If you haven't read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, and call yourself a basketball fan, you need to rethink your definition of the word fan. Simmon's book is one of the funniest sports books I've read in years. It's also opinionated, irreverent, hyperbolic, caustic, cynical, sarcastic, and goofy, while the rhythms of his language are something like Run-D.M.C. meets Samuel Johnson, which makes for one hell of a good read. The Book of Basketball is also a serious attempt to define the world of professional basketball from its prosaic beginnings to its complicated present.
Is Simmons book successful? For the most part, yes, even when he stretches his analogies to the breaking point, or misses a point or two or three, or four, probably because, as a writer, no matter how good, he was never in the game. When he's at his best, he's perfect. For example, he couldn't have chosen a better way to explain the difference between NBA eras than by comparing them to the different eras of comedy - Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart and the Smother's Brothers representing the 60's when I played. So, Sports Guy, who is Earl the Pearl, Lenny or Woody? Clearly Havelick is Newhart and are the Van Arsdale Twins, the Smothers Brothers?
However, his adoration of the Boston Celtics, understandable because he was the wide-eyed kid weaned on Celtic Green - prejudiced his view of Wilt Chamberlain.
The verbal beating Simmons gives Wilt troubled me a lot, and it is the subject of this blog.
I was Wilt's teammate for five years. I came to the Philadelphia Warriors as their first-round draft choice in 1961. I played in Wilt's famous hundred-point game. I played with Wilt in the Bay Area when we had a lousy season and again when we won the Western Division Championship. After that I played against Wilt. One time I tried to punch Wilt. Believe me, I tried, but he stretched out his arm and held my forehead as I yelled and punched wildly under his arm, while he implored me to stop acting like a fool. My teammates rescued me. But I'm pretty sure Wilt couldn't have hit me because he was laughing too hard.
I can't argue with Simmons that once the ball went to Wilt, it rarely came back out, at least not until much later in Wilt's career when he decided he could be an effective passer. It may have bothered other members of our Warrior team that Wilt saw it as his mission to be the principal scorer, but I didn't. I always figured I could find ways to get my own shots. Russell could never have been the scorer Wilt was. Russ had no touch. Wilt, on the other hand, possessed a lovely fade-away bank shot, and an effective finger roll from every angle.
Who was the better center? Russell, of course. Who was more valuable to his team? Both were. I think Russell, as spectacular a shot-blocker as he was, would not have fared so well had he not been with the Celtics, coached by Aurebach and surrounded by teammates like Cousy, Havlick, Heinsohn, the Jones boys and Satch Sanders.
Not that our team was dog-meat. Arizin was a sensational scorer and Rodgers a fine point-guard, while I was a damned good power-forward. And the other guys on our team were solid players, but over-all we weren't as deep as the Celtics. Simmons does not mention that had it not been for a stupid decision by our coach Frank McGuire, in the last two seconds of the 7th game of the 1961/62 Eastern Division Championship, the Philadelphia Warriors might have gone into overtime to defeat the Celtics and gone on to beat the LA Lakers, a team we had dominated the entire year.
Talk to any of the guys from our team, Sports Guy, and they'll tell you about being in that huddle, Gola pleading with Frank to let him guard Sam Jones instead of allowing Rodgers (who was defensively dis-functional) to guard him for the last play of the game, with the score tied. Had we won that game, would history have treated Wilt differently? I believe so. I even wonder if the Warriors would have been sold. Wilt outplayed Russell in that series and deserved the victory.
As for Wilt's personality. Let me recount one story. The summer after my first season in Seattle, I ran a two week youth league in the inner city. I asked a certain big-name basketball star if he would come to Seattle and throw the ball up to start the first game. He asked me how much it paid and when I told him we had no budget, he turned me down flat. I called Wilt. He came up from his home in LA at his own expense, and not only threw up the first ball, but stayed an extra day to referee. One of my favorite photographs of Wilt is of him standing in my backyard in Seattle, holding my two-year-old daughter, Janai, over his head in the the palm of one of his enormous hands.
Wilt was not as single minded as Russell was and early in his career not as mature. If Russ was a Rembrandt, Wilt was a Caravaggio and, like him, a flawed and maganificent virtuoso. I admire both painters, I admire both centers.
I wrote this poem for Wilt the day after I heard he died.
Mourning Wilt the Day After His Death by Tom Meschery
"The game's not over until the fat lady sings."
In the dawn, I woke up thinking big:
Time to crack a dozen eggs, fry all the bacon.
I think I'll never shave. Let my beard grow
as long as an Epic. Dust off those books
with thick spines: Gibbon's Rise and Fall,
Gone with the Wind, The Summa Theologica.
Spend the afternoon with Aquinas' five proofs
for God's existence: The Uncaused Cause,
or was it The Divine Plan that toppled Wilt?
It might help reading about the Prime Mover,
but I doubt it. Words are never enough.
Let the day end as it began with a red sun,
and let there be a blonde soprano
with big bosoms belting out her last aria.
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.