For many people this is the definitive basketball book since The Breaks of the Game. It has been written and talked about so much that it was unavoidable that I would have preconceived notions about it and that it would inevitably not live up to those notions. Shock of all shocks, it is different than I thought it would be, mostly covering the playoff run with relatively little about the regular season (which makes sense).
I should love this book because it is about a team I admire and includes at least three of my favourite basketball players ever: Steve Nash (my favourite), Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw. Because of the time difference I didn’t watch enough of this team at the time (also: hockey) and I rooted against them in the Conference Finals (I’m a Mavericks fan because of Nash), a series I clearly barely remember. (I forgot about the Dirk 50 point game for example.) I enjoy experiencing them again from the inside, but something is missing. At least part of that is definitely not McCallum’s fault: he talks a bit about how they “revolutionized” the league but, writing in 2006, he really had no idea. Still, I can’t help but feel like this isn’t quite nerdy enough – as someone who consumes a lot of basketball and basketball analysis, there isn’t enough about how they were doing it beyond “this team takes more threes than everyone else” and “they run a lot”. Maybe that’s asking too much about a book written for the average sports fan at a time just prior to the analytics revolution, but I can’t help but feel that way.
My other nitpick is that this book was written before another so-called revolution, that of attempting to check your privilege and treat everyone with respect. I appreciate McCallum’s seemingly unfiltered portrayal of what coaches and players say. I’m sure to this day there’s a lot of this going on in all locker and coach rooms and that’s fine. I don’t have an issue with that even when some of these comments would be viewed as “offensive” in 2020. My issue is more with McCallum himself, who has some very funny ideas about the rest of the world and African Americans. I can’t tell whether it’s for the reader or whether it’s real but it comes across as “Aw shucks, I’m just a humble American, what do I know about foreigners?” towards Nash and Diaw, especially early on, and “Why can’t black people have some self-respect” for the black American forwards (Stoudemire particularly, but also comments about Iverson and some other African American players on other teams). Neither of these things would fly today if the book was released now; he would be heavily criticized for these takes – the latter more than the former – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can write about an intelligent Canadian without suggesting he’s a socialist. You can write about a French player without invoking cliches about French arrogance. You can write about African American players without implying and sometimes even explicitly saying they dress like children.
All that being said, I still mostly enjoyed the book. McCallum does an excellent job with the daily banter and he does a good job with the tension. I know what happens and the test for me of a good narrative non-fiction book about something I know about it often “Do I still want to turn the page?” and McCallum absolutely made me want to do that. It’s accessible and entertaining, which is probably much more of a blessing for most people than it being more wonkish (which I would have preferred).
This team was important even though they didn’t win, so I’m glad there’s a document of it and I’m glad I read it.