Tuesday, April 10, 2012

FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History Book Review

I planned on including a citation for the book, but gave up after spending ten minutes puzzling over how to cite Dr. Lawyer IndianChief and Silverbird 5000.

There are books about basketball written by players, coaches, journalists, historians, and even disgraced former referees. FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is the first basketball book written by fans.

If the Undisputed Guide advances a single, coherent argument, and I am not sure that it does, it comes in the introduction: “Fans, even those as abstracted as us, live this shit in a way that's distinct from reporting or research alone.” The Undisputed Guide isn’t merely an attempt to add fans voice to the collective basketball record though, but rather a full-throated defense of fandom:
“We [fans] bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.”
The very structure of the book is informed by these ideals. Each chapters covers roughly a decade of basketball history (besides the first chapter, which covers the first 50 years), and contains anywhere from one to six essays. Scant space, and in the afterword Bethlehem Shoals writes, “Not having been around for much of the material we've covered in these pages, we have had to speculate, borrow from other's accounts, and creatively interpret history…” That is only the tip of the iceberg, as the Undisputed Guide ignores whole sections of basketball history. For instance, there is no chapter on John Stockton and Karl Malone, and combined they have about as many mentions as Vlade Divac. Unless you live in Salt Lake City between 1984 and 2003, and it appears that none of the authors did, or are a pick-and-roll purist, Stockton and Malone are just boring.

There is no formal criteria for inclusion in the Undisputed Guide, but rather “what struck us as particularly memorable.” It seems then that success on the basketball court is only partially memorable; witness the chapters on non-championship winning players Maurice Stokes and Connie Hawkins; Charles Barkley; Drazen Petrovic; Penny Hardaway; and Allen Iverson. After all, if greatness conveyed memorability “Tim Duncan would loom as large in the NBA imagination as Allen Iverson or Kevin Garnett.” The Undisputed Guide isn’t an attempt to chronicle greatness, but rather the relationship between fans and player. In any given season, the majority of basketball fans will not see their favorite team win a championship, yet they still have an emotional connection with the players and the game. A book written through the lens of the fan necessarily cannot solely focus on results without being disingenuous and out of touch.

The Undisputed Guide embraces stories that the authors believe have been misunderstood by either the media or basketball fans, or both. The essay entitled The Nuclear Option, which examines the relationship between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, tells one such story. Wilt vs. Russell is often set-up as a test of basketball knowledge, as while any old schlub can look at Wilt’s career statistics and conclude he was the better player, “true” fans know that Russell is the best center of all time (e.g., the second chapter of Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball entitled “Russell, Then Wilt”). This “debate” does a disservice to both men by positing that their character and skills aren’t natively important, only in relation to each other. Bethlehem Shoals would prefer to think of Wilt as the “exceptionally sensitive man who wanted nothing more than to love and be loved” or who “refused to go full bore around the basket for fear he might main an opponent” rather than a foil for Bill Russell’s Hall-of-Fame video. Both were incredible basketball players who waged 142 epic battles with each other on the basketball court and lived full lives off the court—why must we reduce their accomplishments to a pissing contest?

While Wilt vs. Russell doesn’t come off as being media-driven, the Undisputed Guide criticizes plenty of nonexistent “controversies” that are. It starts out with subtle digs (“In today's hypersaturated media environment, 20-point scorers rarely go unnoticed; there are blogs devoted to Richard Jefferson's bad tattoos.”) before developing into a full-on media scourge by the time we reach the 1990s. As the Bird/Magic/Jordan era began to give way to Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber and co., the media couldn’t keep up. America’s 1994 FIBA World Championship team, cleverly named “The Dream Team II”, showcased the schism between the old, squeaky clean (at least, publicly) and magnanimous NBA and the new hip-hop and baggy shorts NBA. The media’s inability to understand the new NBA stars was colossal: “Never known for fully understanding the larger basketball culture that produced most of these players, the mainstream media roasted Dream Team II rather than attempt to explain them.“

It is fair to question whether the authors of the Undisputed Guide are a part of the same mainstream media that they pillory, but this misses the point. They aren’t arguing that bloggers or authors better understand players than journalists and broadcasters, but that fans better understand the players. To that point, it is clear that authors are, and side with, fans. It is easier for the media to tear players down than explore what built them up. Fans would rather the players stay standing—after all, who can identify with a pile of rubble?

The Undisputed Guide closes with an impassioned plea for an authentic fan experience, which doubles as a surprisingly effective argument as the value of YouTube. In order to push the product (basketball, but more importantly basketball jerseys, basketball shoes, basketball tickets etc.) the NBA tries to define the fan experience. It uses inauthentic commercials featuring historic moments “as an incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don't change that dials, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.” In contrast, on YouTube, “what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored.”

On any given night, 19,500 of the 20,000 people in an NBA arena are fans, paying their hard-earned dollars for the opportunity to see beauty unfold on the court beneath them. Yet, until now, the importance of their role has been neglected and overlooked. FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History reminds us that, at it’s unencumbered core, there is a very real connection between the players and fans. While dollars, lawsuits, lockouts, merchandise, executives, TV contracts, Collective Bargaining Agreements, and David Stern all do their damndest to pervert this relationship, it endures, and will continue to endure, because the fans have the most passionate and eloquent voices on their side: the FreeDarko High Council.

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