A couple months back, someone asked if I'd like to receive a copy of The Art of a Beautiful Game, by Chris Ballard, to review for our site. Enamored with the idea that my opinion mattered to somebody, I quickly agreed. Now, the moment of truth has arrived, and I find myself between a rock and a hard place.
See, there were some minor difficulties in getting the book to me, and then once I received it, I wanted to take my time and get to know the book as well as possible. Now I'm ready to review the book, but I have a problem. As it turns out, everyone in the NBA blogosphere has already reviewed this book. And they've said just about everything there is to say about it, both good and bad.
Everyone has been complimentary of the writing itself, and those compliments are well deserved. Ballard knows what he's doing with his words, and the words of others. His ability to break down every little nuance of a seemingly simple action, like shooting a free throw, or boxing out for a rebound, is on full display. And he does a great job of using player quotes, laden with swear words, to give you the impression that the athlete is speaking directly to you.
Opinions on the book itself are varied, sometimes even contradictory. Some say the book is targeted towards hoop junkies. Others say hoop junkies will be disappointed by it. Hard as it is to believe, they are both right. The most visible complaint is that the book lacks a central theme. There's no transition from subject to subject. There is no general progress towards an ultimate basketball truth. There is no overall message. It's subtitle is "A Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA", but it could just as easily have been "A collection of short stories, essays, and articles about the NBA". Each chapter is self-contained, its message pertaining only to that chapter alone. Henry Abbot expresses this perfectly...
When you spend all that time with all those interesting NBA people, of course you'll develop all kinds of insights that don't make it in your articles. It's a natural impulse to want to combine all of that interesting stuff into one tome -- "the stories I'd tell you if you came over to my house" kind of thing.
As Abbot says, this was undoubtedly the motivation behind the book. Ballard wanted an opportunity to share all of the little things he's picked up over the years. And the mini-stories almost make the book worthwhile all by themselves. I learned quite a few interesting facts and anecdotes that will help me to better understand NBA athletes, and for that, I certainly cannot say the book is without merit.
The lack of a central theme is completely forgivable. This is a book about sports, it's not a novel. There's no one correct way to play basketball. You can bang down low, you can hang around the perimeter and shoot jumpers, or you can focus on nothing but defense, and still be an asset to your team if you do your job well. And Ballard does a great job of providing a snapshot, filled with nuance and detail, of all of those roles. So, I wasn't bothered that Ballard didn't connect the dots between a chapter on being a great shooter and a chapter on being a great rebounder, because there are no dots to connect.
For me, the book's "self-contained chapter" format is both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. Sorry for the cliche, but it's true. As mentioned above, each chapter is a wonderful in-depth look at what goes into many of the different roles of basketball. On the other hand, depending on your knowledge of the game, many of the individual chapters fall short, because while the details are unique and brand new, the subject itself is not. Allow me a quick aside to explain what I mean.
In college, I had a theory on how to write papers. Think of the most ridiculous argument or premise that fits the context of the assignment, and then try to prove it. It certainly led to some interesting theses (You try writing 15 pages on why McCarthy made the USA a better place.) However, it wasn't a particularly successful theory because I was an incredibly lazy student, and rarely put in enough time to make sure that the argument carried it's weight. But, on the rare occasion that I nailed the argument, the grade was always perfect.
What's my point in all this? Ballard is certainly not the lazy student, but he's also not the adventurous one. He's got A+ research, A+ prose, A+ insight, and B - subject matter. He starts each chapter with a premise: Kobe Bryant has the best killer instinct in the league, LeBron James is a tremendous athlete, Steve Kerr is a great shooter, and then attempts to prove it with lots of insightful detail. But, in making an argument, if it is your details that jump off the page instead of the argument itself, you need a new argument. Despite the terrific behind-the-scenes knowledge, information, and conversations, Ballard is telling us what we already know.
Which is why the most successful parts of his book are the chapters in which his premise ends up being wrong. These are the chapters that provide truly unique insight that is as unexpected as it is enlightening. Slight spoiler alert. On his chapter on point guards, he profiles Steve Nash with the premise that he is the perfect point guard (keep your defense jokes to yourselves, people). Instead, he finds that, while Nash is truly an incredible point guard, many of his habits are considered to be "bad". As it turns out, a good deal of Nash's success can be attributed to the reality that he does many things "wrong", but he does them effectively.
Another truly insightful chapter was the one in which Ballard goes through a week of NBA level training. His premise for that chapter was that NBA athletes are very hard workers, and that "regular" people like himself would struggle with the training. Instead, what was proven is how much more we are all capable of if given use of the same training techniques and healing regimens as NBA players. Obviously, this isn't to say that anybody could be an NBA player with the proper training. But it provided insight that I never properly considered regarding the fact that athletes are capable of so much greater than we are, in part, because of the thousands and thousands of dollars invested in trainers and techniques, in the science of athletics.
To be honest, I've never read a sports book before this one. I have nothing to compare it with. It is both the best and worst sports book I've ever read. So I really don't have a leg to stand on in telling you whether or not you'll like it. It's certainly an enjoyable and entertaining book. It's not long and it's easy to read, so you can finish it in a day or two. If you are a hoops junkie, know that this book is filled with little things that you will love. Also know that those little things are all you can expect to take away from it. If that's good enough for you, I highly recommend it.
For the record, that would definitely be good enough for me.
The Art of a Beautiful Game is in stores now.
Links to other reviews (I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones I've read):
Orlando Pinstriped Post (formerly 3rd Quarter Collapse)