Rating the best basketball books of all-time is like arguing with your friends over the greatest hip-hop albums ever. 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 like when I created separate lists a few months back, naming the top 10 basketball movies and the 10 best documentaries, I’m not going to be able to 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 an mp3 of every track Nas has ever been on (believe me, I’m trying). For example, fellow Dime writer Camron Ghorbi mentioned To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever as a candidate. Yet, without reading it or hearing much about it, I can’t give any more than an honorable mention. So let’s get to it:
Honorable Mentions: The Assist (by Neil Swidey), Fall River Dreams (by Bill Reynolds), Loose Balls (by Terry Pluto)
10. The Miracle of St. Anthony
Author: Adrian Wojnarowski
In this 2006 release, St. Anthony’s legendary coach Bob Hurley is depicted as a psycho, relentless and commanding. Wojnarowski 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 the legend of 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 circumstances they are stuck in — nothing is ever bland at St. Anthony’s and the book is commanded by the coach’s passion.
Author: Mark Kriegel
Recently released (2008), this book takes the best swing at the legacy of Pistol Pete and the dominating presence of his father. I would say it deserves a spot on this list 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.
Also, 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.
8. A Season on the Brink
Author: John Feinstein
Former Indiana Head Coach Bobby Knight makes a great novel character, especially 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 filling parts focused on the crazed tactics of its coach. While this book was written almost 25 years ago, a lot of what takes place seems like it happened just yesterday. The book creates a lot of unintentional comedy because Knight routinely acts like a moron, berating his players verbally (“You are the worst fucking pussy I’ve ever seen play basketball at this school”) and physically (putting tampons in player’s lockers whenever they were lacking in 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 is 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. And perhaps that’s why this ranks as one of the best-selling sports books ever.
7. Fab Five
Author: Mitch Albom
“Freshmen versus y’all.” Jalen Rose has never been about mincing words and that statement — made as the freshman group was 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 spectacular and detailed account of an era 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.
6. Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made
Author: David Halberstam
One of the best writers combing 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 MJ eventually resort to showcasing his celebrity at some point throughout the novel. This one doesn’t. That’s a credit to Halberstam and a reason why he’s one of the best at what he does. 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. Yet, I can’t even rate it as the best MJ book simply because Jordan personally 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.
5. Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story
Author: David Wolf
Perhaps no player in the game’s history has created such an aura of mystery and intrigue as Connie Hawkins because 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.
4. Heaven Is a Playground
Author: Rick Telander
If you want a book that is concerned solely with the game, Telander’s description of a 1970’s summer in New York City is the perfect mate. Whereas other great hoops 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 breaks up the presence of the “hear and now,” 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 hard to get all that excited about it. Still, this is a classic and unique look at one summer in the playgrounds with similar characters that you would see in real life. There is a sentiment out there that this is the greatest basketball book ever. It’s up there, but I can’t put it at one.
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 — but this book delivers so much inside detail that it’s tough not to get completely submersed. The axis of this book is about 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 that it leaked, stuff like the psychological warfare Detroit prescribed to Chicago and MJ telling everyone to ignore certain people late in games while 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 is chronicling.
2. The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams
Author: Darcy Frey
This is the Friday Night Lights of hoop, the Thrilla in Manila, the final episode of “Lost.” I will never forget reading 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 the book following three high school seniors looking to conquer the streets and the SATs. All three have redeeming qualities — one is a comedic, 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 McDonalds’ 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 him. Throughout the book, Marbury also describes the benefits he will surely 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.
The crazy thing is that the three seniors are portrayed in a much better light. Yet, it’s Marbury who ends up the most successful of the three. Sad. This is basically the written version of “Hoop Dreams.” That’s high praise.
1. The Breaks of the Game
Author: David Halberstam
I think it’s saying something that Halberstam made this list twice. Dude 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 book with a ferocious appetite to find intimate details. 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, which is a similar book. Yet, it doesn’t matter. No one player, except for maybe Bill Walton, 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 has crafted dozens of full characters.
This is the definitive guide to what the NBA is all about. It also contains enough small subplots about the game itself while tackling larger issues within the state of American basketball. Basically, it’s the whole package.