Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Better Living Through Focus: A Review of Free Darko's Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

When my advance copy for review of Free Darko's book arrived, I just looked at it for a second, like it was a bear cub or a scorpion. I gingerly put it down and only returned when I was sure I had the time to go through it. I expected it to be like the blog, an extrapolation of jungle-density prose and vague constructions of abstract basketball philosophy.

But truth be told, the book isn't like that.

It's strange, because the other reviewers I've seen are clearly caught off guard by Free Darko's patented density and weight, by the enigmatic approach to the game that doesn't rely on fanhood, rationality or pragmatism. For many, it's a groundbreaking form of sports writing that they've never seen before, likely because they haven't been to FreeDarko much. I can't really give that review. I'm an avid reader and fan. It's hard to be an NBA blogger that started after 2006 and not be a little bit in awe of Shoals and Co. And it would be a disservice to my readers to provide a review for people that don't read Free Darko, as if you're here, you likely just read whatever latest concoction has been brazenly laid there, often to both derision and celebration.

So to someone that reads Free Darko extensively but not exclusively, how does the book come off?


My biggest concern about the book was that it would be exactly what we were expecting. Some sort of confusing, complicated, overbearing series of essays designed and outlining the same concepts that Shoals, Recluse, DLIC and others lay down daily at the site. That it would provide neither a bridge to reality nor a device by which to decode the rather complicated ideas behind liberated fandom and the exaltation of the individual. I worried that it would simply be a collection of self-masturbation, letting them stew in their own greatness in printed form, without consideration for the reader or motivation to surprise.

That's not what landed in my mailbox.

Instead, what arrived is like some sort of conceptual basketball Book of the Dead. It's a gateway between Free Darko's world and the one everyone else lives in. As Henry touched on, there are often times things that Shoals completely whiffs on. There are ideas that just don't seem at all grounded in reality, and no matter how interesting they may be, if they're not conceptually sound at least in foundation, it's hard to really consider them as important or relevant. In contrast, the book takes the foundation of reality and expounds on the perception and celebration that the blog has come to define. And it does so in an organized fashion, without irritating gaps or dead end paths.

The book opens with Bryant, as I think any book that covers the individual spirit of the NBA has to do. The comparison to Moby Dick, while a bit trite, is an excellent introduction to the frame of thought the reader needs in order to navigate the book. The descriptions of the players are fascinating. The writers have managed to use cohesive fact to build a conceptual ideology around the players without coming off as fanzine biographers or leaving identity totally to fact. In embracing the larger than life models that the players exist as for NBA fans, Free Darko has collectively managed to create legends about them. Not mythology, because that would be without basis, but a true aura of legend for each player is discussed. References are made to both their on-court and off-court lives and personalities, but Free Darko still leaves enough room in the appraisals for the reader's imagination. They don't gloss over failures, which instead are celebrated, and nor do they downplay realistic success.

An example of this is the chapter on Tim Duncan, which postulates that the precise lack of identity Duncan expresses is in fact the central point of his identity. Furthermore, the book puts into context Duncan's greatness without sacrificing itself to glorification or forcd compliments. There's no "And that's why Tim Duncan is the greatest power forwared of all time and a true NBA legend. Theeeeee end." Instead there is a detailed examination of his being, his body, and his game that leaves you altered in your consideration. In fact, almost all of my personal perceptions of players were shifted by FD's examinations.

No doubt you've heard by now about the illustrations. They are as great as you would imagine them to be without being predictable. While the first time you read the book, you'll likely skip over some of the graphs and style guides as they become tedious, you'll also return to them later, wanting to know just how something worked or what it meant. They're rich and diverse, and very well could have been collected as a book or expounded upon as an annex themselves. The depictions of the players will stand in your mind, and your favorite players will likely be forever linked to them conceptually. My personal favorite, barely nudging out Tracy McGrady's very Mexican Day of the Dead-ish leap, is Joe Johnson, who stands at the bus stop with his bag, unrecognized, uncelebrated, and still incredible.

In fact, that chapter turned out to be my personal favorite, and the reason that I hope the publisher allows the collective to produce more of these books. The most popular players and ideas are covered, yet you're left wanting more, wanting to devour as much as you can of who these players are as personalities, as game souls, as basketball spirits. Additionally, and surprisingly, the book manages to make these players more real to you, not less. You understand more about where they come from based on the rather extensive research undertaken, and you recognize personality traits in them, even if the book never claims to be an intimate memoir. It serves more as an examination of what the public knows about the player, and how that knowledge is reflected through the fans. You learn things you had forgotten, things you never knew or that had slipped through the cracks.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the re-readability of this book is off the charts. After all, this book is a sedimentary analysis of current players, and in an evolving world with an internet full of a million season previews, game previews, player analysis and commentary, I expected the thrill to fade rather quickly. Instead I discovered myself going back to it time and time again. Two weeks after finishing it and before I sat down with notes for this review, I randomly grabbed it on my way out the door for a flight. Instead of being bored by descriptions I'd already read and charts I'd already examined, I was captivated by reading another significant section that I had read but not fully digested regarding Artest's game. Not his personality or antics, but his game itself. It made me reconsider how I thought of Artest, and that may be the biggest takeaway from the book: It has the power to cause you reconsider how you approach professional basketball. And it does so without sacrificing an ounce of the fun that comes with the game.

The Free Darko Macrophenomenal Basketball Almenac is an essential part of any NBA junkie's library, and a vital component of the ongoing cultural expansion of the NBA.

It also kicks some serious ass.

You can buy the book from here, and check out the book's official site here.

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