By Henry Abbott
I can tell you, right now, in nine words, what is wrong with "The Art of a Beautiful Game," which is Chris Ballard's new book:
I have no idea what the book is about.
The subhead is "The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA," and that's accurate enough. But this tour is all over the place. With Kobe Bryant in high school. With Shane Battier, strategizing in the locker room. On the practice court with Steve Kerr. On the free throw line with Nick Anderson. In the Washington D.C. suburbs with Idan Ravin. At David Thorpe's Train Like a Pro. Learning why Steve Nash almost never jumps off his left leg. Drag racing through the Phoenix suburbs with Shaquille O'Neal. What Alonzo Mourning has to say about this.
Ballard writes for Sports Illustrated, where he produces beautiful, long and often meaningful features about these kinds of hoops topics. When you spend all that time with all those interesting NBA people, of course you'll develop all kinds of insights that don't make it in your articles. It's a natural impulse to want to combine all of that interesting stuff into one tome -- "the stories I'd tell you if you came over to my house" kind of thing.
The entire time I was reading this book, part of my brain was screaming for a central organizing theme beyond "grab bag."
But guess what: That part of my brain was wrong. Look at all the places I mentioned in that tour. Don't you want to go there? This book is a great read, and for hardcore NBA fans, almost certainly a must-read. On one topic after another, Ballard writes nicely about the stuff that basketball junkies want to know. Here are five things from the book, of which there are thousands:
Eric Snow and Damon Jones made a bet years ago. First guy to dunk in a game wins. Still waiting ...
Shaquille O'Neal shoots a lot of free throws. At a point in 2008-2009, the NBA's free throw average was at a 30-year high. That's the year Shaquille O'Neal was shooting 70%. If however, O'Neal had been shooting his regular percentage, the league would have been below its historical average. Also, Ballard points out that ... think about this ... Shaquille O'Neal has missed more free throws than Larry Bird ever attempted.
Avery Johnson was worried that Dirk Nowitzki was too obsessive about practice, so he limited his practice time. So, Nowitzki found gyms all across the country and snuck onto the court.
When Steve Kerr was having a hard time shooting well coming off the bench, shooting coach Chip Engelland did something amazing. He'd sit on the bench in the empty gym and chat with Kerr, about this, that, or whatever. Then every few minutes he'd yell that it was time to shoot, and Kerr would run out on the court and take just a few shots. It got him used to sitting, sitting, sitting and then having a couple of opportunities. And it worked.
Kobe Bryant: "If you're going to beat somebody, you have to beat them to a pulp, to see what happens. To see what they're made of." That's from a chapter with a ton more Bryant insight. Well worth the read.
To sum it up: This book is nearly impossible to sum up. But it's meaningful, insightful, enjoyable and well worth the read.