Timing is a funny thing. Remember when a pair of movies were made about the late distance runner Steve Prefontaine within two years? Or when competing books covering the life of Pete Maravich were released months apart? What about those subjects compelled two separate groups to begin work on their projects so close together?
On the surface, it felt like we had something similar with NBA history when FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History dropped in late October, precisely a year after the publication of Bill Simmons‘ The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.* (Full disclosure: FD ringleader Bethlehem Shoals is a fellow member of the SSSBDA, a good friend and was a major contributor to the editing of the most recent Pro Basketball Prospectus.)
In this case, the oddity isn’t really so much why the subject deserved two looks–60-some years of the NBA’s existence provide plenty of subject matter to explore–but why nobody ever really approached the league’s history in such an all-encompassing manner before last fall. The Book of Basketball filled that void. So too does The Undisputed Guide. Fortunately, the very different styles with which Simmons and the FreeDarko collective approached the topic mean there is relatively little overlap between the two books.
Where The Book of Basketball sought to provide readers an overview of the greatest players and teams in league history, you’ll find no rankings in The Undisputed Guide–save, of course, for star ratings for each of the books written by members of the 1970s Knicks.
In typical FreeDarko fashion, The Undisputed Guide sacrifices comprehensiveness in favor of taking a deep dive on a handful of subjects for each decade. The big stars get FD treatment, but so too does Penny Hardaway because of what Nike’s advertising campaign starring Lil’ Penny said about the way shoe companies made basketball stars and vice versa.
That’s typical of the FD approach, which could be considered NBA philosophy. As much as focusing on what happened and why over the course of the league’s history, The Undisputed Guide concerns itself with what players and events meant to the future of the NBA and the larger cultural landscape. As such, the league’s actual origins get more play here. The essay on the barnstorming teams that took professional basketball national at a time when organized leagues were strictly regional in scope is one of The Undisputed Guide‘s highlights.
While The Book of Basketball was often a starting point for arguments or debates about the league’s history, The Undisputed Guide touches off deeper discussion. How were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton a product of and representative of the U.S. in the 1970s? To what extent is the Michael Jordan narrative built on revisionist history?Was Allen Iverson really responsible for bringing hip-hop to the NBA?
One mild disappointment is that a historical setting does not lend itself as well to the statistical tidbits that Silverbird 5000 contributed to each essay in FreeDarko’s first effort, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. However, he was able to get creative on topics like quantifying the increase in hair (facial and otherwise) during the 1970s or a comprehensive breakdown of player fights over the last 30 years drawn from Google News.
As with The Macrophenomenal Almanac, readers come for the writing and stay for Jacob Weinstein‘s illustrations. The print of Jordan literally overshadowing his 1990s peers, based on Fernando Medina‘s famous photo of Jordan’s championship-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, might just tell the story of the decade better than words ever could.
I closed last year’s Book of Basketball review by concluding that Simmons’ offering should be “a key part of any serious NBA fan’s library.” The Undisputed Guide may not be quite as universal in its appeal, but for FD readers and anyone who likes to think critically about the game, it neatly complements The Book of Basketball to provide two great options for learning about the NBA’s history.
* Oddly, you know where the Maravich/Prefontaine timing is discussed? In The Book of Basketball.
Shoals will be at Powell’s Books this Friday at 7:30 p.m. to read from The Undisputed Guide and answer questions. His last visit to Powell’s was a great time, and I’m looking forward to attending again this time around.