A collective of writers and artists known as “FreeDarko” rose to cult Internet fame with their essays promoting the concept of “liberated fandom” that is the idea that the modern basketball fan didn’t need to restrict him or herself to a single franchise but could, instead, enjoy the wide array of individuals that made up those teams. To that effect, the group released its first book in 2008, entitled FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, focusing on “styles, stats, and stars in today’s game.” Their sophomore book takes their individual-centric approach and applies it to the game’s history.
The last couple years have been good for basketball history fans, as almost exactly a year after Bill Simmons’s epic The Book of Basketball, FreeDarko’s shorter, but no less ambitious entry, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, hit bookstore shelves.
Comparing the two is like apples and oranges. One was written by a sports celebrity, famous for his up-to-the-minute pop culture references, and 1,000 words a minute output, while the other was written by a group of basketball intelligentsia who you would more likely find alluding to Proust than Jersey Shore, or making graphs that chart the rise and fall of the “fast-break renaissance” by looking at the success of the 2000-2008 Kings, Mavs, and Suns.
What drew me initially to this book is just how aesthetically pleasing it is. Designed by Josh Weinstein, the full colour illustrations alone make the book worth the price. They range from a literal interpretation of Red Auerbach’s green Celtic machine (replete with Red lighting and a victory cigar) to members of the 1970s Knicks playing basketball—Godzilla-like—through a New York City skyline composed of newspaper headlines about the team.
The prose, though not as good as the pictures, is also compelling. Unlike many sportswriters, the people behind FreeDarko are well-educated, cultured, and not afraid to show it. This leads to some unusual analogies, but offers relief from the cliché-ridden dense writing that you can find daily on ESPN.
My favourite chapter is called, “Loud, fat, and gifted,” which details the career of, you guessed it, Charles Barkley. The accompanying illustration is a city block-sized Sir Charles float, looking even rounder than he ever has before, even in his announcing days.
The only negative thing about the book is that because its authors are smart, and know it, the writing comes across a bit pretentious at times. There’s a reason that FreeDarko is considered the hipster basketball blog on the Internet, but don’t let that scare you away.
While the book doesn’t belong alongside David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game as an all-time greats, it’s a unique book in what has become a boring and orthodox genre.
The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is published by Bloomsbury US and is available at Amazon.ca for $19.53