For those who like sports history packaged in a fresh, unconventional way, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is just the ticket.
For starters, the hardcover has no dust jacket, is a very compact 223 pages, and claims to be “undisputed” – whatever that means. Furthermore, it looks and reads like a very funky textbook, with no photographs but all sorts of intriguing art, charts, and graphics (including one on fights between players and another about player weight gain during the 1998-99 lockout). The book also takes more of a thematic approach than a straight-line chronological one.
For example, there’s a subchapter on the National Basketball Association’s statistical explosion; another on the league's so-called “lost years” in the 1970s when fans turned away from the NBA product; and still others on Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson.
The book is the work of a creative team conjoined by a fantasy-league message board. They first published “The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac” in 2008. The 12 team members call themselves a “collective of like-minded NBA writers and artists” who contribute to the offbeat Freedarko basketball blog.
Their latest work doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, but it hits all the major historical points and developments while sticking to their core commitment to cover whatever they found “particularly memorable.”
Here are a dozen things I learned from this novel basketball history:
1. Although Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first African-Americans in the NBA in 1950, the distinction of being the league’s first nonwhite player oddly enough belongs to a 5 ft. 7 in. Japanese-American, Wataru “Wat” Misaka. After leading the University of Utah to NCAA and NIT titles, he played three games with the New York Knicks in 1947, when the NBA was known as the Basketball Association of America.
2 .The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry is often credited with reviving the NBA in the 1970s, as their teams met about 40 times. The frequency of these showdowns, however, pales in comparison with Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell duels, in which the two centers went mano a mano 142 times between 1959 and 1969.
3. Despite their fierce on-court rivalry, Russell and Chamberlain actually were quite chummy otherwise. Chamberlain hosted Russell at Thanksgiving six times and Russell would invite Chamberlain to his Boston home, where they would enjoy Russell’s model trains.
4. Nate Thurmond, a Hall of Famer whose career was largely spent with the Golden State Warriors, was the first player to ever record a “quadruple double,” by turning in a double-digit statistical line in four categories in a game. Thurmond’s feat occurred in 1974 with the Chicago Bulls, when in an overtime game he registered 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocked shots.
5. Lakers forward Elgin Baylor, whose name was inspired by his father’s wristwatch, was considered a pioneer in breaking the game’s “vertical plane.” Baylor skipped his final year of college eligibility to join the lowly Lakers as the league’s top draft choice when they were still based in Minneapolis. He and Jerry West would transform the Lakers into a perennial power in Los Angeles, but a frustrated one that lost six times to the Celtics in the finals between 1962 and 1969.
6. The 1975, Los Angeles Lakers are described as the hairiest team in NBA team history, with four players sporting full beards, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cazzie Russell. Pat Riley, then a player, had long hair and a Fu Manchu mustache.
7. In an effort to maximize his endorsement potential, Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers had contracts with two different sneaker companies simultaneously. In an effort to honor both, he wore a Nike shoe on one foot and a Pony shoe on the other in the 1980 finals.
8. Before the NBA decided to streamline its draft of college players, and limit it to two rounds, teams sometimes resorted to long-shot and whimsical picks in the later rounds. The Utah Jazz used a seventh-round choice in 1977 to select Lusia Harris, a college star at Delta State. In 1981, the New Jersey Nets selected the student manager of UCLA’s basketball team on the 10th round. (On the 17th round in 1973, the Cleveland Cavaliers even selected the Monitor’s sports editor, Phil Elderkin, who wrote an NBA column for The Sporting News and was friendly with Cavs’ coach, Bill Fitch).
9. Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, a practicing Muslim, didn’t let Ramadan’s dawn-to-dusk fasting negatively affect his play in February 1995 when he was named the NBA’s Player of the Month, even though he had observed the dietary restrictions throughout the month.
12. Gregg Popovich, the highly regarded coach of the San Antonio Spurs, first became a head coach at Pomona-Pitzer, a small college in California where his first team went 2-22 and he instructed his brainy players to move their heads “up and down like a sine wave.”
Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.