By Jason Wojciechowski on December 13, 2008 at 4:09 PM
Participatory journalism will always get me going, whether it's George Plimpton playing quarterback for the Lions or AJ Jacobs reading the encyclopedia. I was excited, then, to read that Jack McCallum conceived of his project as one of participatory journalism. Unfortunately, McCallum appears to have either not read or completely missed the point of Plimpton's great work in this field, because this book is not participatory in the least. It's just a book about the Suns for which McCallum was given more access than a journalist usually gets.
After that initial disappointment, though, I was ready for a good yarn: team, supposed to be on the verge of greatness, loses Amare Stoudemire but makes use of new additions Raja Bell and Boris Diaw to make a run through the regular season and then into the Western Conference finals before finally falling to Dallas. No such yarn emerged. To say that there's a narrative here would stretch the meaning of the word. It's a collection of anecdotes loosely tacked on to the playoff run, with "timeouts" so that McCallum can have flashbacks to anecdotes from the regular season that he thinks are appropriate at the time. This could have worked, but it didn't. The "timeouts" didn't really add flesh to the playoff story so much as provide secondary anecdotes marginally related to the ones he'd told in the chapter before.
Now that I've lowered the expectations from "masterwork of participatory journalism" down to "collection of anecdotes about an interesting team", did the book work as the latter? Kind of. I don't think I have a lot more insight into Steve Nash or Mike D'Antoni, the two leaders of the Suns revolution. I didn't get anything new about Tim Thomas or the down-bench guys (Pat Burke, for instance).
But it's not all bad. The role of the assistant coaches is illuminated effectively, as McCallum shows how each coach takes on a particular persona and has very specific responsibilities on the team, with some of them acting as the "personal coach" of particular players who the coaching staff thought needed individualized attention. Amare Stoudemire's slow comeback from knee surgery is revealed to be at least in part due to his lack of desire to do the work necessary to come back. (Although there is one infuriating moment when Stoudemire hurts his other knee and attributes it to "overcompensating". McCallum dismisses this out of hand as a "predictable layman's theory", which is absurd. Injury cascades due to changed mechanics from compensating for the pain or inability to move an injured joint the same way are well known. Dismissing Amare's theory out of hand in this way may have been correct in this case (the doctors said the two injuries were unrelated), but to dismiss the entire idea is silly. More on silly comments later.)
The most fascinating character in the book ends up being Shawn Marion, the guy who thinks the coaches dump on him harder than anyone else, the guy about whom the coaches admit they might dump on him harder, the guy who can dominate a game or completely coast through it, the guy who wants desperately the attention and adoration given to Nash and D'Antoni. Bill Simmons took potshots at Marion for years, but having read the book, I'm not sure they were entirely warranted. Marion's more complex than "he wants his own team" and it's unfair to characterize him with simple aphorisms.
Boris Diaw, meanwhile, has become my new hero because he is apparently the consummate Frenchman: diet, clothes, attitude. The best line: someone breaks wind and Diaw responds, "Someone has died but does not yet know it." Is that not brilliant coming out of a 6'9" basketball player? It is.
Ok, now to my actual biggest complaint about the book: McCallum's horrible homerism. I understand that as you get close to a team, you start to root for them. You get to like the players and the coaches, you're watching all their games, it's only natural. But as a professional journalist, as someone who, as a Sports Illustrated writer, is supposedly at the top of his profession, I'd expect McCallum to be able to separate his personal feelings from his professional feelings a little bit better than this. The most egregious examples are when McCallum simply takes what a coach or player has (presumably) told him and repeats it as fact, not "D'Antoni says X" but simply "X". A brief catalog of infuriating instances:
1. On pg. 142, Kwame Brown is quoted saying that the Suns "are not a fundamental team. They just go out and they just run a bunch of screen-and-rolls and have such good shooters." McCallum launches a mighty defense of the Suns: "In Brown's world, 'fundamental' equates not to movement and spontaneity but to isolation plays and set offense." No, Jack, that's not what Kwame said at all. He said that Phoenix doesn't run an offense, they just run around, set a few screens, and hope one of their shooters gets an open look. Kwame, as a guy who was trying to learn the triangle, understood very well that basketball was not about isolation plays -- the triangle is very motion-oriented, with backdoor cuts and interior passing being staples of the Lakers' repertoire. There's a reason that the Lakers, as an inferior team, almost won the series with the Suns: they were able to slow the game down and the Suns had no real answer in the half-court set because they don't have an offense to fall back on. How many times did the Suns offense actually devolve to isolation, with Nash or Barbosa breaking their man down? McCallum bought into the revolution a little bit too hard.
2. On pg. 151, McCallum refers to the Lakers walking off the court without shaking hands as "poor sportsmanship." He notes that the Pistons did the same thing to the Bulls in 1991, "but at least the Pistons, who had won the previous two championships, were somebody." First, it's entirely unclear to me how that last thought is relevant. If you're "somebody" (whatever that means), you can get away with not shaking hands? But not if you're a struggling seventh or eighth seed? Second of all, poor sportsmanship! Raja Bell had clotheslined Kobe Bryant earlier in the series! Not even in the context of a play! Bell literally put the cheapest shot I've ever seen in my years as an NBA fan on Kobe, and the Lakers were supposed to shrug that off and shakes hands etc.? Fuck that.
3. "[Avery:] Johnson notwithstanding, there is something irritating about the Mavericks." He goes on to cite Jason Terry and Mark Cuban. Does Jason Terry really irritate anyone who's not a Suns fan? And come on, if you can't acknowledge that Mark Cuban is irritating precisely because he wants to be irritating, because he wants to be like the small-town mayor who bets a turkey against the other small-town mayor on the high-school football game, then you need to take a step back.
4. Probably the most egregious and utterly irresponsible moment comes when he lauds Raja Bell's takedown of Bryant as a "big moment" for Bell. Not in a neutral way does he say this, but in a positive way, as one of his "three big moments" in the playoffs, the other two being a game-tying three pointer and his Willis Reed moment against the Mavs. I really couldn't believe when I read it that McCallum would applaud Bell's ugly thuggish move like this.
5. On page 289, he refers to the Dallas PA announcer as "obnoxious." I don't know what planet McCallum is on where every PA announcer in the NBA isn't obnoxious. To call out Dallas's isn't really justified.
Those aside, there was one place where he just said something dumb that I feel obligated to point out. On pg. 101-02, he writes "[H:]ome teams generally get more favorable calls than visiting teams. ... [O:]verall, a home team gets the majority of close ones." But does he back this point up in any way? I don't expect him to break his chapter down and start an empirical study, but come on, a footnote maybe? This kind of unattributed nonsense without any pretense of proving it's true is the worst of the journalistic world.
One thing McCallum gets right: "If the [dress:] code is not inherently racist, it is certainly racial." I like that he took two paragraphs to basically just give his thoughts on the dress code, and I like that he got it right.
Finally, one other bit: Raja Bell's mom actually talked trash to Kobe after the series was over (pg. 153), proving that Raja Bell's mom has exactly the same amount of class as Raja Bell.