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Book Review: The Art of a Beautiful Game

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Good news: I've been inundated with basketball books to review as publishers prepare for the holiday season. So it's time to start a short book review series.  

With each review, my goal is to be as to-the-point as possible. Is it worth your Holiday dollars?  Who might particularly enjoy it?  Who should avoid it?  And, also, what do some other respected basketball voices have to say about it?  Hopefully this format will help you (or your loved ones) make better basketball-book buying decisions this Holiday season.

Click through for the first review of who knows how many: The Art of a Beautiful Game by Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.  You can order this book on here.

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter

PS Per Federal Law (or something), I'm required to disclose that I received a free copy of this book for review.

For better and worse, this book has one of the most accurate subtitles I can remember: "The Thinking Fan's Tour of The NBA."  It's clear from the beginning that Ballard is a true blue hoops junkie intent on learning the nuances of a game that he has spent his life playing (at the small college level), writing about (as an NBA writer for Sports Illustrated) and loving (as a "Thinking Fan" himself).  The book's premise is relatively straightforward: Ballard goes around the NBA, gleaning information from megastars like Kobe Bryant and underappreciated guys like Shane Battier. He presents his findings in what read like extended magazine profiles.  As expected, his writing is clean and elegant and his analysis and understanding are rock-solid.  

His writing role here resembles a top-of-his-class graduate student who meets with and prods the minds of some of the most brilliant thinkers in his field, assembles their ideas neatly and makes their lessons more palatable to a wide audience (say, a 300 level college course curriculum).  His role is an important gap filler because NBA players are notoriously protective of their secrets.

But, as the subtitle indicates, this is a "Tour."  What's the worst part of most tours, whether it's a home inspection tour or a wildlife safari tour? The guide has all the power!  He shapes what you can see, he makes decisions about what stays off-limits or what flaws remains hidden, and he generally strives to give you what he believes you want: an enjoyable, stress-free, worthwhile use of your time.   The major flaw with The Art of the Game is that the players are the real tour guides.  They decide which "secret" (if any) they reveal.  They provide generally self-indulging descriptions of their decision-making processes and even the candid "behind-the-scenes" moments feel a little bit scripted.

The end result: Ballard is your friend who traveled to Costa Rica and took 10 rolls of beautiful pictures.  He now plans to tell you stories about all the amazing people he encountered.  You've never been to Costa Rica, so you're definitely interested but you keep wondering whether he's glossing over things just a little bit. But let's extend the analogy to make it more accurate. Let's say you've seen documentary footage on the Discovery Channel from Costa Rica. Let's say you read the tweets of the people he met on a daily basis.  Imagine if his zany river-rafting guide had a great blog and was quoted multiple times a week in newspaper accounts.  How long does his photo-tour remain interesting?

That's the biggest limitation of Ballard's book and it's no fault of his own: he has written a behind-the-scenes book about a league and a game that is as wide open and accessible as any sport ever.  The standard for this kind of book is set so high because the die-hard fan's knowledge of its main characters is astronomically large.  Ballard's access to his key figures (or their friends, high school coaches, etc.) must deliver in ways that we've never seen before.

In some cases, Ballard really succeeds.  Memorably, he engages in a shooting contest with Suns GM Steve Kerr that probably stands as the best profile of Kerr the player, teammate, shooter and person ever written.  In other cases, though, he comes up shorter.  Did I learn more from his look at Kobe Bryant than from Free Darko's profile of Kobe Bryant (which completely eschewed access)?  No, not really.  Did I enjoy it more?  No, not really. Did he add anything meaningful to the "Shane Battier should be more appreciated" argument that wasn't covered in the New York Times profile of Battier (a profile that Ballard himself references).  No, not really.  For this book to truly, completely succeed, "No, not really" is simply not enough.

Perhaps this book would have benefited from more interweaving of the stories or a more clear overarching concept that fueled Ballard's tour.  More interplay between the subjects would have potentially added more drama.  As is, The Art of a Beautiful Game is a good but not great basketball book. It's a quick read and any basketball fan will definitely learn something from each profile.  Just maybe not as much as you were hoping for.

To Buy or not to Buy?

In the end, for the pure basketball diehard -- the person who wakes up every morning, checks HoopsHype and True Hoop before getting out of bed, owns NBA League Pass, has daily conversations about the NBA and has paid reasonable attention to the league over the past 10 years -- this book is interesting but might be slightly disappointing.  If you fit that description, I can't say that you should rush over to Amazon and purchase this book immediately.  But I can say, without question, that if you received this book as a gift you would be cool with it.

For the casual fan, either one who spreads his sports-following time out over multiple sports or one who follows one team and generally ignores the rest of the league, this book has significantly more value.  If you were asked "What makes Steve Nash so good?" or "What tools should an elite rebounder have?" and you don't have go-to answers at the ready, this book is perfect for you.  It might even succeed in deepening your fandom. 

If you, like Ballard, are an experimental pickup basketball player who is constantly looking for every little edge, this book is an absolute must-buy.  If there's one thread that connects his various profiles, it's Ballard's search for new additions to his own pickup game.  I know a lot of you play pickup so if you're going back and forth about this book, this could be a deciding factor.

If you're looking for a book with serious insight into the Blazers, this book is not the one for you.  Sorry.

Other Reviews

Henry Abbott of True Hoop writes...

Ballard writes for Sports Illustrated, where he produces beautiful, long and often meaningful features about these kinds of hoops topics. When you spend all that time with all those interesting NBA people, of course you'll develop all kinds of insights that don't make it in your articles. It's a natural impulse to want to combine all of that interesting stuff into one tome -- "the stories I'd tell you if you came over to my house" kind of thing.

The entire time I was reading this book, part of my brain was screaming for a central organizing theme beyond "grab bag."


To sum it up: This book is nearly impossible to sum up. But it's meaningful, insightful, enjoyable and well worth the read.    

Ben Q. Rock of Third Quarter Collapse writes...

But let's not pigeonhole Ballard as a mere wordsmith: he knows the game better than most anyone with a national platform, which he illustrates both in his nuanced observation of Battier's defensive techniques as well as his use of advanced statistics; indeed, he lists Roland Beech of, a favorite among stat-heads, in the acknowledgments. Art is darn near comprehensive as a 226-page book about the NBA can be, and one wonders what he might do if he were allotted 700 pages, as ESPN's Bill Simmons was for his The Book of Basketball.

Phoenix Stan from Bright Side of the Sun writes...

Preventing this book from getting a five balls rating was its lack of theme or story. As a read it was easy, quick, fun and informative. Beach reading for the basketball fan.

For hard corp b-ball geeks (or die hard Kobe, LeBron or Nash fans) it's a book you will want to read. Others can probably wait for the movie to come out.

Matt Lawyue of SlamOnline writes...

In this respect, the book succeeds. It truly is a book for the thinking fan, yet appealing enough for the casual fan to get hooked. The journalism is solidly from the Sports Illustrated mold, as the interviews and details demonstrate. The format of the book is more or less a collection of magazine-length stories found under the same headline. The chronology doesn't really flow from one basketball topic to the next, yet it doesn't harm the overall message of the book.

My only qualm is at the beginning of the book, where Ballard attempts to pick apart the "Killer Instinct" of Kobe Bryant. Understandably, not the easiest thing to do. One of the top players in the game isn't going to give up his secrets easily, even to a seasoned SI journalist. It also doesn't seem possible to explain Kobe's instincts until his career is over. Bryant's basketball journey evolves too rapidly, making it impossible to tell accurately and efficiently. You can't fault Ballard for trying, but this chapter of the book falls well short for a man of Kobe's stature.

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter