Review: The Soul of Basketball

soul of basketballThere are clearly seasons in the life of a sports fan.  You have football season, college basketball, March Madness…and then baseball kicks in along with the NBA and NHL playoffs.  (Yes, I am a book nerd and I love sports.)

So, I requested to do a preview of this book, The Soul of Basketball, which I thought would be a good way to get myself in the mood for the NBA playoffs, which also open next week.

I enjoy basketball a lot and have followed the NBA for my entire life.  When I was 10 to 12 years old, I followed the Cleveland Cavaliers VERY closely.  We didn’t get the games on TV and I spent my evenings listening to Joe Tait (normally when I was supposed to be in bed) call the Cavs during the Miracle at Richfield season.  (The Cavs had a Bowling Green (Ohio) connection, both through their owner Nick Mileti and their backup center Nate Thurmond…and their Coach Bill Fitch).

The Soul of Basketball is about the 2010-11 season, which is the first year after The Decision.  It is an excellent book and anyone who is interested in the NBA would find it a great read.  In fact, it’s a great character study of people responding to the highest level of competitive pressure and would be interesting as a study to anyone interested in that slice of life.

The book is written by Ian Thomsen, who is a writer for Sports Illustrated.  SI was known is the highest level of sports magazine writing.  What appeared on those pages was of the highest literary quality.  My high school teachers encouraged us to read SI when we were learning to write.

This is what I would consider classic SI writing.  First, there’s incredible access…long interviews with important people in this story, including Pat Reilly, Doc Rivers, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant…the list goes on.

Next, there’s a commitment to telling a story about people, not sports.  What the reader leaves with is an essential understanding of the humanity of the people involved.  Their upbringing, their fears, their motivations, their biases, their strength.  And Thomsen shows us the humanity of players (stars and subs), yes, but also of coaches, referees, owners, scouts…everyone involved in the making of the 2010-11 edition of the annual NBA drama.

There’s also an angle to the book that places all of what is happening in a historical context.  The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era and LeBron was supposed to be that guy, but he had just botched The Decision.  You also have the influx of AAU-influenced players and a lot of questions about how the league is going to succeed. (For more on what the AAU is and what’s wrong with it, check here or here.)

There were a couple parts that really stood out to me.  I found the Gregg Popovich sections especially interesting.  He’s a guy I admire and I admire how his teams play.  Turns out, he built the concept by focusing on foreign players who had not been infected by AAU mentality.

I also really enjoyed the stuff with Kobe Bryant and didn’t expect to.  I have often heard people say that a certain team doesn’t “know what it takes to win.”  I always kind of scoffed at that, but the way NBA basketball is played, a star player has to be able to shoulder the burden in key moments and the team has to be really tough to win a title, not just good.

Anyway, this is an outstanding book.  It is not great sportswriting, it is great writing and will make a great companion for the NBA playoffs, when the league really puts on its best show.

Full disclosure: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

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