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Basketball Jones
Jack McCallum
December 21, 2009
Think NBA fans and the Web generation don't buy books? Think again
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December 21, 2009

Basketball Jones

Think NBA fans and the Web generation don't buy books? Think again

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The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list is dominated by an eclectic albeit predictable cast of authors and personalities. There is usually a chicken-soup-for-the-soul type or two (hello, Mike Huckabee; welcome back, Mitch Albom); a purveyor of dirty laundry, especially one's own (Andre Agassi took what?); and a few political scream machines (now arm wrestling for space at the Borders coffee counter: the right reverend Glenn Beck and the Rouged Rogue!)

So what in the name of Naismith was a War and Peace--sized book (736 pages) about a culturally unpopular sport (pro basketball) written by a guy better known for being bookmarked than for being bookish (Bill Simmons) doing at the No. 1 spot a few weeks ago? And what was The Book of Basketball still doing at No. 14 on Sunday, hanging in there with What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell—who, by the way, wrote the foreword to Simmons's book?

"I always thought the book would sell," says Simmons, an ESPN.com columnist who has scaled literary heights despite going by the shot-and-a-beer sobriquet of The Sports Guy. But sell like this? And attract mainstream attention like no pro basketball book—excepting the occasional Charles Barkley I-was-misquoted-in-my-own-autobiography hit—since The Breaks of the Game, the 1981 classic written by one of Simmons's heroes, the late David Halberstam, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting and written The Best and the Brightest before he took on pro hoops? "My NBA columns and mailbag columns were consistently the biggest draws of anything I wrote," Simmons says. "So I knew the audience was there for an NBA book as long as it was unique enough."

Unique it is. And that's true whether you celebrate Simmons as a revolutionary cultural force ("Perseverance and new perspectives break through. The old rots and washes away"—Will Leitch writing on Deadspin), or dismiss his influence ("[Simmons] is not a transformational figure. He did not reinvent sportswriting"—Charles Pierce, on the same website). There's a footnote or two on every page, something you don't see in the typical sports book. And Simmons's Hall of Fame Pyramid, in which he microanalyzes his alltime top 99 players, stretches 361 pages, about as long as it took Tolstoy to finally kill off Andrei Bolkonsky in the brutal Moscow winter.

The Sports Guy is not the first sports guy to wing his way into the rarefied air of the Times No. 1, but Simmons is the first to have established his literary bona fides primarily through what we in old media call new media. Reasonable readers may think Simmons's prose suffers from chronic gastritis after serving up oversized portions of pop culture—he is doubtless the only writer ever to name-check Keyser Söze and The Usual Suspects during a discussion of the best single-season NBA teams. But there is much solid hoops analysis here, as when he lists six ideal point-guard qualities in breaking down the game of Nate (Tiny) Archibald (No. 60 in his pantheon). The last is worth quoting: "[D]efenders play four feet off you at all times because they don't want to have their ankles broken, which means you're starting the offense between the foul line and the top of the key on every possession."

And what can't be denied is that by writing two 4,000-word columns per week and now offering this 2,376-kilobyte challenge to Kindle, Simmons has disproved the notion that sports fans have limited attention spans. He even puts it in a Sports Guy kind of way. "[Sports fans] don't care about the length of a book, just that it's entertaining," Simmons says. "My book was designed in a way that you could read it in a week, in four months or even over the course of a year on the toilet bowl."

Soldier's Story

JON KRAKAUER, the best-selling author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, has always had an eye for individualists. So it's only natural that he would find his way to Pat Tillman's story, which he tells in Where Men Win Glory. In life Tillman, a former Cardinals safety, was a rare figure: principled, patriotic and selfless enough to give up an NFL career to enlist as an Army Ranger. In death—Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004—he became something rarer still: a symbol easily adopted and celebrated by hawks and doves, patriots and subversives. But Krakauer dispenses with symbolism and, drawing on his subject's private journals, concentrates on Tillman the man. The result is a detailed portrait of a multifaceted figure—complicated, yes, but unquestionably a hero.

From SI

Several books were published by SI Books or written by SI writers and editors this year. The lineup includes:

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