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Book Review: The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan’s Tour of the NBA by Chris Ballard

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It is no secret to the seven of you who've recently listened to our Treehouse Fort podcast that one of my sports goals this winter is to reintroduce myself to the NBA. There have been more than a few changes since I last watched the league closely (Oklahoma City has a team?), including the phenomenon of basketball writers, bloggers, and fans taking to the Internet and creating a network of brilliance and eloquence. This is true for any sport, but it doubly applies to the NBA in that their proponents and media members are not only passionate about their sport, but unduly coherent and intelligent in their writing. I'm jealous.

Ballard's book does nothing but reinforce this. His core mission with The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA is not necessarily to proselytize (although if it has that effect, I'm sure he wouldn't mind) but rather to dispel a myth that I find myself half-believing: the league is a bunch of gifted athletes with little skill. So much is happening on the hardwood that greenhorns and even seasoned fans may not notice, and through his years writing for Sports Illustrated, he sets forth ignoring the melodrama of league politics and transactional hearsay and simply talks to basketball people about friggin' basketball.

With that, The Art Of A Beautiful Game is organized according to each realm of the sport. Naturally, the first chapter covers Kobe Bryant and his killer instinct, with the final one analyzing LeBron James as a physical specimen. In between are many other facets of the sport: shot blocking, rebounding, dunking, conditioning, and pure shooting. But of course an NBA book begins with Kobe and ends with LeBron.

Each skill, as promised, provides a smart and multilayered perspective. When discussing free throw rituals, for example, he'll roll through many famous idiosyncrasies, such as Karl Malone's muttering before each shot. I had always wondered what he said, and sure enough, he gives one lip reader's theory. Someone could probably write an entire encyclopedic book on free throw superstitions and I might not get bored with it.

But the best chapter zeroed in on defense, perhaps the most enigmatic and yet critical element of basketball, because it's so difficult to measure "a good defensive player." Specifically, Ballard looks at Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier's back-to-back tasks guarding Brandon Roy and LeBron James. Retelling these games extended the worth beyond "what it means to be a defensive player," such as Shane Battier feeding the ego of a referee who called a foul on him. While the outcomes were inconsequential, the anecdotes within the games never biodegrade.

(Aside: Ballard mentions Michael Lewis' outstanding article about Battier written in the New York Times back in February, and I absolutely love how a Google search for "Shane Battier" gives you the following results, in order: his Wikipedia entry, his NBA page, his Yahoo! Sports profile, that article, his ESPN card, his official website, and his Basketball-Reference stats.)

After the chapter on defense are two installments: an in-depth, first-person account of conditioning like a pro at IMG Academies, and a profile of the outsider basketball guru, Idan Ravin. For whatever reason, they just didn't resonate with me. I found myself waiting for them to be over. This might be where the fully-developed NBA fan will enjoy the book the most. But perhaps the learning curve steepened a little too fast.

In the end, did he accomplish his intended goal? Regarding the myth of how the NBA players aren't entirely skilled … I'd like to think I knew this (any sport looks simple until you discover the nuances). Perhaps the disconnect between casual sports fans and the athletes is simply a matter of inches. Or in this case, many, many more inches.

The average American male is about 5-foot-10-inches in height; for the typical NBA athlete, the median is 6-foot-7. And in this league, players as tall as 6-foot-9 can be labeled "undersized" without being laughed out of the arena. It's a given that any professional athlete is not like you or me (they're better!) but the discrepancy is simply all the more blatant in this game.

The same size envy (or ignorance) can be applied to football offensive linemen, or perhaps to baseball players who can hit 40 homers. The perceived talent and preparation is lost in that big body. All they do is jump high, push guys out of the way, or swing the bat hard. If I was that big, I could do that. Yes, if only I was as tall as Shawn Bradley, Tony Mandarich, or Brad Eldred.

This is the reality. And, no, there's nothing anyone can do about it. The people won't get shorter, and in Ballard's chapter about 7-footers, the bigger men are becoming more than lane-cloggers. He points out that imports like Dirk Nowitzki are revolutionizing the role of tall men, not to mention how Yao Ming was a 7-foot-6-inch Chinese government science experiment whose results have been very successful.

After this book, now I question the myth (which Ballard, I'm surprised, didn't tackle) perpetuated by little Joey about how the guys don't really try, except during the playoffs. Indeed, the only NBA game I ever attended was two years ago: Detroit and Miami, back when they kept butting heads in the Eastern Conference Finals. For the first three quarters, I saw such a dearth of hustle as compared to college basketball. But maybe a brisk jog or standing up straight during half the game is actually a calculated decision, and not just a means to exert the smallest amount of energy before the postseason.

Maybe that'll be his second book.

Because it's Sports Illustrated, a color photo gallery appears midway through the book. And for Cavaliers fans perhaps still bewildered that a superstar like James remains on their team and is featured on the cover of this book, inside this photo array lays one of many reasons they're so cynically self-deprecating in the first place: look, there's Craig Ehlo, hardly in position to defend Michael Jordan.

Ballard's style of writing blends reporting, both journalistic and anecdotal, with some stat-brained research. (Something for everyone.) The occasional four-letter word adds a touch of realism you don't normally see in the print magazine, because some of the [cotton-picking] quotes have to be pasteurized for sensitive eyes.

With standalone chapters, there is no need to read it sequentially, although finish it quickly; the book admittedly dates itself by mentioning a player's "current" team, for example.

One may not remember all the specifics outlined by Ballard and his interview subjects, but he does proffer the notion that a fan could spend all day appreciating any aspect of professional basketball. Even Shawn Marion's jump shot.

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