In The Art of a Beautiful Game: the Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated provides a nuanced, detailed look at today's professional game. Although the most prominent aspect of the title is the word "Beautiful," it really ought to be "Thinking Fan's." Indeed, Ballard's intelligent analysis and knack for storytelling elevates the discourse above standard-level, "talking-head" fare. For that, we forgive the lack of cohesion which makes the book feel like a collection of loosely connected, long-form essays.
Before continuing the review, I'd like to disclose that I received a copy of The Art of a Beautiful Game at no charge. I'm always up for reviewing products that may interest our readers, so if you'd like to discuss that possibility, please contact me via email. Moving on...
Ballard organizes the book by focusing on a different aspect of the sport in each chapter: Kobe Bryant--who else?-- goes under the microscope in "Killer Instinct," while Shane Battier and Steve Nash anchor "The Defensive Specialist" and "Point Guard" chapters, respectively. Okay, maybe these choices are a bit obvious. But that's okay, as Ballard goes in-depth with each of them, not content to merely spew platitudes. In "Killer Instinct," for instance, we hear from Kobe's high school teammate Rob Schwartz, whom he regularly defeated in one-on-one games after practices by a score of 100-0; we hear from Brian Shaw, a former teammate of Kobe's with the Los Angeles Lakers, who now serves as an assistant coach; and other people well-connected to Bryant. Ballard uses a big canvas, but paints with a fine-tipped brush.
These are the sorts of details that matter. Media types love to talk in general terms about Kobe's competitive edge, but Ballard offers specifics, among them this anecdote: Kobe, being the only Laker to miss a free throw during an end-of-practice drill, intentionally goaltends Derek Fisher's next shot because, as Lamar Odom put it, "he couldn't be the only one to miss."
Of course, this site is focused on the Orlando Magic, and as such its readers probably aren't too interested in hearing more about Bryant, the MVP of the Lakers' NBA Finals win over the Magic in June. And I assure you that I don't mean to "rub it in," so to speak. I use the Kobe chapter as an example because in it Ballard manages to give us a fresh perspective on a ubiquitous player about whom much has been written.
Part of what makes Art so thoroughly enjoyable is that it never strays into the hyperbolic realm, avoiding cliches and undue lionization. Sure, Ballard is at times guilty of using overwrought prose, but he balances it with on-point descriptions and narrative. Though the "Pure Shooter" chapter, which centers on a shooting contest Ballard had with former three-point marksman Steve Kerr, is the book's weakest overall, its descriptions of various players' shooting forms are expertly done. For instance:
And then there is Kevin Martin, the Sacramento guard whose form could make a CYO coach cry. He begins with the ball in his right hand by his side, as if restraining an unruly dog near his hip. Then his right leg turns inward, as if he's be hit in the shin by a blunt object, and he swings the ball up and across his body, only to release it with a pronounced heave from in front of his face. If you didn't know better, you might think he's physically disabled, so spasmodic is the motion.
If you've never seen Martin shoot--and, given that the Kings haven't appeared on national television in at least two seasons, it's certainly a possibility--well, now you have. This sort of description is what we need more of in sportswriting, which is very often bereft of such clear imagery.
But let's not pigeonhole Ballard as a mere wordsmith: he knows the game better than most anyone with a national platform, which he illustrates both in his nuanced observation of Battier's defensive techniques as well as his use of advanced statistics; indeed, he lists Roland Beech of 82games.com, a favorite among stat-heads, in the acknowledgments. Art is darn near comprehensive as a 226-page book about the NBA can be, and one wonders what he might do if he were allotted 700 pages, as ESPN's Bill Simmons was for his The Book of Basketball.
Also included in the acknowledgments are George Galante and Joel Glass from the Magic's media-relations department, which might help explain why the Magic figure prominently in several chapters. Dwight Howard is key in "The Rebound," "The Dunk," and "Shot Blockers," while Nick Anderson gets the spotlight in "Free Throws," in which Howard also appears. Certainly the last chapter evokes bad memories for Magic fans, as it reminds us of Anderson's infamous four missed free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, as well as Howard's missed pair in Game 4 of the 2009 Finals. And there's the unhappy stat about Howard's tendency to gift points to the opposition, as he's averaged 51.5 goaltends in the last two seasons. Good memories or bad, though, Art nonetheless will appeal to Magic fans for its acknowledgment of the team's history, which is unusual in a national publication.
On the whole, The Art of a Beautiful Game merits inclusion on the shelf alongside other modern must-reads in basketball, among them Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds or Less and Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton's Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10. You'll finish reading it feeling more educated about today's game. And ultimately, isn't that what we all want?