Rating the best basketball books is like arguing with your friends over the greatest hip-hop albums. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted? It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back? Breaking Atoms? Illmatic? You could go on all day. All solid choices, but too much personal preference, flavor and style come into play to settle on a clear-cut winner.
Just as I did recently with the 20 greatest basketball movies ever, I can’t give love to everything. There’s just no way someone can read every basketball book ever written; it’s like trying to get your hands on every track NaS has ever been on (believe me, I’m trying). For example, one-time Dime writer Camron Ghorbi once nominated To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever as a candidate for this list. Yet without reading it, I can’t give anymore than an honorable mention.
You’ll poke fun at my list, hate my list, argue with my list. But in the end, it is my list. So let’s get to it.
*** *** ***
15. THE ASSIST
Author: Neil Swidey
Okay, this was a tough one. Is The Assist as good as When The Game Was Ours or Unfinished Business? Eh, probably not. But as you’ll see from some of the entries on my list, it’s easier to make me fall in love with something I’ve never had before. Bird and Magic? Amazing, but I’ve only heard those stories dozens of times. The Dream Team? Great, but I’ll take something new. In the end, I chose this one over Drive with Bob Ryan and Larry Bird (the perfect writer/player team) because of a personal connection.
This is basically a stepchild of The Last Shot, a story about the unique situation at Charlestown High School and its coach, Jack O’Brien. I went to high school just outside of Boston, graduated the same year as many of these players and played against them in AAU and in summer camps. When I heard they had written a book about this team, naturally I needed to eat it up.
In my experience, these high schoolers were unbelievable. The team was as good as any in the state. However, in the grand scheme of things, they were minor D-1 recruits, and the story reflected that. It wasn’t so much about recruiting or college ball or being the next LeBron James. It was about the crossroads that divided the team’s two best players. It was about the history of Boston, the awful busing scandals and a screwed-up legal system. It was about O’Brien, one of the more complex coaches you’ll find in any of these books. The Assist isn’t known as a must-read for basketball fans. If it were up to me, it would be.
14. THE LAST SEASON
Author: Phil Jackson
For some, this won’t even rank as the best Phil Jackson book. There’s Sacred Hoops, Mind Games, even the recently released Eleven Rings. But The Last Season holds more appeal to me, probably partially because I’m a big Kobe Bryant fan. Before the Celtics in 2008, the Heat of 2010 and the Lakers of 2012, the Shaq/Kobe/Payton/Malone quartet in 2003-04 was the real super team. No one knew Malone would get hurt after being a straight iron man for nearly two decades, and no one knew GP was hitting the twilight of his career. It was supposed to be a walk to a title. Instead, the O’Neal/Bryant beef exploded and Jackson got pushed into the middle of it. This book includes the infamous comments made by Zen about the Mamba, comments that were supposed to keep them from ever working together again. They patched it up, which is surprising because some of this stuff is ruthless.
This book was so good that much of the content from Jackson’s newest book (Eleven Rings) seemed to come straight off the pages of this one.
13. FALL RIVER DREAMS
Author: Bill Reynolds
There’s only so much you can read about the Dream Team or about Michael Jordan. There’s only so much “inside access” you can take when, inevitably, that inside access dissolves into the same, tired cliches you’ve read about for the last 20 years. Fall River Dreams is different. Yes, it’s built off the classic storyline that’s littered Hollywood with average movies: small-town team comes together behind a passionate fanbase in their quest for a championship. But where this book is the anti-Varsity Blues is in the player/coach dynamic.
In this story, you watch the players, led by high school stud and future NBA player/druggie Chris Herren, do their best to undermine the authority of the coach. For once, you hate the players rather than the coach and spend the book hoping he can turn it around and get the high schoolers back on track before it’s too late. It’s somewhat of a depressing tale considering what we now know, but overall it’s a unique look into high school basketball in Eastern Massachusetts.