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.
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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.
Author: Mark Kriegel
Released five years ago (damn, been that long already?), this book takes a swing at the legacy of Pistol Pete, as well as his father’s dominating presence. It deserves a spot here for many of the same reasons as Foul! It’s basically a memoir about Pete Maravich’s life, detailing his crummy upbringing and then following him into his later NBA years when he became a sort of tragic, oft-injured former star. The pulse of the story revolves not on Pistol’s abilities as a showman, but on his deficiencies as a person and teammate.
Some of the most interesting parts explain his college years and the creation of “Showtime,” when the floppy-socked performer really was all of that magic and more.
However, this book isn’t only about Pistol and what made him the greatest showman since Buffalo Bill. Kriegel outlines his family’s history, starting with when Press, Pete’s father, was first introduced to basketball. This is a psychiatric look into a father-son relationship that was both destructive and loving. Pistol is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.
11. THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANTHONY
Author: Adrian Wojnarowski
In this 2006 release, St. Anthony’s legendary coach Bob Hurley is depicted as almost psycho, relentless and commanding. Wojnarowski — yes, the beast of NBA Twitter — gets unlimited access to follow the legend and his “dysfunctional” 2004 roster at the tiny New Jersey school. He reminds me so much of my own high school coach: the type of person that could drive you insane, but you always knew where he stood and where his heart was at. It’s no wonder Hurley gets his kids to play so hard; they respect, adore and fear him. There is that overused description of a basketball coach acting as a father figure. In this case, Hurley is the father, mother, coach, motivator, teacher and friend all rolled into one ball of fury.
This book centers on Hurley and the stories of a few of his best players. While the themes can be slightly played out — older, white coach doing all he can to rid his players from the ghetto — nothing is ever bland at St. Anthony’s and the book is headlined by the coach’s passion.
10. A SEASON ON THE BRINK
Author: John Feinstein
Former Indiana Head Coach Bobby Knight makes for a great character, especially when he’s on the cusp of a championship. This book chronicles the 1985-86 Hoosier season, the year before Indiana’s last national championship. However, the most intriguing parts focused on the crazed tactics of its coach. While this book was written around 25 years ago, a lot of what takes place seems like it happened just yesterday. The book creates unintentional comedy too, because Knight routinely acts like a moron, berating his players verbally (“You are the worst f—— pussy I’ve ever seen play basketball at this school”) and physically (putting tampons in player’s lockers whenever they lacked toughness).
It is one of the rare books that, similar to The Breaks of the Game, brings you into the huddles and team meetings. While it’s easy to look back at Knight’s career and poke fun at how stupid many of his tactics were, at the time people were enamored with his coaching ability. That’s part of the reason why this ranks as one of the best-selling sports books ever.
9. FAB FIVE
Author: Mitch Albom
“Freshmen versus y’all.” Jalen Rose has never been about mincing words. That statement — made as the freshmen were busy taking over summer pickup games at Michigan — set the tone at Ann Arbor, as well as in this book. Fitting that such a fantastic writer like Albom would find himself writing about a groundbreaking era like the Fab Five’s time in college.
Starting from the beginning, Albom details exactly how each kid ended up at Michigan. Considering how every year that we extend further away from this unprecedented collection of talent, the more the mystique behind them grows and the more this detailed account is needed. It’s amazing to read this book again, considering this group laid the blueprints — fashion, attitude, recruiting, superstars teaming up — for the current state of the game.
8. LOOSE BALLS: THE SHORT, WILD LIFE OF THE AMERICAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Author: Terry Pluto
Looking for something unique? Read Loose Balls. Not only is the content different than anything else you’ll see on this list, it’s told differently as well. What I mean is the story is showcased literally through the mouths of those who lived it. The book begins as you’d expect: an oral history about the beginning of the ABA. It’s solid, but at least for me, it was a little boring. The book picks up steam once it hits the legend of Julius Erving. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a competitor say a bad thing about Dr. J, and while you need to be wary about exaggerations, the stories found here are amazing. Erving was a mythic figure, even more so in the original ABA.
But the highlight of the book, and the reason why it makes the top 10 here, are the stories about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes of the St. Louis Spirits. Unreal… stuff that was almost too wild to be true.
7. PLAYING FOR KEEPS: MICHAEL JORDAN AND THE WORLD HE MADE
Author: David Halberstam
One of the best writers combining with perhaps the greatest player of all time created this spectacular rendition of who Jordan was and what he personally did for our society. Most books on the GOAT eventually resort — at some point — to kneeling beside MJ’s throne. This one doesn’t. That’s a credit to Halberstam and a reason why he was one of the best. There is only so much time one can spend reading about Jordan’s six first-half threes against Portland in the 1992 Finals or about his record-setting 1986 Playoff performance in Boston. This book tackled the Michael phenomena on an enormous scale without forgetting the details. The context of the story is told through Chicago’s final championship run in 1998.
Of all the other books written on Jordan, this one is the most fair. While it often derides Jordan for his treatment of lesser teammates, it also spends a great deal of time on how competitive and business savvy he was. Still, I can’t rate it as the best MJ book simply because Jordan wasn’t involved. Halberstam claims the two had interviews set up, but once the season ended, they never materialized. That’s really the only negative.
6. FOUL! THE CONNIE HAWKINS STORY
Author: David Wolf
Perhaps no player in the game’s history created more of a mysterious aura than Connie Hawkins. Why? No one knows how good he could’ve been. This book hints at that; it details his high school antics and how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was once enamored with the shy, droopy-eyed kid who was the hottest young commodity in New York City.
This is a novel that takes on a depressing story about one kid and uses it to illuminate the gluttony and devilish schemes of the NBA, as well as the intricate history of the New York playgrounds.
The only problem with this book is that it seems to drag on. There were a lot of almost unnecessary details. If they had just focused on the only real theme that mattered — the shady treatment of Hawkins by the NBA — it would’ve seemed less congestive. Wolf’s amount of detail is amazing, but it almost derides from the real heart of the story.
5. HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND
Author: Rick Telander
If you want a book concerned solely with the game, Telander’s description of a 1970s summer in New York City is the perfect mate. Whereas other great hoop books get their excitement from reading about icons or memorable teams, this book focuses on the childlike innocence of the game itself. Telander captures the essence of the street because much of the conversation in the book is embedded in slang and playground talk. Whereas many books are clouded with too much research that sometimes breaks up the presence of setting, Heaven never widens the scope.
The only problem with this book is that while it was regarded as groundbreaking when it was originally written (1976), the playground has been covered many times over since then. The style and atmosphere has been written about so extensively that now it’s harder to get excited about it. Still, this is a classic and unique look at one summer in the playgrounds with similar-to-everyday-life characters. Some feel this is the greatest basketball book ever. It’s up there, but I can’t put it at one.
4. THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL: THE NBA ACCORDING TO THE SPORTS GUY
Author: Bill Simmons
While this one was never considered traditional “journalism,” it probably includes just as much interesting insight as anything on this list. Simmons tackles the best players ever, the NBA’s biggest what ifs?, dishes on the Wilt/Russell debate and even the dreaded who do you want to defend us in a basketball game to the death should aliens set down on Earth? If you’re looking for an interesting read that’ll get you thinking, and one that never loses its luster even if it weighs more than anything else on your bookshelf, read this one. Does it carry the traditional Boston bias? Of course it does. Still, I never felt like that was a negative here.
People love to hate on Simmons for a variety of reasons, but you can’t hate on this book. Too much information. Too much insight. Too many plausible arguments. It’s a page turner and that’s probably the ultimate compliment.
3. THE JORDAN RULES
Author: Sam Smith
Say what you want about Smith’s writing style — many feel he almost markets himself as a tabloid writer — this book delivers so much inside detail that it’s tough not to get submersed. The axis of this book is the Chicago Bulls’ first championship season in 1991, a year that saw a legendary loser (at the time) Michael Jordan at his most ornery, Phil Jackson before the media softened his Zen and a team moving in on their close-up. It also covers the years it took to build both the Bulls title-winning team and the unprecedented celebrity of Jordan.
The Jordan Rules is famous for the inside information it leaked, stuff like the psychological warfare Detroit prescribed to Chicago and MJ telling everyone to ignore certain people late in games… even as Bill Cartwright physically threatened him. Smith also dives right into the jealousies and intricacies of the team and its ownership. On the way to the first of the team’s many titles, readers can already see the internal strife that would later break them apart.
Never a dull moment, never a page that doesn’t provide interesting insight into the people involved, this book is full of wild proclamations and deeds, fitting for the transcendent people it chronicled.
2. THE LAST SHOT: CITY STREETS, BASKETBALL DREAMS
Author: Darcy Frey
This is the Friday Night Lights of hoop, the Thrilla in Manila, the Godfather, the final episode of “Lost.” I’ll never forget this book: a story about a group of high school players, all good enough to be carried by their talent but also close enough to home to watch it all slip away. “Home” in this instance is Coney Island, New York, and Frey spends the majority of time following three high school seniors looking to conquer the streets and the SATs. All three have redeeming qualities — one is a comedian, another is humble and unassuming and the final one has a legendary work ethic.
Despite the kids’ likeable personalities, the circumstances they face — no money, drugs, limited education, a country that cares little about the inner city — are immensely destructive.
The inclusion of a middle-school aged Stephon Marbury is incredible. While he isn’t the focus, the future NBA All-Star’s boldness is magnetizing. There’s a scene in the book where the author goes through a McDonald’s drive-thru with the young Marbury. Not only does the kid order enough food for three or four people, he expects Frey to pay for it all. Throughout the book, Marbury also describes the benefits he will get from whichever school he goes to and generally acts like a spoiled brat. You read that and then it all hits you. No wonder Starbury ended up like he did. (It wasn’t all his fault, either. He was just a product of the times.)
The three seniors are all portrayed in a much better light. Yet, ironically, it was Marbury who ended up the most successful. Sad. And expected. This is basically the written version of Hoop Dreams. To me, there’s no better way to describe it.
1. THE BREAKS OF THE GAME
Author: David Halberstam
I think it’s saying something that Halberstam made this list twice. He was a beast. His books are consistently applauded for their level of detail and research. This one might be his apex. Focusing on the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazer squads that directly followed the team that won a title behind Bill Walton, Halberstam attacks the intimate details with a ferocious appetite. Younger cats probably won’t recognize many of the names, yet the themes within the book still apply today. At its core, not much has changed in the NBA.
This book lacks the superstar quality of The Jordan Rules. Walton is probably the most accomplished player who’s heavily involved. But it doesn’t matter. No single player occupies too much of the reader’s time and all of the characters, no matter how small, are given chances to tell their stories. By its conclusion, this book crafted dozens of full, three-dimensional people.
This is the definitive guide to what the NBA is all about. It contains enough small subplots about the game itself while also tackling larger issues within the state of American basketball. Basically, it’s the whole package.
What do you think?
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