The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

My interest in the NBA was rekindled this year and a cynic would say I was just jumping on the Bulls bandwagon. Hey, I’m not disagreeing that the success of DRose and the Bulls were major factors. There were, however, significant other contributing factors.

One of the other factors was the richness of the NBA blogosphere and Twittersphere. During games, Twitter is absolutely jumping with commentary from everyone from indie bloggers to the heavy hitters of big media. It’s regarded by some pundits as the best blogosphere of any major American sport. It adds a lot to the in-game experience for me and has certainly helped rekindle the love for the game I had as a kid.

One heavy blogger and Tweeter is FreeDarko. Well, it’s actually inaccurate to refer to FreeDarko in the singular. It’s actually a handful of guys who have put a new spin on basketball journalism. They call themselves The FreeDarko Collective and this is their first book.

It was published in 2008, so it’s kind of dated. They take 18 players from that time period and break down their game and their personality. They look at things from every angle and throw a dramatic, appreciative, and sometimes twisted point of view into the mix. It’s difficult to describe. Here’s an example of their take on Kobe:

To his detractors, Kobe Bryant is Dracula: a spooky, inhuman being that gets shit done. Starstruck fans regard him as the epitome of glitz, glam, and accomplishment. In truth, he’s that most stormy, and mortal, kind of great man. If Shaquille O’Neal always represented Superman, then Kobe’s the Dark Knight: vulnerable, but all the stronger for it.

But it’s not all literary, pop-culture fluff like that. They put some thoughtful analysis into it, backed up with a ton of hard numbers. The Kobe section has a detailed comparison of Wilt’s 100 points and Kobe’s 81 points, with a color coded analysis of points scored relative to their respective team’s deficit. Kobe’s scoring binge came from a much more competitive game and it’s clear that Kobe’s feat is equal to, if not more impressive, than Wilt’s.

Besides super heroes, they pull references from world religions, like this take on Lamar Odom:

… He exists as a sideshow, a role player, a conundrum, an “almost,” a tempting flash of brilliance, a martyr, a fall guy so that other players can make All-Star Teams and receive MVP awards. A being of this epic un-belonging appears biblical. Yet while so many players try to perform the role of Christ, feigning death for the sins of others, Odom is better seen as some perpetual Job figure, facing hardships in the name of divine power.

And they give each player a spirit animal:

… Odom’s departure from positional convention is so bold it’s unsettling. He is indeed the mantid-fly, a living, breathing study in disjunctive beauty.

As with Kobe, they follow with hard facts. For Odom they did an intense, graphical, color-coded comparison of Odom’s big man stats and small man stats versus other players (two groups, those shorter than 6’4″ and those taller than 6’10”) using a random sample of his stats from 50 games during the 2003-2007 seasons. You have to see it to really appreciate it. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

They dig deep into depths most fans would not expect. To use the term passionate to describe the collective’s love for the NBA would be an understatement. Who else would dig up obscure player quotes like this one to highlight Yao Ming’s wry sense of humor?

NOTABLE REMARK: On having a shot rejected by the five-foot-nine New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson: “I’ve been blocked by a five-foot-three guy before, so that’s not a record.”

Or who else would diagram every one of Amare Stoudamire’s tattoos and try and weave together their meaning in light of Stoudamire’s persona? The collective would!

This is a beautiful book. It’s a coffee table book; square and built like a textbook, each chapter introduced and summarized, a detailed glossary, and full of beautiful diagrams and images. I loved it and it really wet my whistle for the NBA next year.

However, it’s becoming apparent that I may need to slake my thirst for the NBA elsewhere. The FreeDarko Collective is closing shop and the chances of seeing any NBA hoops before 2012 is looking grim given the current lockout. Oh well, that’s fine, I have basketball books to read, including The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. And hopefully they keep the FreeDarko blog up forever. But if they don’t, their spirit for this style of sports writing will live on. Who knows, sites like Grantland or American McCarver may not have been feasible had FreeDarko not burned the path.

The ringleader of FreeDarko seemed to be this guy Bethlehem Shoals and he remains active in the blogosphere and still writes under the FreeDarko handle on Twitter. The book was written by Shoals, Big Baby Belafonte, Brown Recluse, ESQ., Dr. Lawyer Indianchief, and Silverbird5000 (don’t ask). The authorship of the blog is bit more extensive and you can get the names of the writers here. I follow a few of them on Twitter and they’ve opened me up to new method of appreciating sports and sports writing.