The best sportswriting rises above reportage or even analysis and becomes criticism. What other word is there for what Bill James writes? Here is the beginning of an essay James wrote about Ty Cobb from his legendary book The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
One photograph of [Cobb] with which I am particularly taken shows him posing with Christy Mathewson in the dugout before the third game of the 1911 World Series. Mathewson, as always, looks poised and confident, staring out toward right field. Cobb is peeking out the corner of his eye at some unseen distraction — another photographer, probably — but what makes the photograph remarkable is that, to begin with, Cobb is wearing a suit that doesn’t look as if it could possibly have fit any of his relatives. Cobb was a big man (he is usually listed at 6′2,” 180) yet his suit has got to be four sizes too large for him — it is hard to believe that a reputable haberdasher would have let him leave the store with it. He is holding what looks like an expensive overcoat, and he appears to be dragging it on the ground. His hat is jaunty and his smile is decidedly nervous. He looks frankly a little bit crazy.
There was such a contradiction in that dugout. Cobb was then a five-time American League batting champion, with more or less seven seasons under his belt–and yet he was also a twenty-four-year-old hick from Nowhere, Georgia, a little in awe of Matty, of the photographers, of the crowd. He had no weapons, at that moment, to defend himself against his inadequacies–no spikes, no bat, no glove. He was so crude that he must have felt that whenever they took those things from him, his shortcomings glowed like hot iron. And whenever he saw them glowing, he got angry. You can see it in his face, I think, that if he could just put on a uniform and go out on the field it would be such a relief to him, out where manners and taste and style were all defined by bases gained and bases lost. And everyone else, for a change, would have to apologize to him.
James turned to numbers to explain baseball not because he was a statistician, but rather because the numbers laid bare the truth in the game. Who was better than whom, who should’ve been recognized and who was overhyped. To find truth — and in so doing, beauty — in the game is the height of sportswriting, a genre usually mired somewhere between tawdry gossip and vitriolic hyperbole.
In their new book on the history of basketball, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the authors of the blog FreeDarko rise to the occasion and produce a work of literature that happens to be about the NBA. Writing under pseudonyms like Bethlehem Shoals and Dr. Lawyer IndianChief, the FreeDarko authors dive into the history of the sport — its characters, movements, champions, and failures. In the process, they produce some incredible writing on race, politics, and — dare I say it — the human experience.
Take, for example, their essay on Bill Russell, the indomitable center of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s. Russell, the consummate winner to most, was also a man full of yearning to be something beyond a mere athlete. This manifest itself in many ways, not all of them pleasant:
On principle, Russell refused to sign autographs, and at one point took to sending out a glossy photograph of himself emblazoned with a favorite observation of his: “We learn to make a shell for ourselves when we are young and then spend the rest of our lives hoping for someone to reach inside and touch us. Just touch us—anything more than that would be too much for us to bear.” Instead of engaging in a simple transaction, Russell held forth on the human condition, and, perhaps, his own limitations as a public figure — all of which, to many fans, just made him look like more of an asshole.
It’s stories like that one, excavated from the game’s history and woven into thoughtful, even poetic essays, that make the book so riveting for fans of the game. But there’s much for the casual fan (or even the non-sports fan, as well). Among the stronger pieces in the book is Dr. Lawyer IndianChief’s treatise on sneaker deals, branding, and the cult of personality of 1990s basketball. His examination of the marketing campaign that Nike put together for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway — featuring a Chris Rock-voiced puppet named L’il Penny (“At the height of their fame, the puppet wrote a book, with a foreword by his older brother, the NBA star.”) — draws on a literary reference to make its point:
Penny was a tabula rasa until Nike gave him a character, masking his actual lack of personality…Penny was a great basketball player on his own, and he was a celebrity because all NBA players are. But he owed his phenomenon to Nike. The branding of Penny Hardaway was a bit like Don DeLillo’s “Most Photographed Barn in America.” Penny was a cultural figure, elevated above other All-Stars, because…he was a cultural figure. And it was Nike that made it so. The puppet said it all.
Alongside these essays are entertaining asides (“The Jazz-o-Meter” rates the “jazzyness” of various NBA decades, a list of Bill Walton’s top ten quotes as a broadcaster, a list of people and entities who have been called “The Michael Jordan of something,” such as “Puget Sound: The Michael Jordan of Ecosystems,” etc.) and many illustrations. A two-page spread of the best hairstyles of the 70s is particularly delightful. Indeed, the entire book is a pleasure to hold and to look at, its glossy pages inviting the reader to flip through, stopping at an infographic here or a quote there. Try picking it up and see if you can stop yourself from reading a bit.
Though the book doesn’t, I think, make many new arguments regarding player evaluation — a crucial difference between FreeDarko and Bill James — it still reveals many new layers of the NBA fan experience, aspects of play and of culture that I had never considered. It does what a great history (though “undisputed” might be, well, disputed) ought to do, placing each team, each player in its proper context and using the benefit of the present to find that truth and with it, beauty, that James also sought. That they do it with such style and wit is what makes this such a wonderful book.