Basketball is incredibly fun if you let it be. The players are exceptional, the discussions are endless, the feats of athleticism exceptional, etc., etc., etc. And as the game has grown into an international titan, it’s caused us to see the game in new ways. In “The Joy of Basketball: An Encyclopedia of the Modern Game,” Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo take us on an exciting, fun filled look at basketball in the modern day from A to Z.
One thing that’s clear throughout the book is just how much Detrick and Kuo love basketball. A lot of writing tends to veer on the clinical side, so as a reader it was a nice change of pace to have something that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The guys keep it lighthearted but still make room for serious discussions throughout the book.
Kuo handles the illustrations throughout the book, and it adds extra dashes of color and fun. Whether it’s a graphic rating the legendary status of celebrity fans, determining what’s awesome/normal/scary, self-care vs. self-sabotage as a Knicks fan, rating NBA rappers, etc., the art provides laughs, insights, and builds upon each chapter. Kuo’s creativity accentuates the sharpness of Detrick’s writing and serves as a perfect one-two punch of excellence.
Amidst the fun, there were serious discussions of race and politics in the book. The “Drugs” section took a nuanced look at how the NBA has handled issues around substance abuse and some policies in the US following the 1986 passing of Len Bias. “Chuds” took a look at the MAGA adjacent (Andrew Bogut, Spencer Hawes, and Gordon Hayward) to the anti COVID vaccine, All Lives Matter crew (Michael Porter, Jr and Jonathan Isaac). Whether it be the age limit, dress code, stigmas around substance use, etc., the NBA’s relationship with Black people and Black culture has been a complicated one. Detrick and Kuo explore those complications in an expansive, in depth fashion that encourages the reader to rethink any preconceived notions they may have held.
If you’ve ever worked in a job with a high amount of employee turnover, then the “Emotional Support Vet” chapter is just for you. Whether it’s an NBA roster, the office, or where ever you find yourself, you know that you need experienced people alongside you that can show you the ropes, give you guidance, teach you how to be the best version of yourself on the job, and so on. Detrick and Kuo expertly cite a Kevin Garnett interview with the New York Times in which KG mentioned the players teach the next generation what rights have been fought for and the tools they need to go up against the machinery of the league.
Context is key to anything you discuss, and the book gives us a great opportunity to revisit the deadball era (late 1990s to early 2000s, or to contextualize it even further, post Michael Jordan era to pre Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni “Seven Seconds of Less”Phoenix Suns). In that era of NBA play, scoring was down as space was hard to come by, the rules around defense were changing, and the league was trying to find itself. Wing scoring They discuss Steve Francis and Baron Davis, and this part resonated:
The intersection of ball-domination, playground showmanship, dunk contest–worthy springs, and pedestrian shooting was scintillating—but did not lead to clinical efficiency that looks impressive on paper today. At the risk of sounding ageist, you had to be there.
Justice for B-Diddy!
That context of the mid 2000s game also stretches into how we see Carmelo Anthony, as they illustrate here:
In many ways, Anthony is the last of a royal bloodline. Over a decade and a half, he has been both a beneficiary and a casualty of a league that shifted from glamorization of volume-scoring chuckers to an obsession with means-tested efficiency and staccato, popcorn-machine ball movement.
As the game speeds into its new future, Detrick and Kuo keep us grounded in its past and allows us to appreciate the guys whose numbers on Basketball Reference may not look the prettiest compared to the stars of today. Online NBA discussions tend to veer towards slandering previous generations, so having a book that mixes in jokes and appreciation for the players is a welcome change of pace. When it’s the year 2060 and you hear the kids then say today’s NBA players were plumbers or whatever, this book will be a nice gift to give to them.
It would’ve been easy to focus solely on the familiar names and events, but Detrick and Kuo go beyond that and highlight some lesser known, albeit important people. Trailblazers like Jason Collins and John Amaechi get love, forgotten All Stars like Terrell Brandon are shown appreciation that they didn’t receive thanks to the snail pace of Mike Fratello’s mid 1990s Cleveland Cavaliers, to the randomest of the random. If you thought about Keith Van Horn recently before reading this book, WE DON’T BELIEVE YOU! YOU NEED MORE PEOPLE!
The heart of the book lies with Allen Iverson. Detrick and Kuo define the “modern game” as AI’s arrival in Philadelphia in 1996 and onward. As mentioned earlier, a lot of basketball writing veers towards the clinical side and Iverson has been a battleground among basketball fans. Debates about efficiency, offensive responsibilities, team construction, etc. have been raging for years, and AI is inevitably brought up in either direction. Detrick and Kuo take stock of all the drama surrounding Iverson and wrote:
As divisive as Iverson was during his fourteen-year career, he has been vindicated. He was right about the blurred future of backcourt roles and the value of the hybrid scorer-distributor. He was right about the wear and tear of practice. He was right about pushing the tempo and playing with fluidity. He was right about the simplicity of putting the rock in the hands of your best player as many times as possible. He was right about the NBA’s jittery tightrope act of selling a product created by young Black men to an audience that is fearful of them. Iverson separated the old NBA from the new NBA. In return, both his predecessors and his descendants have used him as a cudgel to hammer away at whatever they dislike about the sport.
But unlike other former players who speak with bitterness about today’s game, Iverson has shown nothing but love and support for today’s generation of stars. He embodies the joy of basketball.
Iverson is someone that has taken his fair share of arrows from various circles, but that has never diminished his love of basketball or fans’ appreciation of him. The book helps put him in his proper historical context and as his legend continues to grow, hopefully his love of today’s game is something his legendary peers pick up on.
Detrick and Kuo’s love of the game shines throughout the book and they provided detailed, in depth looks and art of players, moments, and experiences across time.
If there’s one surprising omission in the book, it’s that there isn’t anything about the WNBA at all. In a fantastic foreword, Desus Nice shouted out the W and noted the misogyny the players faced (and continue to face) from male basketball fans. Outside of Desus in the foreword and a brief mention of Becky Hammon playing in the WNBA as Detrick and Kuo discussed her rise in the NBA coaching ranks, that was it. Considering that the book spent a good amount of time discussing sports activism vis-à-vis Black Lives Matter protests, race, diversity, and who gets to ascend to leadership positions, it was surprising that Detrick and Kuo didn’t devote a section to the W considering all they’ve done in those respective arenas. It’s an NBA book through and through, so it might be unfair to ask them to expand their scope if that wasn’t the point of their book.
Is it worth a read?
699 pages might seem intimidating, but don’t be worried. The book is a breeze to get through and the art from Kuo serves as perfect transitions from section to section. The writing is fun and punchy while still allowing for deep discussion and an understanding of how the game has grown. As we’re heading towards the Christmas holiday, this book will be a perfect gift for the basketball fan in your life. Go cop it!