Stretching the Game Out: The Pantheon of NBA Writing on the Internet

We've got a short collective memory in the blogosphere. This is probably a good thing: The rotation and D-league players on a team change drastically in the course of a calendar year, and "standing pat" in an offseason usually means making only one major roster change, as opposed to making several. Even the very best players have 15 short years to work in, and usually only 10 of these years are especially relevant. The MVP window is open for a vanishingly short 5 years, if a player is lucky. The average age of an NBA player is very young and the average span of a career is very short, able to change drastically on an awkward fall or a fortuitous random contract. You're better off forgetting most of what you could remember.

But I think if we're going to skim and forget, if we're going to drift over mounds of information like an incorporeal dune buggy, we ought to have a few rest stops out there. I'm talking about the stuff that makes you stop in your tracks, the best and most significant pieces that the NBA blogosphere has collectively produced over the years. The pantheon, if you will. These aren't the end-of-week links roundups, nor even the end-of-year bests, nor (in many cases) even the best an individual blog has to produce. No, these are the all-time greats, the shortlist. The articles that go far beyond what you could expect from them, the articles that change you as a reader, the articles whose first readings mark the timeline of your fan experience, the articles you bookmark and continually return to when you reminisce over the subject of the article. Articles that mark themselves as surely as a great sports event marks itself to its observers. Articles that truly stretch the game out for fans and writers, whether by their sentiment, their style, or their intelligence.

This page is intended as an ongoing index of our Pantheon, and we want everyone that sees something missing to post their favorites (and how such favorites influenced them) in the comments where we'll add your favorites/explanations (and the favorites we find as they're being written) as we see fit. And feel free to comment on the existing work here. Without further ado, here is The Pantheon as we've aggregated it so far.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

UPDATE (1/21/2012)

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The Consummation of Dirk by Jonathan Callahan - A brilliant, hilarious, semi-insane short story that uses Dirk to talk about the nature of competition and that uses the nature of competition to talk about Dirk. I can't do "Consummation" justice with a blurb, but it definitely belongs in the pantheon just for the discussion of Dirk's hiatus* and Callahan's masterful command of prose. Written as a collage of different angles on the Teutonic superstar, "Consummation" features endlessly quotable individual sections filled with maddening, entertaining creativity. T.S. Eliot, interviews with no questions, send-ups of Bill Simmons and Hubie Brown, some of the most fun wordplay anywhere on the web. And it all comes together to bring to life a semi-fictional, ridiculous alternate reality that feels all too plausible.

*or sabbatical, or vision quest, or mystic performance-enhancing regimen, or journey into the heart of the silence, the light.

• • •

What a Feeling, To Be Mortal by Rob Mahoney - Not only does Mahoney's paean to the SSOL Suns have the best title of anything ever written, it also has a gripping spirituality about it. Only six paragraphs long, but it feels longer and truer as time goes by. Maybe that's because it's expressing the weight of six long, wonderful years.

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The Journey of Andre Miller, Point Guard (Part 1, Part 2) by Tim Davenport (handle timbo on BlazersEdge) - Andre Miller is one of the sneakily great guards from the last decade. Davenport wrote this piece - culled from dozens of disparate/obscure sources - shortly after Andre Miller joined Portland. It's a model for good journalism and for finding a story that wasn't exactly hidden in plain sight.

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Brandon Roy Could Cook by Ben Golliver - When I asked Tim Davenport above if he had any suggestions for the Pantheon, he suggested looking more deeply into Golliver and suggested in particular this great piece on Brandon Roy. It may be less than 14 days old as I'm writing this, but I'm pretty confident Golliver's piece is an instant classic. Golliver talks about the brilliant young guard forced too soon into retirement because of chronic injury and in doing so talks about Roy's impact on the Blazers faithful, on a captivated national following, and on Golliver himself. Like many of these pieces, I can't really do this one justice with a description, but I can safely say that it belongs.

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Dream Week by Various (featured on FreeDarko and co-curated by Bethlehem Shoals of FD and Brian Phillips of Run of Play) - For a month, FreeDarko featured an exhaustive exploration on Hakeem Olajuwon from a bunch of great NBA bloggers. Each author brought to the table their own firsthand experiences and cultural perspectives on the center that so dominated the interregnum of Jordan's first retirement. It was a great week and in its totality easily clears the bar of the Pantheon.

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To Spursland and Back Again: A Foreigner's Tale (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11) by David H. Menéndez Arán (handle LatinD on Pounding the Rock) - This is not primarily about basketball, but it must be mentioned in any Pantheon of NBA work. David is a diehard Spurs fan from Argentina that made a pilgrimage to America midway through the 2009-10 season. There he traveled around Texas and the West Coast to meet up with a bunch of regulars from the Spurs blog Pounding the Rock for his first trip (of many, hopefully) to the U.S.

Speaking and writing in half-broken English, LatinD rebuilds the fissured language with a crackling, deadpan wit, a smile in every sentence, and an observation about every corner. In the crowning moment of the series, David and Wayne from PTR have a buddy-comedy-esque afternoon (narrated in two parallax accounts) followed by a night of media access to the Spurs game, where the pair watched the games up close, asked Coach Pop a couple questions, and (a couple days later) met the approachable national hero of Argentina, Manu Ginobili. Coach Pop, on being introduced to LatinD, stole the show in his brief cameo; "Argentina? We actually have a player from Argentina, did you know?"

David's photo-filled, soulful, funny travel diary is simply one of the best things that has ever been put on the Internet, much less on the NBA blogosphere. The Pantheon is an afterthought. Forewarning: It's also insanely long. Put the coffee on.

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Rolling with Leandro (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10) by Gregory Dole - Hot on the heels of "To Spursland and Back Again" is another masterful account of a South American's strange journey into the United States. Dole - a Canadian that lives in Brazil - helps speedster Leandro Barbosa around the country to NBA teams to be scouted for the 2003 draft, where he eventually found his way onto the Phoenix Suns (and became an important player on the SSOL Suns). Dole's account is by turns funny, sad, filled with emotional resonance and a bluesy sense that this is Barbosa's best (and possibly only) chance to become a pro basketball player. Barbosa tries to figure out if he belongs with the best, a sense of confusion compounded by tight-lipped organizations, bothersome injuries, and a historically deep draft.

• • •

One Last Bitter Moment by Joe Posnanski - The best sportswriter in America (with big personal ties to Cleveland) covers the last minute of the surreal Game 6 that eliminated the Cavaliers in LeBron's final game with the team. In what felt like a parody of the brilliant final quarter of the Cavs-Celtics game 7 from 2008, the team simply gave up and stopped hurrying the ball down the court, to Coach Mike Brown's eternal fury (fury followed quickly by disgust). I was following the Cavs then myself, and this minute was one of the strangest, most inexplicable moments in all of sports. And Posnanski nails it, evoking in me Steinbeck's famous orchard in the eponymous chapter from "The Grapes of Wrath" and setting the stage for that great topper: "The Decision".

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We Are All Witnesses by John Krolik - Speaking of "The Decision," Krolik's has long been the specific piece I associate with the more infamous LeBron situation. An instant classic from the moment it was published, Krolik dropped this gem just a few hours before LeBron took his talents to South Beach.  Krolik goes into an improvisational reverie about the LeBron era, reliving with celebration and introspection the wondrous seven years of Cleveland basketball in all its highs and lows. Krolik mourns for what would soon pass away forever, regardless of where James would decide to go, but in mourning gives us his personal testimony of seven years worth remembering.

• • •

Braess's Paradox and "The Ewing Theory" by Brian Skinner - This is what stats in basketball is supposed to be about. Skinner's clarity of prose greases the wheels of an unstoppable machine of enlightenment. Make a hypothesis, state your assumptions, build a model, test the underlying assumptions with data, and produce a theory. It's the simplest thing in the world to do, and the hardest thing to do well. Skinner does it well. And if you're not into math? Even better: This is what we're always raving about.

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Requiem for a Shooter by John Krolik - At the height of All-Star point Stephon Marbury's very public meltdown, John Krolik came through with an extraordinarily nuanced narrative. Krolik's piece takes a wider view not only at Marbury, but also at the ones from Marbury's Coney Island neighborhood that didn't make it, including Marbury's brothers and Lincoln High School teammates. I don't think that Krolik's view is completely convincing (Krolik doesn't seem entirely convinced himself), but it's a well-thought-out, well-argued perspective that focuses more on demystifying Marbury than completely justifying or explaining the guard and the context in which he learned to thrive. Excellent stuff.

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Your champs, in your eyes and Where does Tim Duncan rank? Highly by Kelly Dwyer - Kelly Dwyer's output resembles that of a great jazz musician - a few basic themes (with endless variations and repetitions), a vague, often unstated worldliness, a tendency to take on all the standards of his genre, and - most importantly - an endless, unfathomably large catalog, most of which is unnecessary for one person to experience in its totality. We're kind of KD connoisseurs, though. And inevitably (as any connoisseur will tell you), some of the best individual pieces and concerts get lost. Well, if that chain of logic made any sense to you, here are - analogously - "My Favorite Things" and "[Kelly Dwyer] & Johnny Hartman." These two gems are on their face rather inauspicious responses to two particularly dumb observations. But beneath the surface, these simple responses transform into two of Dwyer's best and most memorable pieces, and worthy representation for one of the best NBA scribes around.

Update (12/29/11): James Herbert submits this paean to obsessive fandom by Dwyer. It's a worthy addition.

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Got to Get Off This Never-Ending Combine by Rough Justice of There Are No Fours - Deconstructing a traditional or simplistic narrative to find nuggets of wisdom seems to be the surest, shortest path to "Stretching The Game Out." It also helps if every time Aaron or I think of a word (in Rough Justice's case here, it's me and "athletic"), we're also thinking partially of your article. Because we've completely internalized your representation of it. Yeah. Everyone should write like that, okay?

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The Game Done Changed by Rob Mahoney - Quoth Aaron: A great Rob Mahoney piece that nails the Positional Revolution better than any other post that came before or after it. "The most important development over the last decade of basketball was not Shaq’s dominance, LeBron’s ascendence, or Kobe’s redemption, but the recognition that square pegs need not be forced into round holes because the holes didn’t mean anything to begin with." is easily one of the best lines he's ever written and that's saying a ton given the sheer wealth of amazing things that have dropped from Mahoney's desk.

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Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James: Black Swans? by tjarks at Get Buckets - Quoth Aaron: This was a piece in mid-2011 that was quickly forgotten but became impossibly relevant once the 2011 Finals began and suddenly his theory was put to the absolute test. Great theory, great presentation, great post.

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Traveling West Finds Cleveland by David Campbell - Quoth Aaron: This is one of the best basketball-related articles ever written. It's impossibly good. Just read it.

Update: For additional background and broader context about Delonte to Campbell's piece, check out The Real Mr. West by Tzvi Twersky and A Teachable Moment by Angelo Benedetti. They're both fantastic and worth reading in their own right.

• • •

Oklahoma City's Thrilling "Thunder U" by Bethlehem Shoals - The ideal Shoals experience is a paragraph-sized bundle of ham-it-up metaphors that acts as a one-time, one-way, non-stop metaphysical flight to the truth. And then, once you've taken mental pictures of the truth and spent a day there as a tourist, you go back to the bundle of metaphors that got you there and find that the paragraph has nowhere to transport you anymore and just stands there like a dead heap. The ideal Shoals experience is a portal that moves you exactly where it's supposed to with great emotional and metaphysical conveyance, then self-destructs and makes you wonder if it ever existed or took you anywhere close to the truth. While the trick is enlightening, and while quite a few of my mental pictures are thanks in part to Shoals, the trick doesn't exactly lend itself to posterity in the traditional sense (that is, in the sense of something like The Pantheon). The Thunder piece holds up, however: I'm on reading #10, and it still sends me somewhere. It's wonderful.

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Federer’s Tears: Why LeBron and the Heat Will Probably Win the NBA Title, and Why That’s Okay by Shane Ryan - You know, the closest relative of this piece (ironically written by shameless Dukie Ryan) is probably Will Blythe's awesome book To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever. In "To Hate Like This," Blythe uses interviews, his upbringing, philosophical meditations, and sociology (basically any perspective you can think of) to describe and attempt to explain his (quite strong) feelings on the Duke-UNC rivalry. In the more restrained context of a short article, Shane Ryan's "Federer's Tears" is - in the same vein as "To Hate Like This" - a yearning, multifaceted, interdisciplinary meditation on power vs. elegance that attempts to capture Ryan's embrace of Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer and the unbridled joy of the immovable, hard-nosed warrior using pure power to stop the apparently-unstoppable geniuses of athletic prowess. In this piece, Ryan's logic is sometimes slipshod and baroque, his dichotomies sometimes simplistic and anecdotal, his basketball worse. But never has clipping a bird's wings felt so right, and this might honestly be my favorite piece in The Pantheon, even though Aaron sincerely dislikes it. In any case, it's good shorthand for the type of sportswriting that I aspire to, which is what this is all about.

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QWOP: The World's Worst, And Only, Athlete by Jon Bois - Actual conversation that led to this piece's inclusion was essentially Aaron saying "THIS IS THE GREATEST POST EVER WE NEED TO ADD IT" to my "Fine. But if I do this, then the entire Pantheon is sullied, I hope you're happy." It's actually a pretty funny article. Not... really pantheon, in my eyes, but funny. Heh. (Editor's Note: Hey, Alex. Thought I'd add this on. Essentially, this is my favorite sports humor piece. Ever. It takes an absurd concept, repackages it, and turns it into this dystopian future that in an offhanded and probably completely unintentional way provides a sincere examination into the process behind sports fandom and speaks to me -- a Cavs fan -- on a relatively personal level. Bois describes QWOP as many fans of bad teams (or at least me, personally) imagine the players on our team -- a tireless worker who simply isn't very good at his job, but as he's the best there ever is or ever will be, there's no use in piling on. I don't know. It's not the best piece ever, no, but it's one of my favorites and I think it's about 20x more complex and interesting than most would think on first glance. So, if you want an actual reason as to the inclusion of this piece, there it is. It does with humor and dystopic sports-related foolery what the rest of these pieces do with immortal writing. And it does it right.)

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UPDATE (1/21/2012)

The Riverwalk Conspiracy by Rand - Maybe I'm revealing my bias for fiction here, but I just love a hilarious, well-characterized thought experiment. This piece (written in the midst of the 2010 playoffs) captures a strange, mystical caricature of Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich and his methods, mid-flight. Owner Peter Holt acts as the perfect comic foil. [Note: Owes a lot to another PTR piece of fiction, the longer Ginobili vs. Dracula. I didn't include it here because it's mostly too contextual for a general NBA fan to enjoy, but I love this chapter which I think holds up pretty well without context.]

• • •

The Pathology of Manu Ginobili by sungo - This is one of those pieces where the sentences get better and better and the focus becomes clearer and clearer as the piece goes on. By the end it's something to behold, and to hold on to. You could change the tenses and adapt some stuff and it could be a HOF introduction or an epitaph, but it could never be changed to suit anyone else. Why? Well, because there will never be another Manu Ginobili. And I don't know if there's a better description of Manu out there.

• • •

David Robinson was a Fine Role Player by Timothy Varner - This is one of the most accurate explorations of the strange, unselfish culture of the San Antonio Spurs over the last two decades. Tim Varner (of 48 Minutes of Hell) traces the Spurs' culture directly to the contributions of one David Maurice Robinson. With every playoff exit by teams he had carried at an MVP level, Robinson saw all that was missing and tried again and again to be those things the next year. But Robinson found out that he just couldn't be all the that his team needed, not with Jordan there, not with Hakeem lurking in Jordan's shadow with a great supporting cast and an otherworldly 15-month stretch. So, when Tim Duncan came along,  Robinson (with some early disdain and wounded pride) easily, unselfishly sacrificed his touches and his accolades in order to help the Spurs to win two championships and to create a great legacy and a long-lasting culture of character. And in doing so, the Admiral created the template for a different kind of legend: a different kind of star. Varner's title is ironic in the best sense and helms a piece that builds to an overarching narrative that anyone who has followed the Spurs to any degree will understand.

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John Wooden and the Culture of Ought and On Johnny “Red” Kerr by Timothy Varner -  You know, looking over the Pantheon so far, I notice that the criteria that seem to dominate our selections are depth of insight, passion, journalism, and imagination. But at the end of the day, it's probably Tim Duncan - along with his subtle virtues of integrity, intelligence, and competition for its own sake - that I'm tuned in to watch every night.  It's our deep respect and admiration for Tim Duncan that motivated the existence of the Gothic Ginobili more than anything else (if you want to know second place, just look up at the banner/name). The same is true of sportswriting. We look first for writing that dazzles our imaginations, then for writing that expands our minds, then - without exception - we look for writing that stirs our souls and affirms our values. If you understand all of that, then the inclusion of Varner's pieces is obvious.

• • •

The City’s Advanced Stats Primer and EZPM: Yet Another Model for Player Evaluation by EvanZ - Math recognize math. I don't know enough about basketball statistics to really give you an unbiased, objective opinion on which stats and approaches are best. If ezPM is the best single-number statistical APBRmetric on the Internet I have no idea, and if it's hopelessly dated, well, I don't know that, either. I'm not a big stats guy. What I do know (from decades learning math and from reading about some of these statistics over the past few years) is that ezPM is a fine metric, and takes Dave Berri's already decent but flawed (no, really, it is) "Wins Produced" metric to yet another level of insight.

But more than anything pertaining to the ezPM stat itself, I'm mostly linking to this pair of pieces for the mental process behind them, the story told by EvanZ in the "Primer" of finding an abundance of these already-decent metrics like WP, building something a bit better in ezPM, and - in the scientist's dismal, grinding, purposeful way - in the end still not being totally satisfied with the outcome. After all, every scientist worth their salt understands intuitively and concretely that there are always more avenues for improvement, and there are always thoughts that can be re-thought, as history (and math especially!) suggests. It's a story that for the most part Berri frustratingly and oddly omits from his own work, and that we'd love to hear. Because (speaking not as a scientist but as a happy consumer of its products) the honest stories of science not only bring cultural exchange (as in the "Primer") but also tangible improvements in the science itself (as in ezPM).

• • •

Regarding Moses by Matt Moore - On the blogosphere, we talk so much about upsides, breakout stars, and devastating disappointments. Most of all, we talk about the nebulous, dynamic legacies of our stars, young and old. Our era has more upsides than it has downsides, and I'm not really complaining. But it was so refreshing when Matt Moore took an afternoon to do some research and reflect on Moses Malone. Moore comes away with a simple portrait of Malone, who knew he was great, had a lot of fun, and then got on with his life. Set against a modern pace of sports media constantly massaging and shaping legacies with each game, the article is well-done and neat. While the prospect of a book about Mo would be nice, this article is a fitting send-off in its own right - simple, enjoyable, important without being heavy. Strawberry soda pop.

• • •

Tracy McGrady, 'freakish' talent and the peril of ease by Dan Devine - When someone makes a good argument that carries with it the sketches for a much broader frontier of understanding, then they've "stretched the game out," quite literally. In Devine's piece, we get a stern deconstruction of the expectations that coaches, fans, and management place on their stars and the laments that follow when those expectations aren't met. And, as a result, we learn to undervalue what we have and overvalue what we could have but never might. On some level much of sports fandom is predicated on the hope that our teams and our players will do unreasonable things: Performance - even to the crustiest statistician or historian - is not the whole story. The missed shots, the skills that inexplicably don't take to a player, the rotations that could have been made: these expectations all matter, of course. But it's worth taking a step back, and that's exactly what Devine's thoughtful piece does.

6 comments on “Stretching the Game Out: The Pantheon of NBA Writing on the Internet

  1. Pingback: Rants, References and Revelations | Hickory-High

  2. Love the Consummation of Dirk so much. It reminds me of Donald Barthelme's stuff.

    It inspired me to write post-modern sports fiction myself. Thanks for the list.

  3. Excellent list... Heavy on Free Darko, but that probably says more about Free Darko than this list. Can't argue with it. You were able to find basketball pieces that transcend how "timely" sports writing tends to be.

  4. You're a kind person, Alex, and you run a great blog. Thank you for this great list, even if right now I don't have anything to add to it. I've spent a few pleasant hours just going over everything.

    Keep up the great work.

  5. Pingback: Stretching The Pantheon Out #1: Spurs upon Spurs upon Spurs | The Gothic Ginobili

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