This year I'm thankful for basketball books. Seriously. I have shelves full of them and I read them all the time. (Unless you count a brief dalliance with toy elephants as a child, books about basketball are the only things I have ever collected.)
Sadly, there's not a lot you can do with that kind of experience, except tell people about some of your favorite basketball books. So with the help of my new affiliate status at Powells.com (that's right, you click and buy 'em, I laugh all the way to the bank) here are my picks as the best basketball reads:
My Losing Season by Pat Conroy. This is the only book I have ever read that really gave the emotional sensation of playing basketball and being on a basketball team. It's also an incredibly painful true story about the author's abusive childhood.
Loose Balls by Terry Pluto. The bible of good times in the ABA. Picture Marvin Barnes entering the locker room in a fur coat, eating fast food, moments before tip-off, bellowing "game time is on time!"
The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. It's the story of Stephon Marbury as a freshman in high school, bumming rides in the back seat of Darcy Frey's car around Coney Island. Marbury's teammates are the most sympathetic, and sadly one of them went on to be seriously hurt in a car accident. More than anything, I like the way Frey writes.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Of the books that are generally regarded as some of basketball's, this is the only one about the Portland Blazers, so it makes the list.
Money Players: Days and Nights Inside the New NBA by Armen Keteyian. This is the book I want for Christmas. Yes, it's true, I haven't even read the damn thing yet, but it's on my list anyway, because so many people I respect have told me it's good, and I have seen enough of Keteyian's other work to have high expectations.
Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of William Warren Bradley by John McPhee. McPhee fawns over Bill Bradley in a way that's almost uncomfortable at times. But you can learn a hell of a lot about basketball from this book. McPhee is the man who wrote the greatest sports article I have ever read, "Centre Court," which is about Wimbeldon and appeared in Playboy in 1971. (I read it in the indispensable, but basketball-free Best American Sports Writing of the Century.)
The Inside Game by Wayne Embry. This book gets no love, and no one has read it, but it's incredibly honest about how things happen in the executive suite in the NBA. The dirt is dished with a smile, from a classy author who is still an important figure in the NBA. I blogged about this before here.
Operation Yao Ming by Brook Larmer. I know, I had some serious nerve putting Money Players on the list when I hadn't even read it, and now here's a second book I haven't read. But I can tell you this: I thought I had done some homework on Yao Ming, until I read one chapter of this that was excerpted in Sports Illustrated. I know enough to say that this is the authoratative Yao Ming book, and it's not close.
They Call Me Coach by John Wooden. This book is here because if I don't put it here people will question my credentials as an expert on basketball books. And, through all the rubble of coaching advice, I find Coach Wooden's to be some of the most practical and true. For instance: don't worry too much about how much sleep your players get the night before the big game--they won't sleep well that night no matter what. But the night before that makes a big difference. No kidding, this is useful to know. Nervous about a big meeting on Wednesday? Make sure you sleep well Monday night. It works.
The Miracle of St. Anthony by Adrian Wojnarowski. Everyone says it's the Friday Night Lights of basketball. That's a horrible oversimplification... but accurate enough for a short little synopsis like this. I like this one better because it takes place in Jersey City where I lived for a while.
Honorable mention: I have read a million player and coach autobiographies, and they are all kind of fascinating and terrible at the same time. They are all about content more than form, and they all have long passages that could be summarized "I worked really hard at the gym," "my childhood was not easy," and "I played really well that night." But they're all fun to read and full of the kind of colorful detail that makes people think you really know a lot about sports. My favorites are Chamique (you think it's tough to grow up as a boy who's into sports?), Shaq Talks Back (no one understands the big fella, but he makes perfect sense after you read this), Bill Walton (decades ago Bill Walton's friend Jack Scott wrote a hard-to-find tell-almost-all, rich with tales of everything from homeopathic remedies to the FBI), the other Loose Balls by Jayson Williams (he wrote it with Steve Friedman, who is far more talented than your average ghost writer, and the book is crisp and funny--complete with a fantastic tale of Clifford Ray having sex in a hotel bathroom), Phil Jackson's The Last Season (funnier than ever now that he's reunited with Kobe Bryant, who gets short shrift in this book), Charles Barkley's I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It, and My Life by Magic Johnson. That last one is a pretty ordinary book--who dreamed up that fancy title?--but Magic Johnson's an extraordinary guy, and pretty frank. (For instance, he tells us that his name, Magic Johnson, was his nickname in the bedroom. Get it? Now you know why the people closest to him call him "Earvin" or "Buck.") When I first read this in college I made all my friends read it. I like to think we're all richer for the experience.
In any case, read in good health.