The Book Of Basketball's lost pages
Even a bullet-stopping, best-selling tome can leave you wanting more
This column appears in the December 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine. If you would like to order Bill Simmons' "The Book of Basketball" online, go here. For all things Simmons, visit the Sports Guy's World on Page 2.
I know what you're saying. You're saying, "Wait a second, your NBA book was nearly 700 freaking pages. It's so thick it stopped a bullet. [No, really.] It's so thick your wife says, 'If I ever had to break the window of your Escalade like Mrs. Tiger, I'd use your book instead of a 7-iron.' Deleted sections? This is like finding out they chopped four hours out of The Lord of the Rings trilogy."
My response: You're damn right there are deleted sections! Look, I wanted to solve every NBA-related argument, figure out "The Secret" of basketball and teach you a few things along the way. Some nuggets were jettisoned simply because they didn't fit the book's structure. Sometimes, I just couldn't find an answer. And some things materialized after I handed in the manuscript. That's why I asked my editors at The Magazine for 3,500 words, saying, "Give me this instead of a Christmas gift."
Their response: "Who are you again?"
We worked it out. They gave me 2,200 words, a copy of the 2003 ESPN Sports Almanac and the entire series of Unscripted With Chris Connelly on VHS. Happy holidays! Just know this isn't like a movie DVD, when the makers offer deleted scenes and you find out that yes, those scenes were deleted for a reason. (The reason? They sucked.) In this case, I wish these 15 things had made it into my book. They didn't. I will have to settle for this space.
1. After the NBA launched, in 1946, the next 20 years of trial-and-error were memorable mostly for the "error" part. I had fun with this in my book. Somehow I left out the league's anti-brainstorm for the 1956 Finals, when it tried a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format in an apparent effort to test the effects of jet lag. Or something. Philadelphia and Fort Wayne battled through five back-and-forth games. The format was scrapped the next season and thank God, because it was a St. Louis-Boston Finals and Tommy Heinsohn would have killed 200 airline passengers with his secondhand smoke.
2. In the ultimate "We're making up rules as we go along" moment, Philly made local high schooler Wilt Chamberlain its 1955 territorial draft pick even though he was ineligible to play professionally for another four years. Somehow, the pick was allowed. Imagine if the NBA still had territorial choices? We could have seen O.J. Mayo suspiciously commit to Fordham when Isiah Thomas was running the Knicks, followed by a nine-month investigation by ESPN's Lester Munson that uncovered $25 million of Cablevision checks in Mayo's secret offshore checking account. I feel cheated.
3. In the book, I blamed Kobe Bryant for 2004's breakup with Shaquille O'Neal and wrote that Shaq was a great guy. Last summer, Shaq left his fourth team on bad terms, and we heard rumors that he stole a reality-show idea from then-teammate Steve Nash. This happened right after Kobe won a non-Shaq title as the leader of the 2009 Lakers and even had a couple of successful interactions with teammates. Was Kobe less to blame than we thought? Why was Shaq on the wrong side of so many playoff sweeps and chemistry-gone-wrong situations? Could he have thrived in the Finals without a dominant sidekick like Kobe or Dwyane Wade?
Anyway, I had Shaq ranked 11th in my book's Hall of Fame Pyramid. For the paperback, I'm dropping him behind Moses Malone to 12th. So there. Other Pyramid rankings I'd change: Allen Iverson (29 to 32); Kobe (15 to 9); Dirk Nowitzki (Level 2 to Level 3); Nash (jumps two or three spots thanks to yet another MVP-caliber season); Jack Sikma (I'd include him and bump Arvydas Sabonis, if only for Jack's hair). If you haven't read the book and don't understand any of this, just nod.
4. I deleted a section called "Things That Never Would Have Happened From 1946 to 1983 If David Stern Were in Charge." My favorite tidbit: When Chicago landed an expansion team in 1961, the NBA gave the team the No. 1 overall pick, allowing it to leapfrog the lowly Knicks to pick prize center Walt Bellamy. New York settled for St. Bonaventure forward Tom Stith, who came down with tuberculosis and played only one season. Odds of this sequence happening on Stern's watch: 750,000-1.
5. A big theme of my book is The Secret of winning basketball, something Isiah Thomas explains to me at a topless pool in Las Vegas. (The Secret, in a nutshell: Teams only win titles when their best players forget about statistics, sublimate their own games for the greater good and put their egos on hold.) Another big theme of my book: Kobe Bryant's inability to grasp The Secret. He wanted to win a title, but only on his terms. That's what made him the most fascinating player of his generation. In the book, I even spend three pages comparing him to the wolf in Teen Wolf.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago: A reporter asks Kobe if he still has room to grow as a player. Kobe responds, "I do, I do. I think there's so much more to understand. A lot of it just has to do with winning. When you first come into the league, you're trying to prove yourself as an individual, do things to assert yourself and establish yourself. But once you've done that, there's another level to the game that's more complex than figuring out how to put up big numbers as an individual." (That's right, The Secret! He finally gets it! Man, I wish this were in my book.)
6. If you thought the NBA was dumb, the ABL (an early NBA rival) came up with the disastrous idea of staging "first-half playoffs," in which the best team in each conference played a three-game series at the halfway point of the season, for a spot in the 1962 Finals. Kansas City beat Cleveland for the bye, then disappeared for two weeks during the actual playoffs as Cleveland played two other series. Making your best team disappear for two-thirds of your postseason? Not savvy. But that wasn't as dumb as the ABL's putting one of its eight teams in Hawaii. This wouldn't even work in 2009. In a related story, the ABL went under in 14 months.
7. During the 1966-67 NBA season, Wilt was so bad at the charity stripe (a grisly 44.1%) that opponents started fouling him all over the court. Yes, Hack-A-Shaq: The Early Years! Incredibly, the NBA changed its rules midseason and handed out technicals for deliberate fouls away from the play. So why haven't they dusted off this idea in the Shaq era? You got me. I just love that they changed the rules midseason. My fantasy leagues wouldn't even do that. And yes, Wilt's 76ers won the title a few months later. As a Celtics fan, I'd like to file a belated protest.
8. That reminds me, in the "Greatest Teams" chapter, I wrote that no modern team could crack the top-10 all-time because of the restrictions of today's salary cap and luxury tax. I was wrong. The 2009-10 Lakers are going to be historically great. Nobody is going to touch them this season. I have already made room in the paperback for them. This is not a reverse jinx. As far as you know.
9. Did you know Bob Lanier was the centerpiece of the NBA's first-ever "Let's give our likable veteran star a chance to win his first championship" trade? (Detroit sent him to Milwaukee in 1980, but the Bucks lost to the Sonics in the conference semifinals.) Did you know Chris Schenkel was once the voice of the NBA? (Frank Deford crushed him in a 1971 Sports Illustrated piece, writing, "The choice of Schenkel ... was most unfortunate." There's a reason ABC kept him on bowling.) And did you know the 1981-82 Sonics launched a pay package of home games, giving subscribers a small descrambling box and access to every game for $120 per year? (Shockingly, in a league that was barely surviving at the time, this idea didn't catch on.) That's three did-you-knows that should have made the book but didn't.
10. If crooked NBA playoff series were heavyweight boxers, then the 2002 Western finals (Lakers-Kings) was George Foreman and the 2001 Eastern finals (Bucks-Sixers) was Earnie Shavers. Translation: People remember only George, but Earnie was almost as memorable. To briefly recap, Philly's wins in Games 1 and 4 swung on a controversial lane violation and two egregious no-calls. The Sixers finished with advantages of 186-120 in free throws, 12-3 in technicals and 5-0 in flagrant fouls. Glenn Robinson, one of Milwaukee's top-two scorers, didn't even attempt a free throw until Game 5. Bucks coach George Karl and star Ray Allen were fined a combined $85,000 after the series for claiming the NBA rigged it. In that game, Milwaukee's best big man, Scott Williams, was charged with a flagrant foul but not thrown out, only to be suspended, improbably, for Game 7.
The defining game: When Philly stole a must-win Game 4 in Milwaukee despite an atrocious performance from Iverson (10-for-32 shooting), helped by a 2-to-1 free-throw advantage and a host of late calls. How one-sided was it? When an official called a harmless touch foul to send Sam Cassell to the line with two seconds left and the Bucks trailing by seven (maybe the all-time we-need-to-pad-the-free-throw-stats-so-they-don't-seem-so-lopsided-afterward call), the subsequent sarcastic standing ovation nearly morphed into the first-ever sarcastic riot. And this was Milwaukee, the most easygoing city in the country! Nobody remembers this. The real loser was Allen, who exploded for 190 points in the series, including a record nine threepointers in do-or-die Game 6. Nobody remembers this, either. Even I didn't remember it. Crap.
11. In 1975, Larry O'Brien was hired to replace Walter Kennedy as the league's third commissioner. Do you know what his previous job was? Postmaster general. Or as my grumpy old book editor deemed it, "the Don Zimmer of patronage jobs." This résumé sequence became ironic when O'Brien mailed in most of his nine-year tenure.
12. In 1973, when the Baltimore Bullets moved to the brand-new Capital Centre in downtown Washington, owner Abe Pollin changed their name to the Capital Bullets -- a.k.a. The Dumbest Team Name in Sports History. Sounds like the title of a book about the death penalty, right? One year later, Pollin changed it to Washington Bullets. If you want to get technical, the Bullets/Wizards changed their name more times than any other franchise in league history: four in all. I feel like you need to know these things.
13. Along with the predictable number of typos and brain farts that come with a 700-page book (I listed all of them at thebookofbasketball.com), I accidentally omitted a 329-word footnote explaining why players' association czar Larry Fleisher was the fifth-most-important nonplayer in NBA history, behind Danny Biasone, Red Auerbach, David Stern and Doug Christie's wife. Where did it go? I don't know. It made it through early drafts, then disappeared like Sandra Bullock in The Vanishing. Chalk it up to a copy-paste tragedy. Hate those. Anyway, um, you'll have to believe me: Larry Fleisher was really important.
14. A year before the ABA-NBA merger, in 1976, two of the ABA's strongest teams, the Nets and Nuggets, tried to jump and leave the other six teams behind -- shades of Billy Zane in Titanic -- before blanching at the NBA's $3.2 million price tag and staying put. I always thought that was sleazy. Thanks for everything, guys. We're leaving for a real league now. See you later! In a related story, neither team has won an NBA title. Isn't karma a bitch?
15. Finally, I visited the Nike compound in Oregon recently and soon realized the company's approach is about 200 times more complex than I'd imagined. I'd always thought it signed someone, designed a cool-looking shoe for the guy, then mailed it to him. Nope. Nike brings many of its athletes to its campus, runs them through elaborate tests, breaks down their mechanics (not just the structure of their feet, but the way each body part relates to all the others) and everything else. The company takes pride in its guys not suffering major foot or ankle injuries.
The trip made me think of Grant Hill. In 1997, Fila blew him away with a massive $80 million deal meant to splash the company into the basketball market. With Nike and Reebok heatedly bidding for NBA stars, Fila went a different route: It threw the bulk of its basketball marketing budget behind Hill. But after staying healthy for six seasons, Hill injured his ankle and missed much of the next decade. Could his shoes have contributed to his woes? In any case, Fila doesn't sponsor NBA players or compete in that market anymore.
Yes, it could be coincidence, and yes, Fila surely was careful in customizing its shoe for Hill. But if a publishing company that printed only a couple of books a year tried to sign me, would I think, Do they have enough experience to publish mine? Damned right I would. The whole thing is weird. Keep in mind, it's usually bigs who battle chronic foot and ankle issues, not athletic swing guys. After my visit, I realized "What if Grant Hill had signed with Nike?" was a natural for my "Greatest What-Ifs?" chapter. Hill was headed for Level 3 or 4 of my Hall of Fame Pyramid, but he didn't make it. What if his career detour wasn't just bad luck? It's a great hypothetical, you have to admit.
Curious, I Googled what sneakers Hill is wearing this season. Yup ... Nike.
What if this made my book? Alas.
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