clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 Questions With Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.


I mentioned this on Monday, and it's shaping up to be a nice cupcake ending to a meatloaf week for basketball fans in Portland: Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko will be reading from his latest book at Powell's tomorrow night at 7:30 PM. The event is free, all are welcome and we'll head out to watch some hoops at a nearby establishment afterwards. 

The book is entitled The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. I gave a snapshot look at it earlier this week, but here are links to a few other trusted voices.

Ezra Caraeff of the Portland Mercury writes...

Their return to the bookshelf is FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, which departs slightly from Macrophenomenal's visionary examination of the personalities that propel the NBA, and instead offers a broad and utterly fascinating history lesson of the game. While the book pays tribute to the earliest days of James Naismith (or as they poetically dub him "the Peach Basket Patriarch"), better history lessons include obscure ethnic barnstorming squads (including the All American Red Heads, an all-ginger female team that toured in a limousine), baffling mathematical charts that compare the rise in league scoring to the English agricultural revolution, and a unique examination of the American Basketball Association ("The ABA was a professional sports league in the same way that a lump of viral matter counts as a life-form").     

At no point does The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History claim to be what its title boasts. Instead, the book is an essential guide to the NBA as seen through the eyes of brilliant outsiders-writers, statisticians, and illustrators-unwilling to describe the contents of the game in the typical language of the sports section. If you are watching basketball without the guidance of FreeDarko, you are simply doing it wrong.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus writes...

In typical FreeDarko fashion, The Undisputed Guide sacrifices comprehensiveness in favor of taking a deep dive on a handful of subjects for each decade. The big stars get FD treatment, but so too does Penny Hardaway because of what Nike's advertising campaign starring Lil' Penny said about the way shoe companies made basketball stars and vice versa.

That's typical of the FD approach, which could be considered NBA philosophy. As much as focusing on what happened and why over the course of the league's history, The Undisputed Guide concerns itself with what players and events meant to the future of the NBA and the larger cultural landscape. As such, the league's actual origins get more play here. The essay on the barnstorming teams that took professional basketball national at a time when organized leagues were strictly regional in scope is one of The Undisputed Guide's highlights.

I chatted with Shoals a bit this week regarding the book, the Blazers, Portland and a bunch of other topics. Here's our quick-fire 10 questions and answers. 

If there's a difference between the scope of these two books, the first seemed to be going as deep internally into a select group of players to draw meaning for an era while this book seems to be herding every arcane bit of NBA history into a room, and then organizing it to stitch together a broader portrait. the result for me was learning more about the game, in theory, than about its participants. Were you on a mission to strip basketball all the way down and re-think the game from its fundamentals?

If anything, we wanted to challenge some of received truths about the NBA's history. Is that challenging fundamentals? Would it make sense to say we wanted to get to the bottom of the fundamentals? Baseball has always done a really good job of making the past seem vivid, alive. That has a lot to do with the static nature of the sport -- it just doesn't change that much compared to, say, basketball, which is constantly evolving. That makes it easy to see the past as irrelevant, or antiquated. Or just a series of facts you need to know for the record book's sake. We wanted to try to relate to them the way we do today's game.

Would you agree there's nothing more smile/cringe-inducing than looking back on years-old writing to see what you got right or wrong? Was there an element of that process in reevaluating your first book in starting this second book?

I think we were relieved that this wouldn't be happening this time around. When you write about the past, it's not going anywhere. New things come to light, and there's always the possibility of new insight or analysis. But aside from the comments on LeBron and Durant at the end, nothing in this book is subject to what I called "the theme from The Hills rule". Knowledge is never absolutely fixed, obviously, but there's a certain amount of raw material you can count on when doing history.

Is it fair to call some of the essays in this book purposefully revisionist? that's a loaded word but there seems to be a consistent element of "setting things straight" and filling out previously existing overly-simplistic biographies. Was there a player(s) who you came into the process with the goal of writing the definitive take about?

There was certainly an element of revisionism, or an attempt to correct misperceptions. But that was largely because we realized early on how little we knew, and how lazy so many writers are when talking about NBA history. So no, we never though we could conjure up anything definitive, other than asserting, over and over, that basketball's past is far richer, and more complex, than we've been lead to believe. This book is only the beginning! I can only ever feel so bad about things that didn't make it in because, in a way, that was the point. To show that there's far more out there to consider than we may have previously thought.

Is there a chapter or segment in this book that you read back and get your Jason Whitlock on, like, "I just killed this?"

Since you wouldn't have asked if you wanted me to answer modestly (and thereby uselessly): Wilt, Celtics, Russell, Oscar/West/Baylor, Kareem/Walton, Stokes/Hawkins.

There's a philosophical debate going on right now about whether the Blazers should bring Brandon Roy off the bench. The argument against the idea starts and ends with "But it's Brandon Roy." Where do you think the line should be drawn when it comes to respecting players and their starting nod? The symbolism of the "benching" act seems to carry a lot of weight.

All players who aren't jerks can deal with coming off the bench if it's best for the team. I mean, the Spurs do that [expletive] all the time, and doesn't everyone want to be the Spurs? The problem is that, if healthy, Brandon Roy would never be coming off the bench. It's more about being forced to admit that Roy isn't himself, and therefore, is a far inferior player. Or at least one limited in ways that changes how he fits into the rotation. That seems far scarier, for Roy, the team, the organization, and the fans, than whether or not Roy's feelings are hurt. It's also the kind of thing that people are always looking for a way to avoid. "Disrespect" is just that kind of red herring.

Some people who read the first book thought it focused on individuals, and maybe didn't pay enough attention to "team." Did that kind of sentiment influence the second work?

I just don't think it's possible to look at teams as having psyches, or personalities, in the same way. Even the notion of style is a lot less rich when you adapt it to the team concept. That doesn't mean we reject teams, or teamwork, or like me-first players, though. The whole idea with the individual, and individuality, is that it makes for more totally awesome interactions with others. The collective can be the system of relations between strong, multi-faceted individuals. When we do focus on teams in this new book, it's almost always through the lens of the individuals, or an idea -- like the dynastic Celtics or seventies Knicks -- that allowed some iteration of the individual to flourish.

Bill Simmons has taken to calling Portland Trail Blazers fans "Soccer Moms." Surely you can do better.

Maybe I am hanging out in the wrong parts of Portland, but I fail to see how "soccer moms" makes sense on any level. How about "printmaking zealots"?

Explaining his lyrics "I ain't slipping through the cracks/So I'm at Portland, Oregon tryin to slip you these raps/ The first black in the suburbs" from the song "Hell Yeah" with Dead Prez, Jay-Z wrote in his new book "Decoded" ... "I chose Portland because it's the whitest place I could think of." Agree or disagree? Basketball implications?

The weird part is that Jay-Z probably only ever thinks of Portland because it has an NBA team. There are plenty of cities as white, and certainly more white. They just don't really register in the same way. I'm going to defer to Breaks of the Game for the rest of the answer.

What's the third Free Darko book? No cop outs like, "We just finished this one."

"We just finished this one" isn't a cop out when the book involves 12 people.

For more on the book reading, click here. I hope to see you out there.

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter