Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game represents the art of beautiful sportswriting.
It’s one of the better basketball books I have ever read, and part of its allure is that it is broken down into compartmentalized, stand-alone chapters, each of which details a different aspect of the game. No matter who you are, at least three or four of them will be compelling to you.
Some readers will be struck by the opening piece on “Killer Instinct” that psychoanalyzes Kobe Bryant. Others will no doubt love the anatomical breakdown of LeBron that catalogs the reasons why his alien-like exoskeleton and other physical gifts make 66% of NBA players think he is the most athletic player in the League. And perhaps up to a billion others will love the chapter on Yao, Shaq and the other “superbigs” who have graced the association.
The “thinking fan’s tour,” however, lies more so in some of the other chapters that may lack some of the name-brand caché provided by the Black Mamba and The King. I, for instance, grew up as a three-point specialist who patterned my game around Reggie Miller, so I was immediately drawn in by the chapter about the “Pure Shooter,” which features Ballard — a former D-3 college player and, by the sound of it, quite the shooter himself — squaring off in a three-point shootout with Steve Kerr. As Ballard explains, Kerr may still look like a 15-year-old paperboy (my words, not his), but he is in fact getting up there in years and rarely plays hoops anymore. And after such a long lay-off from competition — and pretty much, from even shooting around altogether — even Kerr is’t sure how many threes he can hit on the afternoon him and Ballard get together. But as we soon learn, a shooter is a shooter is a shooter is a shooter, and Kerr holds his own against the unexpectedly accurate journalist.
Even more cerebral than outlining the theory behind the difference between a pure shooter and a very good shooter is the chapter on defensive specialists. The shut-down defender profile centers on Shane Battier, a man who has become very famous around the internet hoops community ever since Moneyball author Micheal Lewis wrote this New York Times Magazine cover story on him. Like Kevin Youkilis was to Major League Baseball before him, Battier has become the poster child of a new breed of advanced statistical revolution in the NBA. Certain basketball analysts, scouts and even GMs have begun to advocate a new method of thinking about the game that prioritizes using every possession efficiently. In layman’s terms, this means shooting a high percentage, not turning the ball over, getting to the line and, if all that still doesn’t allow your team to make a shot, getting some offensive rebounds. This train of thought places a distinct value on each possession and judges teams — and players — by looking at “success per possession” more so than the traditional barometer of “points tallied.”
No executive has embraced this concept like the Rockets GM Daryl Morey. And no player has embraced it more than Shane Battier. Sure, all NBA insiders are now aware of the fact that (a) the layup, (b) the free-throw, and (c) the corner three-pointer are the “most efficient” ways to score in the NBA. But the degree to which guys like Battier have expanded the concept of making the offensive player do what they do worst the most makes for fascinating reading. Like Michael Lewis before him, Ballard gets exclusive access to the Rockets’ operations and the insights he learns and shares with readers while essentially job-shadowing Shane on back-to-back games where he guards Brandon Roy and LeBron James are alone worth the price of the book. (There’s about 20 minutes of conversation on this stuff in a podcast I did with Ballard earlier this week.)
There is much more, however, including two fine chapters that delve into the intricacies of rebounding and shotblocking. And while all this stuff is great, ultimately, the book’s real accomplishment is its ability to combine these interesting, nuanced takes on parts of the games that remain too-often overlooked in favor of free agent talk and moral finger-pointing with what can only be described as damn fine writing.
As much as I enjoyed reading insider perspectives of NBA athletes and coaches, my favorite aspect of the book was simply the way the stories were told and Ballard’s ability to flip words. As a writer myself, I often found myself being more impressed than simply informed or entertained — although I was certainly both of those things as well.
So with the hopes that I’m not overextending the fair-use provision of a book review, I’ll just end this thing now with my favorite eight passages from the book rather than trying to weave them into an extended, more ambitious book review that would, ironically, probably just illustrate — glaringly — my inability to write about sports as well.
And really, the excerpts below are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to good writing — let alone great, throwaway anecdotes and thought-provoking, stellar chapters about some of the sport’s most fundamental aspects. (Cop it here on on Amazon.)
- “I can spend an hour talking to someone at a dinner party and never make the kind of real, true connection that comes from running one seamless give-and-go with a stranger during a pickup game.”
- “When [Ben Wallace] did jump, he had a tendency to do so with arms and legs at 45-degree angles, like an Afro-bedecked version of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.”
- “I asked [LeBron] James what he thought it would feel like when he could no longer jam. He talked about watching his sons grow up, then made a joke and finally said, ‘Maybe that will happen one day,’ as if he might ward off aging like it was just another weak double team.”
- “To talk to Barbosa is to receive the equivalent of a Steve Nash infomercial.”
- “After a pregame team meeting, Battier is back on the court for layup lines. While other players practice crowd-pleasing dunks, joke around and chat with players on the other team, Battier runs his layups with precision, claps his hands and, inside, quietly dies. This, he says, is by far his least favorite part of the night.”
- “To watch [Yao] shoot is to see the motion at it’s most refined. He keeps the ball high and releases it with his right hand in a short flicking motion, as if playing Pop-a-Shot. He does not jump and barely even moves his legs. His form is entirely replicable, almost robotic. By contrast, when [Rafer] Alston begins shooting jumpers 15 minutes later, his form is an intricate series of bodily tics and jerks. He takes the ball from the floor and whips it to his shoulder, then splays his elbow forward, leaping and catapulting the ball. It does not look as if Alston is even engaged in the same activity.”
- “Afterward, the two men headed in opposite directions: Michael Jordan into the air to celebrate and Ehlo to the floor, where he covered his face, as if he’d been teargassed.”
- “Those who excel at foul-free shot-blocking achieve it in different ways. Mourning and Mutombo waited near the rim, like human gargoyles; Okafor uses lateral quickness and anticipation; Andrei Kirlenko, the spider-armed Utah sixth man, prefers to come from behind the shooter after hiding “in the shadow of my teammate,” as he puts it. And [Dwight] Howard, well, he has the advantage of not being human.”