The Book of Basketball
Bill Simmons, 2009

Here's pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman, in a 2005 interview with columnist Bill Simmons:

Arguing about sports is the ultimate cultural equalizer: I can't think of any subject that so many people know so much about. I feel like I personally know at least 100 guys who have a "near expert" understanding of the NFL. If you watch the games each week (and especially if you grew up watching the games each week), you can easily have a 90-minute conversation about pro football with a total stranger in any airport bar (assuming said stranger has had a similar experience). There is a shared knowledge of sports in America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else. Whenever I have to hang out with someone I've never met before, I always find myself secretly thinking, "I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports." Because if he does, I know the rest of the conversation will be easy.

This was a sentiment I'd encountered before. I've often heard sports lauded for their ability to overcome all sorts of barriers, from emotional estrangement — you know, "even when I could never talk to my dad about anything else, I could talk to him about the Mets" — to the class divide: "What else can I talk to my doorman about?" It's a good question. I mean, I'd love to live in a world where I could kick off a conversation with "So, Alan Moore's really playing around with intrapanel time duration in Neonomicon, eh?" or "Dude, I played a killer double hane tesuji last night!" But I don't, so it's been helpful to know a little bit about sports. Even more helpful, in my experience, has been to know a little bit about Scooby-Doo.

On multiple occasions both in high school and college I was struck by the way a group of relative strangers could suddenly wind up bantering like lifelong friends once Scooby-Doo came up. If you're around my age you've probably participated in the Scooby-Doo conversation a few times yourself. "Hey, what d'you think Fred and Daphne got up to while the others were off looking for clues?" "What were Scooby Snacks, anyway? Some kind of dog amphetamines?" "Yeah, and what do you make of a guy named Shaggy who's always got the munchies?" Etc., etc. If this sounds like the most horribly clichéd Gen-X conversation you can imagine, that's because it was countless conversations like these that spawned the cliché. So what made them so compelling?

Let me start, as Nick Montfort does in Twisty Little Passages, with the riddle. And as long as we're on the subject of 1970s cartoons, I'll use the riddle the Sphinx presented to Batman in an episode of Superfriends:

What builds up castles and tears down mountains, makes some men blind and helps others to see?

The answer, as Batman correctly guesses, is sand. What makes this a satisfying riddle is that at first it seems so unlikely that there could possibly be anything that meets all four divergent criteria, and then suddenly the answer clicks into place: sandcastles, erosion, sandstorms, glass lenses! It all fits!

From here it's a short step to the joke. The example that springs to mind is one I've posted about before, quite possibly the funniest I've ever heard. Jennifer and I were out visiting her family in Long Island, and she and her brother Scott were talking about how their two-year-old step-niece had been trying to get out of a chair when it fell to pieces under her, leaving the poor kid bawling with shock. That led to the following exchange:

Scott:Yeah, it was a real Incredible Hulk moment. Next she'll be smashing through the wall.
Jennifer:Like Kool-Aid Man.
Scott:Except Kool-Aid Man never burst through the wall and then collapsed into tears.
Jennifer:He did at Jonestown.

I think it was Immanuel Kant who first proposed the now widely accepted notion that humor is rooted in incongruity. It looks to me like there are at least three forms of incongruity here:

  • the transition from the goofy mascot for a crappy powdered beverage mix to the horror of the mass murder/suicide in Guyana

  • the transition from the relatively innocuous context of a startled toddler to that of a jungle compound blanketed with dead bodies

  • the use of something we might not expect to encounter in a joke as a punchline

But incongruity is only half the story. What really makes this joke work is the fact that, like the answer to a riddle, the Jonestown reference provides the pleasures of satisfaction. Unlikely as it seems that there could possibly be a link between an anthropomorphic pitcher of fake juice and the deaths of nearly a thousand cult members, we live in a strange enough world that in fact the connection is very strong. Adding immeasurably to the effectiveness of the joke is the fact that it wasn't scripted; the notion of Kool-Aid Man collapsing into tears arose organically out of the story of the broken chair. So not only does the joke provide the satisfaction of an unexpectedly perfect fit, but the listener is left marveling at the odds against such a perfect setup line spontaneously presenting itself. (In the case of this listener, that marveling manifested as several minutes of uncontrollable laughter.)

Now throw in one more factor: you actually have to get the references to appreciate the joke. When you hear the word "Jonestown," you immediately have to iterate through the associations it suggests: the acolytes drink the poison, Kool-Aid Man comes bursting in with a hearty "OHH YEEAAAHHHH!!", he looks around at the hundreds upon hundreds of corpses, his eyes fill with horror... again, it all fits! And not only are you rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing order emerge from chaos, but you get a little jolt of self-affirmation. Yes! I had the requisite knowledge to put the pieces together! Just as I thought, I am the sort of person who knows enough about macabre moments in history to be able to pick up on what she's talking about! The Mystery Science Theater guys always said that they didn't worry about how obscure their references were because "the right people will get it" — and I'm one of the right people!

This element is especially important where in-jokes and their cousin geek humor are concerned. Example: a few years ago I was browsing a go web site and happened across a page about an imaginary book called Get Strong at Empty Triangle. I thought this was hilarious! See, there's a real series called Get Strong — Get Strong at the Opening, Get Strong at Invading, etc. — but the empty triangle is a shape you want to avoid playing if at all possible! Why, that's like a cookbook about how to burn food! What an incongruous title!

Okay, maybe it's not actually all that funny. But the explainable comedic value of a joke is only part of how well it works. First of all, I enjoy go, at least when I'm playing well; my thoughts on the topic are full of pleasant associations, so the joke probably gets extra points from me for triggering some of those, even if I'm not consciously aware of it. It also gets a little boost up the incongruity scale, because if you actually read the Get Strong books and spend a few moments in every game looking for ways to avoid empty triangles, seeing them in a joke means processing familiar concepts in an unfamiliar context, a key element of comedy. And then there's the way the joke plays to a go player's sense of self. Again, there's a bit of self-congratulation involved — hey, I get it! I didn't need anyone to explain it to me! good job, me! — and a bit of self-definition: not just anyone would get this joke! indeed, the very fact that I get this joke is one of my distinguishing qualities!

Which brings me back to Scooby-Doo.

I think the reason Scooby-Doo was such a surefire conversation starter was that, in addition to whatever comedic value the jokes contained — and, c'mon, "dog amphetamines" is pretty funny — your ability to participate in the Scooby-Doo conversation said a lot about you. It said, "I spent my childhood steeped in this crap, just like you did." It said, "I have also, quite possibly under the tutelage of David Letterman, developed the ironic distance that allows me to see the sheer inanity of this crap as hilarious, just like you have, to the extent that you can keep up." It said, "On top of all this, just like you, I'm far enough along into adolescence that I can recontextualize the show into a world full of sex and drugs, and, jinkies, it's a better fit than you'd think, huh?" And it said, "The fact that I get this means that I'm not one of the Baby Boomers who've had a stranglehold on the culture for our entire lives and show no sign of relinquishing it. Just like you, I'm an outsider."

And that's how Malcolm Gladwell, in his foreword to The Book of Basketball, introduces Bill Simmons. "Bill is exactly like you or me. He's a fan," Gladwell says, and "a fan is always an outsider." The "insiders" in this case would be the mainstream sports reporters and columnists who are expected to maintain at least the pretense of objectivity and a modicum of decorum. Guys who, as Gladwell points out, depend on their access to athletes and therefore have to make sure not to say anything that'll make Kobe Bryant stop returning their calls. But by 2000, readers were beginning to drift away from traditional sources of sports news and towards these new things called blogs. This came as a surprise to a lot of media magnates — why would you care what a bunch of nobodies, who got all their sports information off TV just like you did, had to say? — but it turned out that the audience for sportswriting didn't want to hear from the voice of institutional authority all the time. So on November 6th of that year ESPN added a new section to its web site: "Page 2," which was billed as "an outstanding lineup of non-traditional sportswriting" by such contributors as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, political reporter Richard Ben Cramer, and comedian Nick Bakay. Six months later, finding that this still wasn't quite what the blog readers were looking for, ESPN just hired one of the bloggers. Bill Simmons, the blurb at the bottom of his early columns said, had been brought on board to give an "irreverent take on the sports scene." He would openly root for certain players and teams, root against others, and brazenly mock the ones he hated. He would use undecorous phrasings like "I just threw up a little in my mouth." He would also eventually take over Page 2 to a great extent and become the face of ESPN on the Internet, a position that he would parlay into a New York Times #1 bestseller.

Gladwell, in the foreword to that bestseller, expands on the notion that Simmons "is exactly like you or me," calling him not just a fan but "an obsessive fan, in the best sense of the word." I don't know whether it's the best sense, but the "obsessive" part is certainly on target. A lot of people writing a book about basketball might do a chapter on their all-time starting five, or even a full twelve-man team — fifteen if you throw in injured reserve. Simmons writes up his entire personal Hall of Fame, counting down from #96 (Tom Chambers) to #1 (Chuck Nevitt), over the course of 339 pages, which is still less than half the book. He's also the sort of guy who then treats the list that he pulled out of his ass as if it were the product of some kind of mathematical formula. Here's what he said about Kobe Bryant a couple of months ago: "In my book, I had him ranked No. 15 as a Level Four guy. Last season's title moved him to Level Five; I thought he'd move into the top eight if the Lakers made the Finals again. Which they did. But if they win again? Now we have to talk about Duncan's No. 7 spot." As Slate blogger Tom Scocca put it, "Bill Simmons says that Kobe is so successful, Bill Simmons will have to reconsider the place where Bill Simmons has put Kobe in basketball history." That said... for someone who, among other things, reranks his 100 favorite songs at least once a year, there was more than a twinge of recognition there.

I could also relate to the specifically NBA-related geekery on display. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of pro basketball, but kind of by accident I happen to know a lot about it; it was the sport that my parents occasionally watched and which my brothers and I then picked up. There are things I hate about it — above all else, the fact that fouling is such an integral part of the game. Breaking the rules should never be advantageous! On a related note, I hate how the referees play such a major role: because multiple fouls could be called on just about every play, what the refs choose to call and choose not to call has as much impact on the game as what the players do. But there are also things I like about it. I like that on any given possession the offense and defense are about equally likely to be successful, rather than the offense needing to have 99 things go right to get a score and the defense only needing one thing to go right in order to prevent one. I like that at every moment a team is padding its lead or losing it, catching up or falling behind, unlike the sports that amount to two hours of anxiety about whether this will be the one moment in the match that a sudden chaotic burst of activity will actually affect the scoreboard. I like that basketball games often come down to a single set piece in which players scramble for the most advantageous positions on the floor and then one of them takes an all-or-nothing shot — even though I know it's easier, I find making a buzzer-beater a much more impressive way to win a game than hitting a home run, throwing a touchdown, or eluding a goalkeeper. And what I like most, much more than the sport itself, is the fact that a basketball team is small enough — fifteen people, twelve of whom are allowed to play, eight to ten of whom actually do play, and five of whom play at a time — that constructing one is an interesting inventory puzzle. You're not fielding an army, like in football, or adding new talent by signing thousands of Little Leaguers and hoping that a few of them make it out of the minors, like in baseball. Draft picks, trades, and free agent signings take on more weight in the NBA than in other sports leagues, and there's a clear narrative to the rise and fall of the various teams from one season to the next.

So I found that Simmons's chapters on the season-by-season history of the NBA — right up to 1983-4, which by coincidence is the first season I paid attention to — and on 33 alternate-history scenarios — Jordan over Bowie, Len Bias lives, Kobe goes to jail for rape, etc. — made for pretty absorbing intellectual junk food. And I was amused by the basketball-geek humor in much the same way that I was amused by Get Strong at Empty Triangle. Here's Simmons on Paul Mokeski, backup center for the Milwaukee Bucks from 1982 to '89:

Mokeski was extraordinarily unathletic and ran like he had two prosthetic legs; if that weren't enough, he tried to bring back the curly-perm/wispy-mustache combo that should have died in the early eighties. Throw in male pattern baldness and a disappearing chin and Mokeski looked like a Jersey cop who should have been standing in a donut line.

This falls into the category of "it's funny because it's true," or, rather, "it's funny because I already knew that it was true." It's funny for the very fact that he's talking about Paul Mokeski at all, for the fact that of all the obscure basketball players he could have brought up, he chose the one who was a running joke when my brothers and I watched basketball. Even my mother tried to get into the act — the Bucks played the Sixers in the '83 and '85 playoffs and knocked them out in '86 and '87, and she used to fume, "I don't like that Fish-Tie and Sicko and Mohhh-keski!" And while that memory kind of makes me cringe, the mere fact that I had a Mokeski-related memory to trigger gave me that little glow of being in someone's target audience for once.

But then, this sort of thing has been part of sportswriting for a long time. When I think of baseball writing in particular, I think of 40-year-old men making in-jokes about, like, the right fielder for the 1937 Cincinnati Reds. ("Just for the heck of it: Kiki Cuyler.") Where Simmons departed from those who came before him, and established himself as the flagship sportswriter of Generation X, was in his insistence on tying sports to the broader entertainment world. And yes, pop culture references have also been part of sportswriting for a long time. ("Their playoff chances are as dead as Michael Jackson with a case of swine flu!") But Simmons's chief gimmick from the beginning has been extended interplay between sports and music, sports and movies, sports and television. Here's a typical example, chosen pretty much at random, from the section on Tim Duncan:

If you keep banging out first-class seasons with none standing out more than any other, who's going to notice after a while? There's a precedent: once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for fifteen solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, "Wait a second — Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!" From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games, but it wasn't until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was consistently more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other peer. As with Duncan, we knew little about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn't anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it.

When Simmons isn't making long-winded analogies like this, he's making shorter ones. Again chosen at random, here he is on Gary Payton: "In Boston, a washed-up Payton was still trying to beat guys off the dribble, posting up, demanding to cover top scorers and sulking when he didn't get the ball. It was like watching Jason Alexander order people around on the set of some crappy sitcom ('Don't you realize who I am? I'm Jason Alexander!') and failing to realize his time had come and gone." Then, a few lines later, in a footnote about the praise Payton received for making some key plays in the '06 playoffs: "What would be the equivalent in other walks of life? [...] Springsteen getting a standing O at the Meadowlands after a rocking solo in his new gig as the harmonica player for Modest Mouse?" You get the picture. Imagine flipping on ESPN one night in 1993 and seeing thirty seconds of Sportscenter followed by that beer commercial with the grunge-lite guys shooting pool while name-checking "Green Acres" and "The Mod Squad." Take that sixty seconds of television, throw it into a blender, and you've got Bill Simmons.

One thing about that commercial, though — the references are all from the mid- to late '60s, which even if you take syndication into account seems like a better match for the thirtysomethings at the ad agency than for the characters onscreen. What struck me when I first encountered Simmons's writing was that, even though he's five years older than I am, his references were often eerily resonant with me. Like, when I was a kid, there were four movies my brothers and I basically knew by heart, because we'd recorded them off cable: in order of how frequently we watched the tapes, they were Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Rocky IV, The Karate Kid, and (a fairly distant fourth) Teen Wolf. The last three of these are movies Simmons cites incessantly. Even more than the Scooby-Doo conversation — for what made the Scooby-Doo conversation work was that pretty much everyone born at any point in the 1970s was familiar with Scooby-Doo — the message drew me in: "I spent my childhood steeped in the exact same crap you were! Except I was actually well into my teens! But still!"

Now, as noted, there was more to the Scooby-Doo conversation than just that. What about the ironic distance? Does Simmons do ironic distance? Oh, yes. In fact, as I noted in my Late Shift article, Simmons overdoes ironic distance:

[...] while Leno's comedy succeeds or fails with each individual joke, Letterman's is more about communicating an overarching worldview. Spend enough time watching Letterman and eventually you don't need him to recontextualize things for you [...] The problem is that while this wry view of the world can help you find humor in things without needing a comedian to supply the punchlines for you, it's also apparently pretty easy to cross the line into deciding that therefore everything is funny. Bill Simmons is a good example of this. His father falls asleep in front of the television set? Knee-slapping hilarity! A football player looks moderately chagrined after a loss? Uproarious laughter! A blue car? Comedy GOLD!

There is practically nothing that doesn't break the needle off Simmons's Unintentional Comedy Scale; when he wrote a column about it he listed 250 items (Paul Mokeski was #205) and has added about 250 more items on a weekly basis over the course of the subsequent eight years. The problem is that not everything is funny. And here is where, for all the pop culture touchstones we seem to have in common, and for all of Malcolm Gladwell's assurances that "Bill is exactly like you or me," I find myself starting to wonder if he might not be my polar opposite.

When I was in high school, I read an essay by William Golding of Lord of the Flies fame that asserted that there were three types of thinking. Grade-three thinking meant going along with what everyone else thought. Grade-two thinking was reflexive contrarianism. And grade-one thinking was the genuine search for truth. It wasn't a very good essay, but the tripartite system it proposed stuck with me, and it later struck me as a helpful way to think of the evolution of the typical Gen-Xer's relationship to pop culture. Grade three: you spend your childhood steeped in crap, enjoying it because you don't know any better. Grade two: you reach adolescence and come to realize how insipid the vast majority of pop culture is, but love it all the more because laughing at it is even more fun than laughing with it. (In college I visited a high school friend who had turned his room back home into an ironic shrine to the Fonz and was working on a comparable collection of Pac-Man paraphernalia. I agreed that this was indeed truly epic comedy.) Grade one: you finally grow up and focus on stuff that's actually, y'know, good. There was a brief window in the 1990s when this seemed to be happening on a wide scale, as pop culture significantly improved: some great bands arrived on the scene and actually broke onto mainstream playlists, some very good movies turned up in the theaters... there were even a few TV shows that were surprisingly decent. And then all of that went away. We were, after all, the baby bust, and the kids in the next generation outnumbered us. Once their purchasing power started to outstrip ours, the culture reconfigured itself around pop quintets grown in vats by the marketing wings of lunchbox manufacturers. Those who continued to seek out quality were forced to turn away from the mass market — and since different people have different tastes, they fled in different directions. Call it narrowcasting, or microtrending, or the "long tail"... the conventional wisdom among the observers I read was that pop culture was fragmenting, and that you and your peers were likely to end up with fewer and fewer common references as time marched on. And that certainly jibed with my experience:

Music I listened to Audience size
childhood whatever '80s piffle was on the Mighty 690
high school the Beatles and other legendary bands from my parents' generation
college Nirvana and other now-legendary bands from my own generation
grad school stuff I heard on 120 Minutes
adulthood Die Mannequin, Made Out of Babies, and other stuff Pandora picks out for me

Television I watched Audience size
childhood stupid cartoons
high school stupid sitcoms
college The Simpsons, Seinfeld, similarly decent shows
grad school Mystery Science Theater 3000, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
adulthood got rid of television, watch stuff like "American Economic History" on the Berkeley webcast site

Until quite recently I would have told you that this fragmentation was a done deal. Not only had I not heard of the bands I saw my friends mention online (Fiery Furnaces? Mountain Goats? and who on earth are the Sufjan Stevens?), I hadn't heard of anyone I saw when I glanced at a Billboard chart. See? Music has fragmented to the point that utter obscurities like "Lady Gaga" and "Katy Perry" and "Arcade Fire" can land in the top ten! Surely if these people were really popular I would have heard even a single note of one of their songs just by osmosis, right? And the so-called celebrity magazines with complete strangers plastered on the covers, identified by first name only as if I'm supposed to know who "Spencer" and "Heidi" are... c'mon, I majored in pop culture, and I've never seen any of these people in my life. How famous could they be? Put Care Failure on the cover and maybe you'll have something. As for TV... in 1986-7, The Cosby Show had a 34.9 rating for the year. Nowadays the very top show on television struggles to a 9. That's what you get when the audience is fragmented over a thousand channels instead of just three! And you end up with the weirdest shit making it up near the top — shows about fuckin' fishermen and Canadian truckers? Who watches this stuff? And how did Nixon become president, anyway? I don't know anyone who voted for Nixon!

But along came Twitter and Facebook, and I started to get a glimpse into the lives of people who weren't regulars on ifMUD back in 1997. Probably the first sign that I wasn't living in the world I thought I was came when there was a big hullaballoo over the death of someone named Billy Mays, whom I'd never heard of. Rapper?, I wondered. Mixed martial artist? I did a web search. "Oxi-Clean pitchman," said the web. What the hell is Oxi-Clean, and how can an "Oxi-Clean pitchman" count as a celebrity? Yet here were all sorts of people on my lists exclaiming over his demise. Then came the breathless messages about Project Runway and American Idol and Jersey Shore. Buh? Seriously? Well, okay, some of these people are 22 or whatever... when I was 22 I was still pretty deep into my own "so bad it's good!" phase. Glad that's over, though. How about you, Bill?

The B.S. Report: 8/19
Bill Simmons is joined by the czar Dave Jacoby to recap all the latest "Jersey Shore" happenings and break down a few other reality TV shows.

Wait, but—

Bill Simmons and ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry discuss fantasy baseball. Where is the value in your fantasy draft? Plus, the guys break down "American Idol" and much more.

—but, but... these things are not good. It's not even nostalgia about crap he watched when he was fifteen. It's prolefeed. This is like launching into a discussion of, I dunno, the best fast food or something—

The Book of Basketball, page 555, footnote 23:
[...] My Mount Rushmore of fast-food options: Chick-fil-A, Subway, Panda Express, and Arby's.

...Bill Simmons is forty years old. He makes millions of dollars. He lives in Los Angeles — not exactly a paucity of dining options there. What the fuck is he doing eating at Subway? I'm not saying he should eat at Spago every day; I've had lunch at Chez Panisse a couple of times, and personally, I'd rather head three doors up the block for a taco at Picoso or across the street for pizza at the Cheese Board. I'm not such a snob that I can't do downscale — I even prefer it. But there's downscale, and then there's, like, under the scale. Taco Bell and Domino's Pizza do not even count as food. Same for TV. I'll zone out with a torrent of an old Friends episode every now and again. But, c'mon... multiple B.S. Reports about The Bachelor? The guy in the Onion article I linked above laments that, now that he's 34, "I turn on the TV these days, and if I see something that's unbelievably stupid and insulting to my intelligence, all I want to do is turn it off." Simmons is forty. He can't relate at all?

But I guess that question brings us full circle. I remember that Jennifer was once talking about a Buffy episode and someone commented that she seemed like the type of person who wouldn't have a television; she replied, "I've given up meat, air conditioning and the internal combustion engine. I have to watch TV or they'd kick me out of America." And in a lot of ways I feel even less at home here than she did — I can get by in certain enclaves, but the vast majority of this country makes me feel like I'm from outer space. Knowing a little bit about sports has enabled me to bridge that gap a time or two — making small talk with students is often pretty important to establishing a working relationship, but in a number of cases I've really had nothing to say until I noticed (for instance) a Rockets logo doodled in the margin of the kid's homework, and could ask, "So the Rockets are your team? What'd you think of the Aaron Brooks pick?" But I get the sense that Simmons, unlike Klosterman, has never had to deal with the gap at all. In fact, here's the contrast in black and white. Klosterman:

I have always liked the Packers [...] mostly because I grew up surrounded by hordes of Viking fans, virtually all of whom I despise.


If you live in a city that has fielded a professional team since your formative years, you have to root for that team.

There you go — the difference between someone who feels at home in his culture and one who doesn't. You can probably guess which of these camps I'm in. Let me put it this way: the Boston Celtics played the Los Angeles Lakers for the title three times in the 1980s. Simmons rooted for the Celtics because he was from Boston. I rooted for the Celtics because I was from Los Angeles. If the cretins around me liked the Lakers, then I liked their archrivals. Simmons looked at the cretins around him and declared them his soulmates.

And here's the thing. Culture is more than the music we listen to, the TV shows we watch, and the sports we follow. Culture is the way we behave, and the conscious and unconscious ideas that shape the way we behave. And Simmons is a proud ambassador of the culture of cretins. I'm not the only one to observe this; here's Ben Mathis-Lilley of New York magazine:

I'm not a Puritan. I don't mind battle-of-the-sexes banter or bachelor-party anecdotes and I'm not, presently, wearing pants. But Simmons gets into weird, pathological territory. Here's a selection from one of his columns that the book prompted me to look up:

I flew to San Fran to hang out with my buddies Bish, Mikey and Hopper (the heart of the original Vegas crew) for a few days. The weekend started off with Mikey showing us a then-legendary porn scene — one where Rocco Siffredi randomly decided to dunk a co-star's head into a toilet — which we analyzed like it was the Zapruder film for a good two to ten hours. Then we flew to Vegas and gambled for three straight days, and every time someone got killed by a blackjack hand we made a variation of a joke about someone getting their head rammed in the toilet by Rocco. Vegas is the place where you beat the same joke into the ground, but this went to another level — flushing sounds, gurgling, "No, no Rocco, not again!" and everything else. It just never got old.

Jeez, man. Jeez. I didn't realize guys like this had friends; I assumed they were all rapey basement loners.

Simmons does indeed seem to have a bizarre, sadomasochistic take on what constitutes friendship. In one of the strangest moments of The Book of Basketball, he blatantly spoils a key moment near the end of No Country for Old Men with no warning whatsoever, then crows in a footnote, "If I ruined the movie, too bad — it's been out for two years." Yeah! Two whole years! Because who ever heard of people actually being busy and not immediately watching every single movie they might conceivably someday want to see? For fuck's sake. And Simmons goes on to talk about how he deliberately spoiled The Usual Suspects for a supposed friend of his:

He's still pissed 14 years later. And you know what? I don't care. If you haven't ruined a movie twist for a friend as a way to bust his balls, you're missing out in life. I'm telling you. We've had probably a hundred hours worth of conversations about me blowing The Usual Suspects for him. Even right now, he's fuming. This is great.

I couldn't believe I was reading someone so baldly declaring how much he enjoyed being a huge asshole — not being an asshole but unaware of it, but being fully aware of it and reveling in it. This goes well beyond the professor I once had who announced that every lecture would be filled with spoilers and that we shouldn't be upset because that meant that we were "fetishizing plot"; Simmons wants his friend, and us, to be upset, because he delights in the suffering of others. In most contexts that would be a stupidly heavy-handed accusation but he says it flat out! I noted up near the top of this article that it was Immanuel Kant who first popularized the notion that humor is based on incongruity. Centuries before, Plato had suggested that humor was actually a power play, that the pleasure of a joke derived from a sense of triumph over those who are "weak and unable to revenge themselves when they are laughed at." Apparently Simmons is a Platonist. I remember that, before his first show back in 1993, Conan O'Brien wrote a fake review of the first episode in which he described thick jets of foam being dumped on the audience from hidden ceiling ducts. "As people wiped the stinging lather from their eyes, Mr. O'Brien jumped out from behind a curtain and cheerfully quipped, 'Ha, ha, you're all foamy!'" The joke was that pissing people off does not actually constitute comedy. Simmons probably wondered why Conan didn't do it on the real show.

Simmons actually worked on a late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel's, for a few months. In the announcement that he'd be taking on a reduced role at ESPN while writing for Kimmel, Simmons listed the "principles on which I founded this column" as, first, sports, second, pop culture, and third, "male bonding," which apparently involves a lot of "busting balls" and joking about violence against women. Many observers have remarked upon Simmons's sexism; Mathis-Lilley writes that in reading this book, "I actually stopped bothering to copy down the most egregious comments and figured I'd just note when Simmons mentioned a woman for any reason other than evaluating her appeal as something to put a penis in." But I think the issue goes even deeper than that. Simmons seems to resent that women hold even that much appeal for him. He'd rather be rid of them entirely.

Simmons wraps up his five-chapter, 96-section, 339-page rundown of his Hall of Fame with an anecdote that begins with a very long account of hanging out at a bar with "my buddy Sully and the Boston crew" when Michael Jordan shows up. They watch Jordan smoke cigars and play cards with Charles Oakley and assorted hangers-on, every moment related in excruciating detail. Then:

MJ keeps getting louder and louder, and he and Oakley are cleaning up, and everyone in the bar is watching them while pretending not to watch, and then suddenly...

MJ's wife shows up.


Everyone makes room for her. She sits down right next to him. Poor MJ looks like somebody who took a no-hitter into the ninth, then gave up a triple off the left-field wall. The trash-talking stops. He slumps in his seat like a little kid. The cigar goes out. No more hangin' with the boys. Time to be a husband again. Watching the whole thing unfold, I lean over to Sully and say, "Look at that, he's just like us."

And he is. Just your average guy getting derailed by his wife. For once in my life, I don't want to be like Mike.

This isn't the first time Simmons has touched on this theme. He's come right out and said that he doesn't enjoy the company of women. "Throw females into the mix" with him and his buddies, he laments, "and we can't make the same inappropriate jokes or emit the same noises." There's just one problem. Simmons has a very close relationship with his father, and he really wanted to recapture that from the other side by having a son. But the sad biological fact is that having a son requires the participation of a... a woman! Worse yet, the woman Simmons found to partner up with didn't even provide him with a son right away — their first child was a daughter. Simmons described in a column how he spent the pregnancy "silently smoldering" about this distressing turn of events, which had each of his friends "cackling like a madman" at him (more of that oh so friendly "ball-busting," I take it). Pretty much every subsequent reference to his daughter has revolved around "keeping her off the pole," which he's described as "every father's most important job." But after he "made the executive decision to speed up plans for kid number two" and became "the first person who ever had a positive home pregnancy test whipped at them at 95 mph," Simmons was "fortunate enough to sire a son," whom he describes as his "best-friend-in-training," a role for which his daughter is apparently unqualified. And it is his father and his son to whom his book is dedicated, his mother and wife and daughter shuffled off the page to keep the account of the Simmons family tree free from woman's taint.

Now, I can't exactly claim the moral high ground over Simmons, given that I'm on record with a preference of my own — it just happens to be the opposite of his. But I can claim that when Gladwell says that Simmons is "exactly like you or me," he's wrong. And if Simmons is correct that "the average guy" doesn't want to get "derailed by his wife" — or as I would call it, "rescued from a fucking sausage party" — then I want to be part of this culture even less than I already am.

Return to the Calendar page!