In the debut book by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo, The Joy of Basketball, the two authors take a kaleidoscopic and enjoyable look at the modern NBA
Loving the NBA today is often about being part of a culture as much as it is about being a fan of the game itself. Basketball fandom today is an unofficial and wide-ranging world with its own language and set of signifiers. Together, Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo have given voice to this culture in their new book, The Joy of Basketball: An Encyclopedia of the Modern Game. Their first book, it is a beautiful and engaging read that will be delightful for hardcore fans, as well as for casual ones who enjoy watching the occasional game and are eager to dive deeper into the world of the modern NBA.
The Joy of Basketball is structured like a standard encyclopedia, proceeding alphabetically through a number of basketball-related topics. From individuals to concepts to teams to groupings to objects to events, no corner of the league is left unexamined. There are brief essays on such disparate topics as the Covid Bubble, Hoodie Melo, the Ball Family, Positionless Basketball, League Pass, Strip Clubs, Taco Tuesday, and Keith Van Horn.
Most intriguing are the categories they create, grouping players together who share a common attribute. For example, there are entries devoted to “Dancing Bears” — “chunky players who move with surprising agility” such as Khalid El-Amin, Nikola Jokic, and Jameer Nelson — and “Wet Noodles,” players such as Brandon Ingram, Kevin Martin, and Josh who are all “gangly guys who play with semolina-based stringiness, wriggling into the lane like a twist of rotini.” These sections really shine as they invite readers to see players in new ways, focusing a light on what makes them unique. Also, practically every superstar from the past two decades earns their own entry, as do a handful of iconic teams such as the Grit-N-Grind Grizzlies, the Jail Blazers, and the Hamptons 5.
In the book’s introduction, the authors note their desire to look at players and teams “outside of that cruel binary arrangement” which reduces one’s legacy to whether they were a winner or a loser. Rather than focusing on such elements, Detrick and Kuo hone in on other aspects of what makes NBA icons so memorable: “It could be a new way to shear a defender’s ankles, a patented one-footed fall-away jumper, an undersized defensive genius who plays center, a pull-up jumper from the logo, a pregame talcum toss, a pair of exotic sneakers pulled from a vault, or the refusal to play after an unarmed man is shot by police.”
Accordingly, the book is more concerned with showcasing what makes players cool and exciting and memorable than arguing about who is better or best, about legacies or the value of analytics. It is therefore a refreshing look at what makes the game and its players so special, what it is about them that makes fans so delighted by their exploits.
If you like the most obscure cultural details of the NBA, you’ll love The Joy of Basketball
Also rewarding is the book’s focus on minutiae and trivia. In Carmelo Anthony’s section, there is an aside about his deep and abiding love for hats: “Newsboy hats. Fedoras. Borsalinos. Eastern European military chapeaus in olive drab with antelope fur linings.” Later on, the book informs readers of Desmond Mason’s art career and the fact that David Stern bought a portrait of Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way from the former Slam Dunk Contest champion. Such deep focus showcases the authors’ love of the game and is a delightful way for hardcore fans to remember obscure anecdotes they may have forgotten.
In addition to containing lively prose, the book is also laid out beautifully. Each entry contains either a full-page illustration or an inset one alongside the text. The drawings make it a delight to leaf through. And even though I found many of the graphs and charts to be just about incomprehensible, I will concede they still looked very nice.
However, the book’s biggest issue is a question of imitation and whether it is able to set itself apart from what appears to be its primary influence. I am sure that much of this book’s presumptive target audience spent their formative years as an NBA fan reading the FreeDarko blog, in addition to their two books. Though the blog quit publishing new posts over a decade ago, its influence was widely felt and many of its writers have remained prominent sportswriters in the years since.
Reading, their influence is felt throughout, but perhaps to the book’s detriment. I refuse to fault Detrick and Kuo for aiming to recapture the magic of what made FreeDarko so special and influential — such an ambition is worthwhile — but it invites comparisons to their spiritual predecessor, which are always going to be difficult to match. There’s just nothing quite as original here as comparing Rasheed Wallace to various philosophers throughout history or explaining the development of NBA offenses through references to European agricultural growth.
Perhaps I am just a man blinded by nostalgia, but it is in these moments where the book suffers the most since few sportswriters are good enough to try to imitate what FreeDarko did and not come out looking derivative, or like a lesser version. This means that while the book may succeed in a vacuum, it does not quite succeed as the full-fledged successor to FreeDarko’s 2008 Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac that it seems to want to be.
Altogether, fans both casual and devoted will find much to savor in The Joy of Basketball. While it may not quite reach the heights it aims for, it remains a thoroughly entertaining and occasionally insightful look at the modern NBA and what makes it so captivating for so many. Devotees will enjoy the minutiae that Detrick and Kuo hone in on while casual fans will, by the end of the book, be able to speak the shibboleths that define NBA fandom today. I devoured it, repeatedly telling myself that I would read just one more entry before putting it down before failing to follow through on that promise and reading several more. I am sure that most readers will find themselves doing the same thing.