If you are a regular reader of Free Darko, you already know about The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac.
For the uninitiated, Free Darko is an online collective, consisting of oddly named characters like Bethlehem Shoals, Big Baby Belafonte, Brown Recluse, Esq., Dr. Lawyer Indianchief and Silverbird5000. They are, essentially, more than just a little bit off-beat fans of the NBA, which is different than being basketball fans in general, or fans of an individual team, in particular.
Their book has been hailed by critics and by my girlfriend, who has no idea who Tim Duncan is, but who enjoyed the chapter on him immensely.
If I had to recommend one book for the hoop obsessive on your holiday wish list, it would be this one. I caught up with Bethlehem Shoals for a wide-ranging interview about the book, their philosophy, their dislike of the Celtics (which should not stop you in any way from checking them out) and why you can chart Bobcats-Hawks games using the Aztec calendar.
Paul Flannery: What is the philosophy of Free Darko?
Bethlehem Shoals: The philosophy breaks down to two things. One is a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge we’re not really sure how much we mean all this, where we’re kind of obsessed with these minor players who are weird in the way they play, or who seem like they do great things, but they haven’t put it all together.
The best example of that is my obsession with Anthony Randolph. The fact that I go out of my way to watch Anthony Randolph when there’s no sort of defensible philosophy in the sport of basketball that can explain it.
The other aspect is the individual style. Part if that is not just looking at guys who are good at basketball, but looking at them as a unified whole. They’re public figures. We think we know things about them. We know something about their biography. We sort of have an understanding of them as psychological entities. We acknowledge that there’s more to them than just a guy who makes 3’s.
PF: You relate to them on a human level, and I’ll get to Kevin Garnett (whom you describe as the backbone of the NBA) in a minute. The eternal struggle that was Kevin Garnett for years is very relatable to everyone else’s life.
BS: Right. What that means in basketball terms is that when we think about players, we don’t think of each player as the same. We think about them as very different people.
PF: Professional sports can be a dehumanizing thing in a lot of ways, but the NBA, especially, lends itself to these outsized personalities. The people who really care about the NBA, a lot of them anyway, you get on a first-name basis with the players you like. You don’t refer to Gilbert Arenas as Arenas. You call him Gil or Agent Zero. So what is it about the NBA?
BS: When a guy is on the court he has one of two options. He can ether totally rein himself in, in a very specific way, or he can play his game. And the second he starts playing his game, who he is starts shining through.
They’re practically naked out there, they’re covered in tattoos and if you go to a game you can hear everything that they’re saying. It’s the concept of them as pseudo-celebrities who have a style-identity that has to be taken seriously, as opposed to a power forward that rebounds and has to hit a 15-foot jumper.
PF: You begin the book with a Manifesto, which only seems right. The Manifesto says that you reject the old ways of the NBA and celebrate the individual. The corollary argument that people might have against that is the point of winning and losing a game, and whether that actually means anything to you. I was wondering if you could address that.
BS: Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of (crap) about the Manifesto. I mean it is a Manifesto. It has to go for broke.
The Manifesto is an extreme version of what we actually believe. It’s not that winning or losing are bad. I want to see the players I like win. It’s more that if a team wins a game, it doesn’t for my purposes as a fan, make them a superior team.
My ideal version of basketball, just like Larry Brown, has a right way, I have a right way too. I assume Larry Brown would hate it if there was an NBA Finals where the average score was 150-148 and there were 50 3-point attempts.
I’m not above saying that there are plenty of teams that are bad, but that I would almost rather watch because there are ridiculously weird random players on them that I like, but also because the style of play is what I would want the game to be like.
PF: It’s an aesthetic debate.
BS: It’s not purely aesthetics. The Hawks-Celtics series last year. Everyone knew the Celtics were going to win that series. I watched a ton of Hawks games the last few years, and it was just the fact that they were able to put up a fight against the Celtics was vindicating in some ways.
I didn’t even watch Game 7, I was like, whatever, they’re going to lose by 40 points. I’m going to go for a drive and I had people text me if they got within 20 points. But there is that possibility that you could put together a basketball team in a creative way and they might have a fighting chance.
Or the Portland collapse (against the Lakers in 2000). You could have a team that’s interesting because of a tragic flaw.
PF: My favorite essay in the book is the one about Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace and how the Hawks and Bobcats relate to the Aztec calendar.
Untethered from history, a commitment to defense, or any sort of national media coverage, the collision of these two teams threatens to destroy all forms of basketball logic as we know it.
So, how do you come up with something like that?
BS: The easy answer is, you know how blogs have these things where they say, ‘What NBA players are like characters on Lost?’ I hate to say it, but a lot of it is in that tradition.
It’s just finding random things. A lot of it is watching the History Channel and saying, ‘Huh. That’s a completely obscure and random thing that seems totally irrelevant to basketball. Let’s try and make it relevant.’
The explanation for the Wallace-Smith thing is just dumb. When they had that draft (in 2004), you remember JR Smith and Josh Smith were both in that draft. For some reason I put my foot down and said, ‘I’m a JR Smith guy.’
Brown Recluse Esq. used to go to a ton of AAU games in the south and he’s say Josh Smith is great, and I’d say no, no JR Smith is better. So for the first three years of their careers I’d say, ‘Did you see JR Smith’s line last night? What’s Josh Smith doing, huh?’
Then Josh Smith had this game, he might have blocked nine shots, it was a Bobcats-Hawks game, and the score was like, 143-133. Gerald Wallace scored 45 points. Joe Johnson’s line was like 39 and 9. It was the most idiotic box score ever. Dr. Lawyer Indianchief watched the game and he said the look on the coach’s faces was total shame. Like, I can’t believe I’m coaching this game.
It got us thinking, what teams are more like each other in terms of obscurity and people just writing them off without ever thinking? The Bobcats and the Hawks, no one even thinks about them. They’re just non-teams and they have these rosters with ridiculously dynamic players. And then I turned on the History Channel and it was about the Aztec Calendar, and I said, OK. There it is.
PF: I remember that draft really well because I had to attend a Jameer Nelson draft party. The people there were getting more and more ticked off because Jameer wasn’t getting picked, and when Josh Smith got drafted, Jay Bilas said, ‘Well here’s the guy most likely to be a bust.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? I’m rooting for that kid from now on. Screw you Jay Bilas.’
All right I wanted to get into this a little bit. I was going through your archives…
BS: Oh God.
PF: … and when the Celtics were making their championship run you guys had what I guess could be described as an existential midlife crisis. Garnett was this guy that you identified with, and he was put into this situation where all of his Garnett-ness was no longer there, and you felt letdown by it. I understood what you were getting at. It’s this sort of thing where we all have to make allowances when we grow up and make compromises, and we can’t be 21 forever.
What was that experience like, because it was almost like you guys had a meltdown.
BS: I’m glad you brought that up because I feel like I have to set the record straight on that one. The way our book deadline wound up breaking down, we had this whole yo-yo thing going with the deadline breaking right in the latter part of the playoffs. All that was going on right when we were frantically trying to finish the book. In a sense we were definitely emotionally vulnerable, which is why I responded to every single comment that was left on the site, and I should know better than to take the bait.
You sort of hit on what I ultimately realized. This isn’t the Garnett and Ray Allen I used to love. But it was people I’d never seen comment saying we had no right to like the Lakers and the Lakers aren’t Free Darko. Why are you telling me who my favorite players are? People saying Lamar Odom is a loser, well Lamar Odom is one of my favorite players, even if he’s had one of the weirdest star-crossed careers ever. All these people saying, ‘Oh, is the ideology dead?’
Honestly with the Celtics, I realized that if you’re going to take three guys who haven’t played together it’s going to have to be a meat and potatoes philosophy, but I wanted that to be the most ridiculous team in the world.
I wanted Garnett to be all over the place like he used to be. I wanted Allen to handle the ball more, and I wanted Paul Pierce to play like he played in the playoffs the whole season. But realistically, you can’t do that overnight. It was wishful thinking on my part, and then being spiteful about it.
Ultimately it came down to this whole thing about Garnett, and not feeling letdown by Garnett, because obviously I’m glad he got a ring.
But for Adam, DR. Lawyer Indianchief, who is from Minnesota and who worked for the Timberwolves as a ball boy and met Garnett the day he joined the team, it was an emotional thing to see a player who was in a lot of ways very different from the player he based his whole life around.
In retrospect, I’m glad they all got their rings. I still don’t like watching them play, but it was just bad timing.
PF: I was wondering, knowing that the Celtics aren’t very high on your list, if there are any Celtics that you would consider Free Darko.
BS: I love (Rajon) Rondo. I think Rondo is hilarious. I wrote a column, and you’d probably have to put an asterisk on it too because it was during that existential meltdown on my website as my philosophy was falling apart, but I wrote that Rondo is being held back by the Celtics system (laughs). How he could be this position redefining player.
That’s an exaggeration obviously, but (Jeff) Van Gundy was calling the game and he was saying, ‘Rondo is such a great rebounder but he needs to stop doing that if he’s playing point guard.’
Rondo doesn’t just get long rebounds. He actually gets into position for rebounds and it’s the combination where he’s a rebounder, and then he get down the court faster than everyone. He’s just this weird combination of traits.
PF: Bill Walker, if he ever gets a chance to play.
BS: I totally forgot. I love Bill Walker. I had this fantasy going into the draft that he was going to be in the lottery. If anyone can have his skill set and come back from surgeries and play with both (Michael) Beasley and (OJ) Mayo and not be flipped out about not being the top dog, that’s someone who has a high level of maturity.
The Celtics, and again, they’re not here to make me happy, they’re here to win championships, but it just doesn’t seem that their style of play is particularly fluid or imaginative.
PF: Have you experienced anything with the book that you’ve been surprised by, or has been especially gratifying?
BS: I heard this the other day from a friend of mine. I have this lingering fear that it’s just going to be an Internet thing and sell some copies on Amazon, but it’s not going to bring us out the Internet blog ghetto. Someone said they were having lunch with friends and one of them said, ‘Have you seen this new basketball book?’ and two of them pulled out copies.
People are probably surprised by the drawings and charts and that it doesn’t look like a Blogger template from 1997, like the site, but people who like the art and the writing on Free Darko will like the book.
But I know what we do isn’t the usual way of writing about sports. I was never a sportswriter, my background is music criticism and Russian novels. It’s gratifying that people who ordinarily might not come into contact with it wind up liking it.
PF: I mentioned this in the email I sent to you, that my girlfriend, who doesn’t really watch sports, saw it and was drawn to the illustrations because she works in the art department of a magazine. But she started reading it, and said that it was really entertaining. And then she says, ‘Who’s Tim Duncan? And why is he a goth?’
BS: The illustrations are amazing. Even with those, it’s not like Jacob (Weinstein) drew pictures of guys dunking. We came up with weird ideas to present an overall package about sports that does nothing to cater to the sports crowd. It’s basically for people who know a ton about basketball and people who know nothing about basketball.
Buy The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac at bookstores or through their site and be sure to check out Free Darko.
Paul Flannery is a regular contributor for WEEI.com.