How fittingly strange that the people to save the printed word should come from the internet. Free Darko is a collective of basketball writers and an illustrator that offer an offbeat, intellectualized vision of roundball that flies in the face of the Rick Reilly-led sportswriting masses. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is the second book that the collective has produced, and despite their online roots, it provides the best argument for buying a print book that I have seen in the last few years.
Put simply, the book is a work of art. Although the creative leader of Free Darko, Bethlehem Shoals, is a basketball writer exclusively, graphic design enthusiasts have just as much reason to pick this book up, if only for the beautiful illustrations and infographics by Jacob Weinstein. Although The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History isn’t as illustration-heavy as their earlier Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, which included individualized “style guides” for selected stars, it still manages to include an informative graphic detailing in-game fights as well as an art-print worthy depiction of Michael Jordan shooting a jumper. It would appear that the art world recognizes this in some degree, as there is a Free Darko exhibition currently on display at Duke University.
But you didn’t come here to learn about the artwork. As far as words go, the collaboration between Shoals, Dr. Lawyer Indian Chief and Brown Recluse, Esq. falls somewhere along the same axis that Bill Simmons laid out with his The Book of Basketball, although about as far away as you can be while still tackling the exact same subject. While Simmons sought to eliminate generational differences to provide a complete picture of basketball writ large and make a coherent argument for the greatest-of-all-time, Shoals and company instead embrace those generational gaps to provide a picture of basketball as it really was. I say “really was” with some reservation, since history is ultimately only our opinion of what the past was like, but The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History offers a selected account of the major trends in the history of the game dating back to Naismith and the two peach baskets.
While Simmons’ book does a nice job telling about why he thinks Wilt Chamberlain really sucks, it fails to include nuggets of knowledge about, for example, that the sport was originally played in cages (with the players derisively referred to as “cagers” by writers of the day) or that there was at least one court featuring exposed, superhot pipes that players gleefully chucked the opposition into. While Free Darko initially made its bones by bringing poststructuralist thought to the NBA, here they offer a legitimately interesting series of tidbits that each had me wondering how I didn’t know that earlier.
However, the book does make some choices. While The Book of Basketball clocked in at a length sure to relegate it to some dusty reference shelf, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History comes in at a svelte 224 pages. This makes it readable in an afternoon (although I recommend resisting), but it also means that there are some sections that are simply left out. For example: while the final section of the book contains thoughtful reflections on the meaning of YouTube, shoe commercials and the San Antonio Spurs, it more or less ignores the Los Angeles Lakers — the same Lakers that have appeared in seven of the past 10 NBA Finals (and won five)— in favor of a lengthy exposition about the thrills of reliving Clyde Drexler’s better in-game throwdowns.
Overall, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is more than worth its somewhat daunting $25 price tag. If you’re on a college budget, I would recommend ordering it from Amazon, but seriously, please do order it. If you’re at all interested in a thoughtful look at how the best sport in the world got to be the way it was, pick up this book.