Commentary

The Book of Basketball

Originally Published: October 21, 2009
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Bill Simmons' new book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books.

This excerpt is from a chapter called "The Secret." In the summer of 2007, my buddy Hopper and I were in Vegas for the NBA Summer League. We were playing blackjack at the outdoor pool in Vegas when we ran into announcer Gus Johnson, who wanted to introduce me to his friend Isiah Thomas. After I explained to him that this would be an absolutely horrible idea, Gus vowed to broker the peace. Here's what transpired.

Meeting Isiah Thomas at a Topless Pool In Vegas

I played a few hands of rattled blackjack while wondering how to defend myself if Isiah came charging at me with a piña colada. After all, I killed this guy in my column over the years. I killed him for some of the cheap shots he took as a player, for freezing out MJ in the '85 All-Star Game, for leading the classless walkout at the tail end of the Bulls-Pistons sweep in '91. I killed him for pushing Bird under the bus by backing up Rodman's foolish "he'd be just another good player if he weren't white" comments after the '87 playoffs, then pretending like he was kidding afterward. (He wasn't.) I killed him for bombing as a TV announcer, for sucking as Toronto's GM, for running the CBA into the ground, and most of all, for his incomprehensibly ineffective performance running the Knicks. As I kept lobbing (totally justified) grenades at him, Isiah went on Stephen A. Smith's radio show and threatened "trouble" if we ever met on the street. Like this was all my fault. Somewhere along the line, Isiah probably decided that I had a personal grudge against him, which simply wasn't true -- I had written many times that he was the best pure point guard I'd ever seen, as well as the most underappreciated star of his era. I even defended his draft record and praised him for standing up for his players right before the ugly Nuggets-Knicks brawl that featured Carmelo Anthony's infamous bitch-slap/backpedal. It's not like I was obsessed with ripping the guy. He just happened to be an easy target, a floundering NBA GM who didn't understand the luxury tax, cap space, or how to plan ahead. For what I did for a living, Isiah jokes were easier than making fun of Flavor Flav at a celebrity roast. The degree of difficulty was a 0.0.

With that said, I would have rather been playing blackjack and drinking vodka lemonades than figuring out how to cajole a pissed-off NBA legend. When a somber Gus finally waved me over, I was relieved to get it over with. (By the way, there should be no scenario that includes the words "Gus Johnson" and "somber." I feel like I failed America regardless of how this turned out.) Gus threw an arm around me and said something like, "Look, I straightened everything out, he's willing to talk to you, just understand, he's a sensitive guy, he takes this shit personally."9 Understood. I followed him to a section of chairs near the topless pool, where Isiah was sipping a water and wearing a white Panama hat to shield himself from the blazing sun. As we approached, Gus slapped me on the back and gestured to a female friend who quickly fled the premises, like we were Mafia heads sitting down in the back of an Italian restaurant and Gus was shedding every waiter and busboy. Get out of here. You don't want to be here for this. Meanwhile, Isiah rose from the chair with a big smile on his face -- he'd make a helluva politician -- saying simply, "Hi, I'm Isiah."10

We shook hands and sat down. I explained the purpose of my column, how I write from the fan's perspective and play up certain gimmicks -- I like the Boston teams and dislike anyone who battles them, I pretend to be smarter than every GM, I think Christmas should be changed to Larry Bird's birthday -- which made Isiah a natural foil for me. He understood that. He thought we were both entertainers, for lack of a better word. We were both there to make basketball more fun to follow. He didn't appreciate two things I had written: that he destroyed the CBA (which he claimed wasn't true) and how I lumped him with other inept GMs in a widely read parody column called "The Atrocious GM Summit."11 That led to us discussing each move and why he made them. He admitted two mistakes -- the Jalen Rose trade (his fault) and the Steve Francis trade (not his fault because Larry Brown insisted on it, or so he claimed) and defended everything else. Strangely, inconceivably, each explanation made sense. For instance, he explained the recent Randolph trade by telling me (I'm paraphrasing), "Everyone's trying to get smaller and faster. I want to go the other way. I want to get bigger. I want to pound people down low." I found myself nodding like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé in SNL's "Sinatra Group" sketch. Great idea, Chairman! I love it! You're a genius! Only later, after we parted ways and I thought about it more, did it dawn on me how doomed his strategy was -- not the "getting bigger" part as much as the "getting bigger with two headcase fat asses who can't defend anyone or protect the rim and are prohibitively expensive" part. You get bigger with McHale and Parish or Sampson and Olajuwon. You don't get bigger with Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph.12

But that's not why I'm telling you this story. After settling on an uneasy truce about his job performance, we started remembering those unforgettable Celtics-Pistons clashes from the eighties: how their mutual hatred was palpable, how that competitiveness has slowly eroded from the league because of rule changes, money, AAU camps and everything else. Today's rivals hug each other after games and pull the "I love you, boy!" routine. They act like former summer camp chums who became successful CEOs, then ran into each other at Nobu for the first time in years. Great to see you! I'll talk to you soon -- let's have lunch! When Isiah's Pistons played Bird's Celtics, the words "great to see you" were not on the agenda. They wanted to destroy each other. They did. There was an edge to those battles that the current ones don't have. I missed that edge and so did Isiah. We both felt passionate about it, passionate enough that -- gasp -- we were legitimately enjoying the conversation.13

I was getting comfortable with him. Comfortable enough that I had to ask about The Secret.


FOOTNOTES

9. After seeing him in action, I'm totally convinced that Gus Johnson can resolve any feud, controversy, or territorial matter within 25 minutes: Bloods- Crips, Richards-Locklear, Shiites-Sunnis, TO-McNabb, the Gaza Strip, Vick-PETA, you name it. He's like a cross between Obama, Jay- Z, and Cyrus from The Warriors.

10. Totally underrated part of the story: "Hi, I'm Isiah." As if there potentially could have been some confusion.

11. I gathered all the inept 2006 GMs for a fake conference panel where they gave tips on how to completely suck at their job. Isiah ended up stealing the fake show.

12. His funniest-in-retrospect explanation was for the hideous Jerome James signing. As Isiah spun it, he signed James to be his center, then had a chance to land Curry a few weeks later and went for it. A bummed-out James felt betrayed and never dedicated himself, but hey, Isiah had a chance to get a young low-post stud like Curry and it was worth the risk. I swear, this made sense as he was saying it. He swayed me enough that I never had the urge to sarcastically quip, "Hey, anytime you can lock up Eddy Curry and Jerome James for $90 million and lose two lottery picks, you have to do it."

13. Proving yet again that I can get along with anyone on the planet as long as they like basketball. You could dress me in red, drop me into a Crips neighborhood, tell me that I have 12 minutes to start a high-caliber NBA conversation before somebody puts a cap in my ass ... and I would live.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.