For all the sports fans who have written the National Basketball Association off in the decade since Michael Jordan abdicated his throne with the Chicago Bulls, Chris Ballard has a bit of advice: Take a closer look.
Fans and media routinely dismiss the NBA as a league filled with monster egos, lazy fundamentals, powerless coaches, and selfish players obsessed with scoring “SportsCenter”-worthy dunks at the expense of making a crisp pass or fighting for a key rebound. All of which is true, but only to a degree.
Ballard covers pro basketball for Sports Illustrated, and he has studied the game for its attributes as well as its faults. In The Art of a Beautiful Game, he makes a compelling case for professionalism and attention to detail within the NBA. And he does it in the best way, by showing us rather than telling us. From profiles of megastars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to the secrets of ace rebounders, sharpshooters, and even an NBA trainer, Ballard makes the routine aspects of basketball come to life in interesting ways.
His technique is reminiscent of Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell in that Ballard never accepts conventional wisdom without doing his homework first. A great example that will shock all but the most hard-core NBA fans is the notion of shooting frequency and accuracy. Ask an average sports fan whether today’s pros shoot more than their predecessors and it’s all but guaranteed the answer will be an unequivocal yes, followed by carping about how selfish contemporary players have become.
There is just one small problem with this scenario: It’s dead wrong.
During the 1960-61 season, for example, NBA teams shot a collective 41.5 percent – and did so without the temptation of a 3-point line. Last season, the NBA average was 45.9 percent with a 3-point line. And, yes, more shots were attempted per game then rather than today. Even if the argument is made that the percentage was lower in 1960 because more shots were attempted, remember the lack of a 3-point shot – a temptress for lower-percentage shooting.
Throughout his NBA travels, Ballard uses the insight of players as the jumping-off point for exploring a certain aspect of the game. For rebounds and shot-blocking, it’s Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, who battles the temptation to focus more on scoring at the expense of his defensive technique, embodying the NBA’s dilemma and perception at once.
Ballard turns to Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets for perspective on life as a defensive stopper, a demanding, unsung role requiring endless preparation and study — and noticed only when things go wrong. Guard the best player every night, work hard, see yourself on ESPN highlights – not for making a key stop – but only when Kobe or LeBron lights you up for 40 big ones.
Even devout NBA followers are unlikely to be familiar with trainer Idan Ravin, who, despite never having played beyond high school or coached beyond junior high, ranks among the league’s most influential figures. His client list reads like an all-star roster, including Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Gilbert Arenas. Despite no formal role as a trainer, Ravin has become the go-to guy for players looking for an edge, conjuring up idiosyncratic drills and regimens that his players swear (and sweat) by.
As Ballard and Ravin discuss techniques and clients, it becomes clear how adept Ravin is at reading players’ body language and motivations. Unlike coaches, who tend to issue orders, Ravin establishes a rapport with his players by speaking in their language and building from there.
He hectors Paul, the New Orleans Hornets star, telling him others are working harder and not-so-subtly implying Paul must do the same to keep pace. With the Washington Wizards’ Arenas, it’s positive reinforcement, followed by a gentle push to brush up on this or that skill. And when he works with Denver Nuggets scorer Anthony, the “why” matters as much as the “what.” Those examples illustrate why Ravin has become known as “The Hoops Whisperer.”
Ballard, who played small-time college basketball, throws himself into the fray with great success. To unravel the mystery of sharpshooting, he turns to a 3-point shootout with Steve Kerr, a current team executive five years removed from his NBA career. Later, he participates in a summer basketball academy run by a top sports agency to get an idea of what pro prospects and stars do during the off-season to hone their game. Grueling workouts and specialized coaching demonstrate that “summer has become the season when careers are shaped,” Ballard notes in an observation that many will find surprising in light of the league’s run-and-gun image.
He turns to Nick Anderson, infamous for missing four free throws during the final 10.5 seconds of an NBA finals game in 1995 to cost the Orlando Magic a victory, for perspective (or lack thereof) on the loneliness of life at the charity stripe. For point guard play, the unlikely future MVP Steve Nash offers lessons in selfish selflessness.
Better still, Ballard skirts the typical sportswriter banalities (“How does it feel to win a scoring title?” “Is this your favorite championship?”) and, in doing so, coaxes players into discussing things they actually care about. Thus, Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct comes to life as he discusses his high school ritual of playing one-on-one with a teammate after practice. Bryant would often score 80 straight baskets before surrendering one to his opponent. Flash forward to the present and Bryant still believes he did the right thing, that to allow even a stray basket or two out of mercy would have weakened his game.
In a look at rebounding, the author digs out this nugget on Dennis Rodman: He used to study how his teammates and others missed, bettering his chances to grab the rebound, a bit of unconventional behavior far more intriguing than the color of his hair or his infatuation with Madonna.
Such surprises and insights fill the pages of this concise, insightful look at the NBA. If nothing else, this must be said about Chris Ballard: He’s got game.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.