penn, Princeton and Harvard, the last of which went into the year with hopes of its first title. "Harvard is believed," she writes, "to be the only Division I program never to have won a conference championship." Alas for the Crimson -- and for Orton, who might have had a bestseller on her hands -- it was not to be. Come the end of the season, "only two of the eight teams still had a shot at the Ivy League championship, and given the history of the league, most outsiders were not surprised those two were Penn and Princeton." Orton's talents shine most brightly in her ability to make us care deeply about these players, like Harvard's Matt Stehle and Penn's Ibrahim Jaaber, both on and off the court. She reminds us that, contrary to public perception, "student athlete" isn't a contradiction in terms.

Unfortunately, the terrible writing in The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (Ballantine, $30), by ESPN contributor Bill Simmons, undermines what should have been an exciting and engaging project about Naismith's legacy. But Simmons rarely passes up the opportunity for a crude, R-rated joke, which makes the book inappropriate for the young fans who would most benefit from his vast knowledge of the game. The similes and metaphors here are horrendous, such as when he writes of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, "If shooting ability were a bra size, he would have been wearing a 32A for his entire career." And is comparing players to specific porn stars really the best analysis he could come up with? That kind of thing wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't think Simmons was smarter than this.

That's not to say the book is a total disaster. Simmons knows his history and provides an interesting look at how the NBA evolved, beginning right after World War II. The most interesting section combines detailed statistical analyses and close observations to create an ordered list of the greatest players of all time in a proposed restructuring of the Hall of Fame. The section on Allen Iverson alone makes it clear that Simmons could be a great writer if he hadn't sold his soul to the devil's earthly incarnation, ESPN, and chosen the authorial persona of a lifelong frat boy. He has clearly put in his time watching and rewatching countless games, but his juvenile approach is neither funny nor shocking, and it doesn't do justice to his immense knowledge and passion for the game.

Ervin's "Extraordinary Renditions: 3 Novellas" will be published in September.

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