Discussing “The Art of a Beautiful Game” by Chris Ballard Part I

First, not that I don’t think you should read mine, but if you’re looking for a more restrained look at Chris Ballard’s “The Art of a Beautiful Game, I suggest you take a gander at the following reviews.

As the title suggests, this will be a discussion, and not a review. The reason is that for me, this book isn’t something I can look at and say “It accomplished its goal” or “it did not accomplish its goal.” A central theme of the reviews you’ll read above is the criticism that there’s no central theme. There’s no story. This book doesn’t take you from point A to B, though in a way it gives the illusion that its attempting to do so, starting with Kobe Bryant’s mental intensity and ending with LeBron James’ physical dominance. There’s not a lesson it’s trying to teach or an agenda it’s trying to push. And that, I think, is something that’s been missed by some that have read it. It’s as if the fact that it doesn’t singularly focus on one player, outlining the same tired information we’ve already heard a thousand times in the same boring structure we’ve seen a over and over is a bad thing. The loose structure of the book is not a limitation to me, instead, it’s a strength. And so, we come to the two starting points for how I felt about this book, which are tied to one another, and both of which are central to the fact that I cannot provide you with an adequate critical review.

1. The best thing about “The Art of a Beautiful Game” is not that it leaves you with more insight into the game, or fulfills your need for some sort of narrative, as most basketball classics do. Because it does neither. It is that it provokes thought about the game, and discusses it at a level whcih garners not only appreciation for the league, but a thirst for more.

2. As such, it is my favorite NBA book, and the best that I have read. I walked away from it feeling differently about the game, the players it discusses

So yeah, I’m not sure I’m fully in line to provide you with a good “review” as what I took away from the game was wholly different from the reviews I have read elsewhere, and its effect on me seems unique. I don’t mean that this book moved me or brought me to any conclusions beyond concepts about the game. And I hate to litter a review with such personal acclaim, but strictly speaking, I can understand how you might not feel the same about this book. However, it’s possible you might get the same out of it, so we’ll carry on and discuss what I felt made the book so memorable.

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I wasn’t even looking to buy the book. I had gone to the bookstore with Paroxi-wife to pick up The OTHER NBA book out this month, you know, the 700 page tome that’s supposed to be comprehensive if you mean “comprehensive about what it’s like to cheer for the best team EVAR, THE CELTICS, TAWMY!” It was sold out. After texting several friends to advise going to the store for bottled war and batteries since the end of civilization was clearly nigh (a Bill Simmons book on the NBA is sold out in a non-NBA city? What in hell?), I decided hey, might as well pick up something while I’m here. So I nabbed this one. I thought I’d get around to it eventually. On  a whim, I slung it in my bag for a flight to Chicago. I had planned on reading a chapter,then passing out. Instead I found myself asking the wife for a pen. She stared at me. “Why?” she asked. “I want to take notes.”  I never take notes. Ever. My copy next to me is riddled with notes. I didn’t sleep a second and got off the plane wanting to talk about basketball for six hours.

In its introduction, Ballard starts by setting a tone for the book with the absurdist description of former Piston and Maverick (and then-Pistons assistant coach) Mark Aguirre in a pickup game giving him a “Nor’easter of Ass.” He relates getting worked on as a way to illustrate all the work that goes into play which isn’t covered in the highlights. But more importantly, he cuts to the heart of this book, which is “a celebration of the game and those who play it at the highest level, the players for whom it truly is both an art and a science.”

Perhaps why the book spoke to me so much is that, in a large part, that’s what I hope this site is. Something that celebrates the game and the way it’s played. That and dick jokes. You know. Gotta stay versatile.

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If you were looking for a prime example of how much this book affected me, here’s one. You might want to sit down. Well, you’re on a computer, so it’s likely you’re sitting. But if you’re not, if you’re at a kiosk or something, I’d sit.

This book eliminated any hate of Kobe Bryant I have left.

“Sure” I can hear you say. No seriously. I still hate that the Lakers are so dominant and that they have such a high percentage of the championships. I don’t like the bandwagon fans or the scheduling advantages or… ahem. The point is, there’s no way for you to read this book and not come away with more respect, nay, appreciation for Kobe Bryant. Ballard manages to access Kobe in the way that he needs be, not from an abstract level about his work ethic and mythos, nor in an attempt to make him an empathetic figure. It’s personal, without being empathetic. There’s no big “But deep down, Kobe is a family man, a real person, a caring figure…” crap. No, no, he’s a killer. He’s a killer when he wakes up, a killer when he goes to bed, a killer in team meetings, with the media, on the court, and after. There’s no off-switch. You always knew this about Kobe, it’s not a surprise. But think of it like this.

You and I know what the sun looks like. It’s there every day of your life. It’s too bright to look at directly, but you know what that big ball of light in the sky looks and feels like, we can understand the amazing amount of light and heat that is produced from it. And you know what it looks like up close. You’ve seen pictures in science magazines, in books, and on television. Similarly, we know what Kobe’s game looks like, and know what kind of work ethic it requires. And we know from features and clips that he loves his daughters, and that he works religiously. But this book brings you right there. And he makes you understand something that’s talked about a lot, but that’s easy to gloss over.

Again, this is a central theme of the book, if you’re looking at them. There are cliches thrown out every day by sportswriters, and so often they mean absolutely nothing. Why do you think blogging is so popular? We go beyond that level of “he inspired his teammates” and “he played tough down low” and tell you what happened, blow by blow. This isn’t their fault, they’ve got 800 words or less. And what they do is invaluable. What Ballard does is manage to make those cliches make sense. “Kobe’ competitive fire can’t be topped.” That explains nothing. You could say the same about Jordan, about Wade, about Bird, about Kevin Garnett, but the structure of where it is located is entirely separate. For example, Jordan’s was born out of the Ego, a drive to overcome, well, the seventy people he listed at his Hall of Fame enshrinement.

What Ballard manages to illustrate convincingly, is that Kobe Bryant is instinctively built that way. If Jordan’s fire was born from the Ego, a reaction to the world that doubted him, which then fed to his Super-ego,Bryant cannot be compared to Jordan (which most people say). Because Bryant’s drive is built from his Id. It’s instinctive. He talks about Rob Schwartz, some poor guard Bryant played with at Lower Merion High, who he abused in one-on-one practices to the point where he would go up 80-0. Take that at face value, and you move on, thinking how impressive it is that Bryant was able to go up 80-0 on a guy at that age. But Ballard brings it back, and asks you to think about how any other human being would relax, would allow the other guy to score a few times, would naturally exhibit some level of mercy. Not Kobe.

Ballard goes on to quote Devean George, who’s one of Kobe’s boys, saying “He can’t turn it off, even if he tried.” A Kobe-hater’s natural response is to look at that with disgust, that there’s something flawed about him. And maybe, if you want to get away from professional competition, there is. But in actuality, isn’t that what we want? That struck me. We show frustration when Tyrus Thomas or Tim Thomas or Josh Howard lack focus, lack that intensity. Kobe exhibits it 24-7. This means he simultaneously deserves more and less credit than others. Or, more accurately, it simply means we can’t compare him to other players, or humans for that matter.

I’m of the opinion that what makes Hannibal Lector, the villain/hero/muse of “Silence of the Lambs,” so phenomenally brilliant is that you cannot put traditional moral evaluations of his behavior in the context of mankind. He’s not human. He’s a monster, wrapped in human flesh and bone. He fundamentally operates in a wholly different manner from human beings. Now, Kobe’s no monster. But he’s also unlike all other players. And as such, the arrogance, which is palpable, can’t really be considered the same way you’d look at others, including Jordan. Ballard manages to discuss this without sugarcoating it. There’s no “His arrogance is just misunderstood confidence.” No, no. Ballard makes it pretty clear that he’s an arrogant sonofabitch. But he also puts that arrogance in a much more personal context. Instead of being arrogant because he thinks he’s awesome, he’s arrogant because he believes, he knows, that he worksat, that he cares about, being as good as he possibly can be and getting better every single day. It’s a manifestation of his obsession, and if he works harder than anyone, why shouldn’t he consider himself the best?

The chapter is littered with anecdotes that illustrate the lengths of his devotion to the game. That may be the strongest differential between the first chapter about Bryant and the last chapter about James, and it reflects something very real about both of their games at this point. James is an athletic freak, a basketball talent, that sometimes seems to be having too much fun out there. And that’s largey attributable to the fact that in comparison, Bryant works so much harder. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like James could just stop caring and be the MVP. But Bryant is simply that obsessed with the game.

Ballard also talks about his evolution, as well. Particularly his maturation, including the quote that Bryant’s starting to understand that “it’s not that his teammates don’t want to win as much as he does, but that they don’t have the capacity to want to win as much as he does. ” (Page 19)

Suddenly, all the things that made him seem like a terrible teammate make much more sense. Those years ignoring open looks? Why is he going to pass to guys without his commitment? The sneers at Odom when he’d miss a pass, the yelling, the screaming? How can you blame the guy, he’s not able to understand that they’re human. It also makes you understand why Gasol was so important, for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. He cares enough to be the bridge between Bryant and the rest. He’s the center, figuratively, instead of literally, who provides not only the player Bryant can trust, but who is willing to work and perform at the the level Bryant respects and loves.

I put the book down as the wheels touched down in Chicago and sat back. What was this feeling? Respect? Understanding? Oh, no, that was just my head unclogging from the air pressure. But I walked away with whatever leftover hate I had for Kobe gone. James may be the better player in terms of what he’s able to do on the floor, but if you ask me who the best basketball player in the world is, and all that incorporates, I have no choice but to say Kobe Bryant. And I can’t hold anything against him any longer. After all, I can’t blame the snake for being a snake.

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Part II tomorrow.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.