Okay, I am cheating here. This is a film and television website/blog. BUT HEAR ME OUT. NBA books are the essentially this long informal serialized series that reminds me of A Song of Ice & Fire (only if they were written better than what Martin puts out). The Palace Intrigue dynamic is just electric. The catty drama is insane. So, in honor of the HBO ’80s Lakers Series that is inspired by Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, I figured I would begin this project.
(Now, amusingly enough, said book on the Lakers is not now, nor scheduled to be included. It is frankly quite mid. As you will see, a single volume on a franchise meant to cover many years is often an inadequate combination.)
***LIKE ALL LISTS ON THIS WEBSITE: THIS LIST IS A WORK IN PROGRESS AND WILL BE CONTINUOUSLY UPDATED AS I READ MORE NBA HISTORY***
Wing #1: A TEAM’S SEASON
The Franchise: Building a Winner with the World Champion Detroit Pistons, Basketball’s Bad Boys
A reasonable length for the average reader of NBA books usually falls in the range of 250-350 pages. This relatively arbitrary length limits what an author can effectively cover in most cases. When it comes to following a team/franchise, that length usually works best when the book limits itself to only looking at one season for that team. Otherwise the books that try to cover a longer period of time ending up feeling shallow. A book that perfectly encapsulates the advantages of just covering one season is the book about the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons. It gave the author a chance to go in-depth on a very unique team on the rise that managed to actually end the stranglehold that the Lakers and Celtics had on the NBA. It also is fascinating to go back and read because it was published in the moment so it captures a specific moment in NBA history where the author did not fully know that the Lakers and Celtics were done as genuine contenders and truly had no idea what was to come with Jordan and the Bulls. A great read.
Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns
Unfinished Business: On and Off the Court With the 1990-91 Boston Celtics
Jack McCallum is probably more famous for other books, but he is always in peak form while covering unique teams that have relatively ordinary seasons all things considered. When covering greatness, his worldview allows for too much hagiography which, while compelling, simply pales in comparison to his work covering more modest teams. McCallum has such a natural love for people that he shines when he is placing the spotlight on those who may not otherwise be in the spotlight. The Suns book is really notable because the book took place in the second season of the hot Suns/D’Antoni run. There were probably expectations that they would be a potential championship team, and McCallum would be covering them the whole season. Injuries to key players early in the season essentially erased that as a possibility which, as sad as that was for the Suns, made for a great hook. The Celtics book is notable because it was the second-to-last season of Larry Bird’s career. After three years of the Pistons reigning over the eastern conference and the season starting before Michael Jordan ever made it to the finals, this was the last conceivable scenario in which the Celtics’ Big 3 could make one final run.
Just Ballin’: The Chaotic Rise of the New York Knicks
On the surface, this may seem like a weird selection for the lone book directly about the New York Knicks. Do not get me wrong, there are some genuinely interesting books about the Knicks! This one about the 1999 season is by far the most successful at what it aims to do. For starters, it came at an exceptionally fascinating moment in the history of basketball. Between the lockout and the end of the Michael Jordan Bulls, the NBA was in a huge transition period. In some ways, it was equally fascinating and transition moment for the Knicks in particular. Their 90s was a period of coming-so-fucking-close to punching through. Like oh so many teams before and after, the Knicks of the 90s built a team that would have covered themselves in gold and glory if not for one thing – Michael Jordan existed. So, here was their chance. Jordan’s Bulls were gone for good. Could the Knicks give it one last chance? Instead of hanging on to their 90s roster though, they essentially cleared everyone out except Ewing, and the plan almost collapsed in on itself as they barely got the 8 seed in the playoffs. And yet, despite that, they made an implausible run to the finals. Besides having a tremendous premise, the book also serves as a tremendous time capsule as it was written in the moment. It captures the moment in time – for good and bad reasons – so very well, and it functions as an invaluable book about the NBA.
WING #2: THE MICHAEL JORDAN BOOKS
The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of One Turbulent Season with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
There are some genuine great books about mythologizing Michael Jordan. And it is possible that one day I will one day feel the need to add them to The Canon. But at this point in time, I am not really interested in the myth of Michael Jordan – no matter how fascinating it always ends up being. The Jordans Rules enters The Canon not just for being a great yarn (and it is), but because it captures the perfect impefection that is Michael Jordan, the human being, while he is on his journey to destroying the narratives about him as a player and winning an NBA championship. This book was a big deal at the time, and you can broadly sum up the reaction as being a takedown of Jordan. The reason for that take was quite natural – Jordan’s image was impractically pristine up until that point in time. This book reminded us that the beauty of Michael was that he did everything did all the while being an actual human being. It was a great book by Sam Smith…
Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey Of Michael Jordan From Courtside To Home Plate And Back Again
…and Smith somehow managed to top himself with an infinitely less popular/known follow-up. If The Jordan Rules gets by with just being the first book to show the humanity of Jordan, Second Coming elevates that premise exponentially by capturing one of the most interesting periods of Jordan’s career and life – the time when he quit basketball, briefly became a minor league baseball player, and then attempted what would end up being his first comeback. The book further benefits from covering the Bulls in a wild transition time for them while they try (and mostly come up short) to remain a serious title contender without Jordan. It also is another book that benefits in retrospect from being published in that moment. The final portion of the book being about Jordan failing in the 1995 playoffs was just gripping. It is one of the few published texts from before the second three-peat with a point-of-view that Jordan’s time on top was likely over. It is one of the best NBA books and one of the best Jordan books ever. But it is not the best.
When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback
Welcome to the greatest book about basketball. It covers Michael Jordan’s two years with the Washington Wizards. There is a decent chance that you are not familiar with this book, and an even greater chance that you have not read it. Unlike so many other popular and/or great NBA books, this story is not a “happy” story. It feels like reading a Shakespearean tragedy. It feels like reading the fall of a God. Much like The Jordan Rules, any overwhelming sense of negativity that you may feel/sense about the book is a misread. It is quite clear that the author has a great deal of empathy for Michael Jordan. Because the tragedy of this book was that Jordan was undone by his greatest weaknesses and by being unable or unwilling to adjust with the times. Yes, the book does put a spotlight on some lesser moments of Jordan’s life (Google Michael Jordan and Kwame Brown). But I do not feel like that would be a fair primary takeaway from this work. If anything, this very human end to Michael Jordan’s basketball career is the most fitting. The magic of Michael Jordan was not that he was a god. It was that he was a human being who managed to do what he did. And human beings do not last forever.
WING #3: A TIME IN THE LIFE OF A FRANCHISE
Jail Blazers: How the Portland Trail Blazers Became the Bad Boys of Basketball
The Blazers from the late 90s and early 2000s were some of the most loaded teams in NBA history. The horrid (and racist) nickname the media gave them truly unfairly gave them a horrible reputation. Now, don’t get me wrong. The team had a number of “strong personalities” that certainly were not easy to manage, but the vast majority of crimes were marijuana related so this bad reputation was clearly in the hands of the media who ensured that the players and team were spoken of horrifically. The book does a good job of mostly taking a step back, showcasing the in-the-moment coverage of the organization so that we can draw our own conclusions. It truly feels like an immersive experience where we get a sense of what it was truly like to be a fan of the team for a decade. It is a rare book that is fully successful at taking on a large period of time in a franchise’s history. It does so simply by not forcing the page count down.
WING #4: THE BUSINESS OF BASKETBALL
From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA
This book is the definitive guide to David Stern and the NBA’s modern love affair with capitalism (going on forty years strong at this point). The book is predominantly set between the years of Stern’s rise in the NBA and the early years of Jordan taking over the league from Magic and Bird. The author tries to take a low-inference approach to reporting on the key business decisions of the NBA during that time period, but the POV of the author is undoubtedly the more money the NBA is making and the more slop created for people to spend their money the better for everyone involved (and presumably the world at large). That conforming to the NBA’s perspective gives the book an incredibly low ceiling. There is no doubt however that the book has immense value as both a resource and as a unique book to exist. While many of the topics discussed are mentioned elsewhere in the extensive library of books about the NBA, there is no doubt that this book goes far more in-depth overall. It’s a book that can one day be done better in a variety of ways by someone else but has immense value until that day actually happens.
WING #5: NBA PROLOGUE – BEFORE THEY GOT PAID
When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball
I am far less versed in college basketball history and am only at the beginnings of my studies on the subject. The book about the NCAA Championship game between Magic and Larry was the ideal entry point for me however. The highest rated basketball game in United States history and essentially introduced the greater basketball watching public to two young men who would become two of the biggest and best stars in the history of basketball.
The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball
The Last Great Game does the classic sports book gimmick of using a single game as a story frame as an excuse to go deep on a set of players and coaches. In this case, Wojceichowski uses what might be the most famous college basketball game ever and tells the story of one program solidifying its status as a powerhouse (Duke) and one program on a (quick) comeback from near-death (Kentucky). Wojceichowski falls into the typical sports book trap of painting the subjects in essentially the best possible light possible where their positive attributes are emphasized and any slight mention of shortcomings portrayed with the ultimate amount of empathy. That POV is not really commendable in any way, but it’s a bit more understandable when writing about people when they were teenagers. The most interesting “character” is of course Christian Laettner. Between this and the solid Grant Hill autobiography, you get an interesting perspective on the real Laettner and less of the persona that existed in the media. At the very least, he was a complicated and fascinating figure and extremely historically significant for college basketball.
WING #6: AUTO/BIOGRAPHY
Somebody’s Gotta Be Me: The Wide, Wide World of the One and Only Charles Barkley
I have read a handful of entertaining/illuminating player bios or autobios, but they always were written in such a way that felt too generic to feel special. Enter this really unheralded book where David Casstevens followed Charles Barkley every week (day??) of the 1993-1994 season. It was a great time to follow Barkley as he was just coming off his MVP season where he made his only NBA finals, Michael Jorden had just retired (for the first time), and Barkley was seriously considering retirement. It was a huge potential transition moment for him personally and the league. Instead of doing the traditional childhood-to-retirement blow-by-blow, the book snaps a photo in time. The book is out of print now but worth tracking down.