Monday, February 14, 2011

Book review: The Art of a Beautiful Game, by Chris Ballard

This review is a re-post of it's original entry from our sibling book review site, Books with Balls.

You may think that Dwight Howard's a monster rebounder because at 7 feet and one inch, 265 pounds and with steel springs for legs he's the NBA's most perfect physical specimen since Chamberlain.

But you're wrong.

Because Big Ben Wallace, the Pistons' 6'8 fireplug centre rebounds just as well, age and infirmity permitting. What Big Ben and D12 have in common is their uncanny ability to read direction, velocity and arc of the ball straight from the shooter's fingertips; analyse in a fraction of a second where the ball will impact on the hoop or backboard, and adjust their reactions to be where they need to be in order to pick up the loose ball. Kevin Love, the NBA's rebounding leader, uses the same principles and does it looking like a rec club baller, doing it for the love of the game. So much goes into the art of rebounding that Chris Ballard devotes an entire chapter to it in his book, The Art of a Beautiful Game.

When it comes to NBA journalism, Chrises seem to be everywhere. ESPN boast three of them: Messrs Sheridan (New York), Forsberg (Boston), Broussard (the key story-hound). Chris Ballard continues the tradition, though being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After covering the NBA for many years and through chats with players, formal and casual, he's pieced together a short-ish but beautifully crafted work about how certain players in the NBA are good at their jobs. Each chapter describes an aspect of the sport, from the high-profile shooters to the understated beauty of a perfectly-set screen. When it comes to a particular skill, who better to hear it from than the best? Ballard watches tape with LeBron, plays H-O-R-S-E game with Steve Kerr and his encounter with the World Free-Throw Shooting record holder, Dr. Tom Amberry. The "Big Kahuna of Free-Throw Shooting" set the record as a seventy-one year old in 1993, nailing 2750 straight free-throws before the gym in which he was shooting asked him to leave - they had to close for the night. And that's just the research he did especially for the book - also recorded are conversations he's had, professionally and privately, with the NBA's greatest. All go together to make an elegantly rounded picture.

Each chapter describes in detail the importance of biomechanics, athleticism, attitude and the ability to read play. Not just focusing on technical aspects, he describes taking a weeklong course at Coach David Thorpe's Florida training academy to see what devoted NBA stars get up to in their alleged down-time and a morning spent with a performance guru who works out players before draft day. And when Ballard's there, the reader is there: whether it's not kicking a leg out when shooting jumpers, out-thinking David Robinson in a battle for a rebound or trying to stop Chris Morris from getting arrested at the end of a long road trip.

What's most startling about his adventures and conversations is Ballard's writing style. As Howard is an artist on the boards, Ballard is with words. He writes so easily, fluidly and - there's no other word for it - beautifully, that the book is consumed within a matter of a few hours and leaves you slightly disappointed that it's finished; but therein lies more art, knowing when to finish.

The Art of a Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard scores footballs - an outstanding piece of literature.

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