Friday, December 18th, 2009 at 8:00 am  |  15 responses

Decade’s Best: Basketball Book

Providing the ultimate snapshot of a rivalry that helped shape the League.

by Todd Spehr

It was, oh so quietly, a spectacular decade for basketball books. Definitive biographies of Wilt Chamberlain and Pete Maravich came our way; former greats put pen to paper (Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, two lads named Magic and Bird); immortal teams, such as the ’67 Sixers, the ’69 Celtics, and the ’72 Lakers, all were eulogized in print; light was shed on the most damaging fight (Rudy T and Kermit) and the most incomprehensible individual achievement (Wilt’s 100) as both had entire books dedicated to them; the greatest of them all was a victim of excellent writing in a negative light; and one SI writer spent an entire season as an honorary “assistant” on the decade’s most viewable and enjoyable team – the 2006 Suns. So, yes, we’re in a good spot.

Yet, for all that we got out of the decade, no one book adequately captured today’s era. Sure, The Last Season chronicled the modern-day egos, Seven Seconds or Less painted (from the inside) a picture of the style of game that was cultivated and became the norm, and even Macrophenomenal showed how the game’s coverage has diversified, but no one book captured all of the elements. No, not even The Book of Basketball, which, as this site suggests, would be better consumed as a second edition.

One book that perhaps symbolized the potential of the era, with its personalities and closer-than-ever coverage, was Only the Strong Survive – Larry Platt’s book on Allen Iverson. AI is obviously layered with interest: Culturally, racially, basketball-wise, right down to the tremendous odds he overcame. But you feel shortchanged because it was written too early in Iverson’s career (2003) and the book is, shall I say, on the short side. Was a great opportunity missed? Ultimately, yes. The late David Halberstam, apparently, couldn’t write every relevant pro basketball book. The point is, perhaps a great basketball book can’t be written as the subject is current. Perhaps we need time, we need a chance to find perspective, let a little dust settle, before it can be properly summed up in book form. Basketball has never just been about the game – so why write a book on just “the game?” In the end, the best books of this decade were written with strong historical context.

So it seems appropriate that the best basketball book of the decade be overlooked in many ways. This publication had everything great in a sports book: A topic that has never been written about yet one that is well-known, a wider perspective is delved into (not enough authors look “around” their subject), it was exhaustively researched, and was exctherivalrypicellently written. The Rivalry – Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball, by John Taylor.

The title may leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but in reality, the book isn’t just the documentation of the greatest rivalry this sport has seen – it examines the impact that two iconic black players had in an era where race and politics became tangled in professional basketball and probably meant more than they should have. It also outlines the tribulations that a still-somewhat-young NBA had; this was an NBA still surviving on double-headers, teams that had five employees, coaches that smoked on the sidelines, and a schedule that was made by a team owner. The author takes Russell vs. Chamberlain and gives us the broader perspective – the best books don’t just give us the facts, they put things in perspective. Taylor does that.

The Rivalry doesn’t shy away from issues that plagued both men during a difficult time in society.

It refers to Russell’s distaste for dealing with what he called “white thinking,” and his relationship with the Boston public, despite carting home a banner darn near every spring, was never a strong one. Yet, despite that relationship, the book also entails how Russell felt about being a Celtic: About the bond he shared with Red Auerbach, a bond that went deeper than player-coach, and about his deep affinity for his teammates. He bled green. Just like when they played, Russell and Chamberlain may appear as equals, but Russ is (in this book) the dominant figure.

The author notes in the acknowledgments that he was drawn to “the psychology of conflict.” Making sense of the complex relationship shared by William Felton and Wilton Norman was no small feat; they were friendly when they played, yet didn’t speak for the ensuing 20 years after their last on-court meeting. One was driven by unity, by chemistry, by winning, the other by numbers that would define him as great. The book indicates that Russell may have been driven by the fact nothing came easy to him at first – in the game of basketball, and, in the game of life. He was this close to landing a job as an apprentice at a sheet-metal company before going to college. Chamberlain, on the other hand, was perhaps softened by his elite status even as a high school prospect; the expectations and potential, the hype before we knew what hype was, always left us wanting more despite statistics of gargantuan proportions.

Bottom line is that The Rivalry is the definitive – the only – book on the Russell-Chamberlain joust. It’s a book that explains the surroundings just as much as the focal points, is more than just a tabulating strengths and weaknesses, and one that captures an era that in many ways shaped the game. The ultimate message of the book: If Magic and Bird saved the NBA, then Russell and Wilt made it a league worth saving. Read it.


For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.

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  • Michael Scorn

    The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons was the best.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Todd Spehr

    Don’t go into too much detail, Michael.

  • ha

    Michael is probably some young boy who sweats Simmons and knows nothing about basketball.

  • http://www.amazon.com/review/R739WZSZU7AGW Seth

    I recently finished When The Game Was Ours, the best book about basketball I’ve ever read. Check this out if you’re intrigued by the Bird/Johnson rivalry. I learned a lot about those two and I’m a big Celtics fan even. Great read.

  • http://www.teflinprague.com SAB

    i haven’t read Simmons’ book yet… but y’all really don’t like him, huh…

  • http://www.slamonline.com Todd Spehr

    I respect Simmons and his passion for the game. The thing is, there’s more people/writers that love the NBA with the same passion and knowledge… he just sometimes writes as if he’s the only junkie on the planet. As for his book, outside the errors it was an interesting read with a lot of angles, obviously well-researched, and thought-provoking.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Myles Brown

    Michael Leahy, When Nothing Else Matters. The definitive book on Michael Jordan.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Myles Brown

    And I did see your mention of it in the first paragraph, I just still think it was the best book. For a writer with no hidden agendas to not care about having his access cut off with Michael Jordan and provide such a hard hitting book is almost unprecedented. And to do so after the Jordan rules and in the twilight of his career makes it even better.

  • Donn

    Just finished with Simmons book…really enjoyed it. The book was well researched and he brought up a lot of good points. Although his love for his Celtics can be annoying, i highly recommend people to read his book.

  • Chris Ujma

    I agree with Myles about ‘When Nothing Else Matters’. I don’t care if it makes me naive; my previous doses of MJ were through mainstream media, so that book really opened my eyes to the ‘real’ Jordan.
    The other b-ball books I have devoured have been good, but not as groundbreaking in terms of re-shaping my character-framework of such an iconic player.
    He writes with no fear, and it isn’t Jordan-bashing either, which makes the whole book more credible.
    The best of the decade, yes.

  • Michael Scorn

    Is Bill Simmons the “F-word” around here?

  • http://www.slamonline.com Todd Spehr

    The Washington Post gave Leahy two years to follow the Wiz and present a warts-and-all, which he did. Personally, I felt that while the book was revealing, he may have tried a tad too hard to psycho-analyze, to hit the “aging athlete not letting go” angle. Very good book, though. Even a level above “Jordan Rules” as far as fearless portrayal of the GOAT. Personally, I see the best MJ book as “Playing for Keeps” – every bit the basketball book Halberstam was meant to write, perhaps even more than “Breaks.” I think “Playing for Keeps” was actually better for not having Jordan collaborate, as was originally planned.

  • TraceMc

    “Playing for Keeps” is definitely the best Jordan book, maybe the best basketball book or even the best sports book of all time. just a brilliant read!

  • Atrain

    David Halberstam’s Playing For Keeps is the definitive MJ biography. Nothing comes close, I have to disagree with Myles

    I also read Simmons book, and just wrapped up When the game was ours. Both very entertaining and enlightening.

  • Graham Flashner

    Excellent choice, Todd. For the younger fans out there for whom this era may feel prehistoric, it may not hold the same interest, but if you’re a student of NBA history, this is a must-read. As great as Jordan was, he never had a rival to spur him to greater heights. Bird and Magic had each other, but “When The Game Was Ours”, while it makes for nice, safe reading, doesn’t hold a candle to the incisive scope of this book, which goes well beyond just the game. Also, while Bird & Magic are both acknowledged winners, Wilt was always branded a loser, measured against the greatest winner of all time in Russell. There’s been no rivalry among big men that’s come close. Get this book NOW.