Monday, February 7, 2011

Let's Book Club!: Free Darko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

In his book What is History E.H. Carr distinguishes between "facts of the past" and "historical fact" arguing that, if I remember correctly, "facts of the past" are forgotten and "historical facts" are what historians have collectively deemed important. Therefore, the thesis from Carr is that history is constructed by those that write it, meaning the stories of the marginalized are often under represented or not represented at all. In Carr's view, history isn't an accumulation of facts, history is about how stories are framed into a coherent narrative.

In the The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the Free Darko collective have taken the grand narratives of basketball history and have deconstructed NBA history beyond just dates and facts. For those not familiar with the Free Darko, their writing is highly literate often drawing on references from the classics to current, and often obscure, pop-culture references. If basketball is an art form, as its oft described, then the latest collection of short essays from Free Darko is art-history. The magic of all this is that they do this without sounding arrogant or pretentious, and they do it in a way that captures the characters in basketball.

While having the appearance of a coffee table book akin to Jon Stewart's America: The Book, the writing is much more than reader's digest clips of the past. Stylistically, the book is stunning, with some graphics that will knock your socks off, but the prose in the The Undisputed Guide is what makes the guys at Free Darko some of the most interesting writing in basketball today.

At the beginning, the pre-history of basketball from Naismith to the beginning of the ABA does read a little like a history text, but without any real source material there really wasn't any room to do what Free Darko does. And what they do, is pick the untold swag out of the history of professional basketball -- they tell the stories that are untold in the popular myths about professional basketball, and they cast a new light on the stories that we do know -- the similarities between Wilt/Russell and the fun of the Duncan/Popovich San Antonio Spurs, for example. While wins and losses are significant, to Free Darko, they are only as significant as the way they make us feel about the dynamics, style, and players on the team.

Most interestingly, the authors examine how the giants of the game Russell and Jordan, impact how we look at mere mortals like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson; and Barkley and Malone. They look at the eclectic early 70s New York Knicks (future Senator Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, etc.), the similarities between Kareem and Bill Walton, how the 1984 draft (Olajuwon, Jordan, Barkley) transformed the draft from business transaction into spectacle, and the beauty of AI's individual approach to playing a team game. In each section of the book the writers of Free Darko are able to find the art/style/meaning in their subjects (yes, even the Duncan/Popovich San Antonio Spurs).

The real morale from The Undisputed Guide is that, there's meaning to the game beyond championships and popular myths of heroism, that often, the narratives that go untold are equally meaningful.

Grade: A

Upnext: I'm reading Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I'm Foster Wallacianly dense, so I'll probably mix that in with Chris Ballard's Art of a Beautiful Game. I'm expecting the Eggers book to take a little so expect thoughts on the Ballard book next...

2011 Book Club Results
1. Into the Wild | John Krakauer (207 pages) | B-
2. Dance Dance Dance| Haruki Murakami (393 pages)| A-
3. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History| Free Darko (not applicable)|A

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