Most books written about sports are either compiled by pre-historic journalists out of touch with the modern era, former athletes who have their life story transcribed for them by another, or fans who have been able to piece together a few complete sentences well enough to impress their publisher. Every so often, however, a sports book, or more appropriately concept, hits the shelves that is truly innovative.
Such was the case with the FreeDarko tribe’s first official work “The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac.” FreeDarko is to basketball what Bill James is to baseball after an art class, a sense of humor and an acid flashback. They’re how we wish we could write, draw and think.
Freedarko is comprised of a collective of writers, artists, editors and statisticians who keep their real identities fairly well-hidden, further adding to their mystique. Combined they have contributed to NBA Fanhouse, Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s, SLAM, the New Yorker, ESPN.com and Esquire.
The freaks are at it again with their second work of note “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.” Despite the boastful titles, both books are must reads for the basketball intellectual. FreeDarko compiles their words, statistic and artwork with the wisdom of a hundred years, nearly convincing us they too have been around since the dawn of roundball.
Who else would dream of comparing increased scoring in the NBA to European agricultural growth of the 1800s, or scour two decades worth of basketball cards to analyze league trends in facial hair, all the while doing so beautifully illustrated. The Freedarko crew, that’s who.
But enough of my words. Let’s let Freedarko speak for themselves. Here are a few of my favorite passages…..
On Bill Russell, p.44-45
“There was Boston, which Russell called “a flea market of racism.” You could not have picked a less hospitable place for Russell’s “I am somebody” expectations of stardom. There was something almost satirical here, or, more depressing, an admission that the Celtics were a world unto themselves, and that “doing it for the fans” – fans who in a second would turn on African American players, whose interest in hockey topped their interest in the Celtics as the team piled up trophies – simply wasn’t an option. Boston, and the nation as a whole, needed Bill Russell to be the ultimate winner on the court. Anything beyond that was an inconvenience, and any problems Russell had with that arrangement were his own damn fault. Russell wanted so badly to really reach out and touch others, but if others remained content with simply marveling at his NBA resume, something was missing. That’s why it’s possible that Russell’s dynastic years may have also been, in a sense, the man’s greatest disappointment. His career is a marvel, the closest sports gets to utter triumph. Yet this presumes that, for Russell, basketball was the only thing at stake.”
On Wilt Chamberlain, p. 47-48
“His body of work is most staggering when we drag it, kicking and screaming, into the harsh light of the present. Wilt dropped 100 in a single contest, averaged 50 for a season, and obliterated the NBA record book during the first leg of his career. We’re all too used to explaining away this kind of freak occurrence. But Chamberlain didn’t simply dominate basketball or alter its course. Like no one before or since, he threatened to outmode it. Wilt also had a remarkably ambivalent relationship with his own strength. He refused to go full bore around the basket for fear he might maim an opponent. That’s how he came to develop a fadeaway jumper that, for a seven-footer, was decidedly ahead of its time. Some fearful white people interpreted this quality as sinister and, yes, probably nefariously Soviet; David Wolf wrote that, for black fans, this approach was the epitome of badness that needed not show its hand.”
On Jerry West, p.55
“He didn’t exactly play with swagger, but there was an insistence to him that could chill your blood. But West’s approach to the game is best summed up by Chick Hearn’s nickname for him, Mr. Clutch, a strange one for a player who spent so many years coming in second. West so routinely hit key shots that this moniker was more a statement of fact than a compliment. When West heaved in a sixty-footer to send Game 3 of the 1970 Finals into overtime, it was one of the least surprising miracles sports has ever seen.”
On Oscar Robertson, p.61
“Maybe Cincinnati would’ve liked Robertson to provide enough ups and downs to make being a fan, you know, exciting. Instead all they got was a stolid Robertson, night in and night out reaching the logical limit of how much one man could do on a basketball court – and of how much one man could contribute to helping his team win.”
On the Knicks, p.75
“They seemed to have a player representing every demographic, a diverse cast of characters that few pro sports teams achieve. And while this alone gave them broad-based appeal, it was their style of play that made them into something bigger, a metaphor for a post-sixties community that wasn’t bitter and broken. With Nixon in office and Vietnam still raging, such optimism was perhaps naïve, but it was enough to transport an NBA team beyond sports and into the pop-culture consciousness at a time when the league still ran a distant third behind baseball and football. When it comes to feel-good stories, everyone loves the one about the pimp, the nerd, the black Southern gentleman, the white workingman, the hippie, and the street urchin they picked up along the way. The Knicks were America’s team for a country trying to make sense of itself – and wondering what coexistence might look like.”
On the ABA, p.83
“The ABA was a professional sports league in the same way that a lump of viral matter counts as a life form. Without taking anything away from the Julius Erving years or anyone else spent there, it’s probably best not to think of it as a league. Thirty years later, we still don’t really know what to make of the phrases “ABA All-Star” or “ABA Championship.” The ABA was a staging area for a new style of play, one that would eventually kick down the doors to the establishment. At the same time, it was an opportunistic jumble of renegade finance; teams that changed locations, names, or owners on a moment’s notice; and marketing ideas that ranged from ingenious branding to ham-fisted gimmicks. The NBA already had the household stars, the major basketball markets, and the national airtime. The ABA had none of the above. Unable to compete with the NBA’s material power, the ABA countered with classic guerrilla tactics: changing the terms of engagement.”
On David Thompson, p.88
“There was real violence in the way Thompson sent himself flying into and over heavy traffic, hanging there an extra beat as if to add insult to injury. Some players wow us by doing things on the court that our brains can only begin to formulate. What made Thompson so intoxicating was that, like the superheroes who earn a beleaguered city’s trust, he took a basic human urge and amplified it beyond recognition. We all want to fly; we all know the feeling of jumping skyward, however fleetingly aloft. In Thompson, dreams became realized; ideas reified; the ordinary, transmuted into something profound.”
On Walton/Kareem, p.95
“In the end, Kareem and Walton are more alike than they are different. As the rest of the league was busy reaping the benefits of the salary boom, each embodied a different kind of purism. In the stately Kareem and the playful Walton, there was a wholly original perspective on how to approach the game, philosophically speaking. It’s a bit strange to say that such dominant athletes are as significant as thinkers. Yet, without taking anything away from their off-court pursuits, their most influential thinking had to do with basketball – rooted in concerns of their era but as an outlook on hoops, timeless.”
On Magic/Bird, p.116-117
“When they faced off in those three NBA Finals, Magic and Bird redefined the concept of NBA rivalry. Russell and Chamberlain and West and Robertson had engaged in memorable duels on the floor; Magic and Bird were so cosmically antagonistic that they didn’t even have to guard each other to dominate the league. They raised the bar on versatility. Both standing 6’9” and possessing neither the power of a big man nor overwhelming athleticism, they set a new standard for NBA superstardom and deconstructed the very nature of positionality in the process. Magic and Bird made it clear that if you wanted to lead a team to a championship, you had to be multi-dimensional.”
On Jordan, p.120
“Michael Jordan wasn’t the first player to jump to the rim or abuse defenders. But there was something different about MJ. Not only could he get higher and do more whilst hanging in the air that anyone who had come before, Jordan was outright vicious in the way he used this exquisite ability, careening around the court and knifing his way to the basket with recklessness – as expansive as Magic, but replacing Johnson’s glee with a kind of freewheeling, vigilante menace. Make no mistake, Jordan was a shock to the system.”
On Barkley, p. 126
“To watch him play in those first years was a strange combination of rooting for both the underdog and the bully. Nothing ever seemed to fit properly. The explosion and quickness of the legs coupled with an enormous upper body was a combination almost impossible to believe. If big men before or since have been able to rebound and lead a break with as much skill and dexterity, none did it with as much ferocity and abandon.”
On Jordan’s first retirement, p. 144-145
“Olajuwon would never meet Jordan on the NBA’s biggest stage, and for this, we should all feel emptiness. Michael Jordan’s absence is the closest thing the NBA has to an asterisk. His dominance was so overwhelming that his presence (or absence) determined the worth of all wins, losses, awards and other achievements during his reign. If we follow the logic that Jordan’s 1993-95 absence mars the Rockets’ mid-nineties titles, so too should Jordan’s presence in each of his championship years soften the defeats of his greatest competitors.”
On the Heat-Knicks rivalry, p. 165
“The late-nineties battles between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat represented a retrograde, junkyard form of the game that remains reviled for its ugliness. Both teams were committed to aggressive, physical defense. Not content with merely frustrating an offense, they wanted to eradicate it. And both teams were thoroughly unapologetic. Knicks-Heat games were tense, violent, stilted, low-scoring and unattractive. Yet their anti-style was brutishly effective, and it was driven by authentic hatred. It captivated the NBA community like a bar fight, slasher flick or car accident – there was just no turning away from this least elegant form of basketball. Characterizing Knicks-Heat basketball as bruising has become hackneyed, and anyway, inaccurate: There were also breaks, sprains and bloodletting.”
On Allen Iverson, p. 181
“Iverson was reviled as a “thug,” largely because he looked like the denizen of a back-alley dice game as imagined by BET. Supposedly, Allen Iverson was responsible for any rookie who looked, or acted, a little too hood for comfort. This presumes, though, that these kids had no friends, families, or cultural identities of their own. Say Iverson simply made it acceptable to share dark secrets with the world. That’s quite different from planting the seed in the first place.”
On the modern game, p.186
“Fusty critics of the modern NBA sometimes decry the lack of fundamentals, but this is more a subjective stance against a certain style of play than a judgment about basic competence. Today’s athletes do things every weekend that would have been earth-shattering accomplishments in the early years of the league. Things change: LeBron James’s armory of turnaround jumpers, locomotive drives, and arcing three-pointers could not have existed without Jordan, Bird, Magic and Baylor. Yet these changes have also served to slow the game down over time. The prevailing theory goes that as all shots become easier to make, the need to earn ‘easy baskets’ lessens in importance.”
On the Lakers-Spurs, p. 201
“At the time, the Spurs came across as the anti-Lakers. Where Los Angeles stood for stardom, distraction and riches, San Antonio represented collectivism, focus and family. The teams’ home cities reflected this dueling ethos, with Los Angeles as the glut of materialism, falsity, traffic and self-presentation, while San Antonio represented immigrant struggle, homespun pride, and car dealerships. Their battles played out as classic morality operas, with the good guys, this time, wearing black.”
Therein lay the words, art and charts of FreeDarko in a nutshell. Periodically reading FreeDarko makes me write a little crisper, think a little deeper and just feel better knowing that there are people out there that love basketball as much as I do.