A Primer on Nearly Two Dozen Basketball Books That Every Hoop Aficionado Should Read
There are hundreds — no wait, thousands — of interesting books about Dr. James Naismith’s roundball game. To keep up with all of the new releases and previously published basketball tomes is, well, an impossible task even for the best librarians in this galaxy.
But in the interest of appealing to a wide audience, I’ve narrowed down a list of numerous quality books to 22, highlighting history and compelling narratives and insiders’ perspectives, from the NBA and beyond.
The selections below aren’t ranked. They are all presented, however, as must-read books to gain greater insights on the rise of basketball into a global cultural force.
22 ESSENTIAL BOOKS ON BASKETBALL
Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game (Red Auerbach and John Feinstein; 2017)
From the NBA’s earliest days to the 21st century, in tales about Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, Sam Jones and Wilt Chamberlain, just to name a few, Auerbach shares memories about a lifetime in the game.
Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (Phiil Jackson and Hugh Delanty; 2013)
The Zen Master’s remembrances of how and why his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams grew into championship dynasties are shared in rich details. X’s and O’s are, of course, a part of it, but human relationships, trust, leadership and spiritual and mental components of his approach to winning are also explored with clarity.
We Changed the Game (Bob Netolicky, Richard Tinkham and Robin Miller; 2017)
To understand the modern NBA, you need to understand the ABA. The Indiana Pacers embodied the high points and low points of the upstart league in the 1960s and ’70s, with a trio of ABA titles along with financial woes along the way.
Netolicky, a former Pacers star and co-authors Tinkham (co-founder) and Miller (a young reporter in the ABA days) join forces to pen the ultimate authoritative look back at the team and its legacy before it joined the NBA in 1976.
I reviewed the book in 2019.
Heaven is a Playground (Rick Telander; 1976)
Telander’s treatise on New York City streetball culture in the summer of 1974 is compelling, exhaustive reportage filled with background on the lives and on-court heroics of legends Albert King and Fly Williams, among others.
Sum It Up: A Thousand and Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Loses, and a Life in Perspective (Pat Summitt and Sally Jenkins; 2013)
Summitt’s powerhouse University of Tennessee women’s teams set the bar so high for so long, that anything less than a national title was a disappointment. Get to know the person behind the program and learn a ton about her life in this absorbing tome.
Retired University of Texas coach Judy Conradt has called “Sum It Up” a book that “(captures) the reality of challenges, the blessings of teamwork, the exhilaration of achieving excellence, and the rewards of mentorship and leadership.” ‘Nuff said.
The Breaks of the Game (David Halberstam; 1981)
With a brilliant eye for detail and a rich narrative, Halberstam takes the reader inside the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1980-81 NBA season. Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, leader of the team’s 1977 championship is still at the helm, but injuries (Bill Walton), roster turnover and internal turmoil affect the team’s chances of replicating their dream season. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter connects all the dots in this exceptional basketball book.
The Jordan Rules (Sam Smith; 1991)
The unfiltered story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1990-91 NBA championship season. The clashing egos and power struggles, and everything imaginable about Michael Jordan during the team’s first title campaign. Legendary beat writer Sam Smith once summed up his first basketball book this way:
“This book is about basketball and what happens within a team and a league that draws the attention of millions. It’s an attempt to allow people to look behind those closed curtains of sport. And find what? Human beings with everyday emotions trying to do their highly visible jobs as well as they can and confront the obstacles of their relationships and their very lucrative, very public profession.”
Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball (Bijan C. Bayne; 2018)
Long before Jordan and Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant highlights became staples of “SportsCenter,” Lakers great Elgin Baylor revolutionized the game with his improvisational skills and aerial artistry. He paved the way for the modern game, and Bayne explores every chapter of Baylor’s legendary career with curiosity, reverence, sharing memorable anecdotes and illuminating facts.
I reviewed this basketball book in 2018.
Drive: The Story of My Life (Larry Bird and Bob Ryan; 1990)
Larry Bird reflects on his life and career in this brutally honest book. Family tragedy, growing pains as a man and on-court success are wrapped tightly into this introspective look as Bird’s viewpoints propel the book to great heights.
Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; 2018)
From the day he accepted a scholarship offer to play for UCLA’s John Wooden, the New York City high school basketball phenom’s life was changed forever. Looking back on the Wizard of Westwood’s Impact on his life a half century later, the author’s views are filled with great respect and admiration for the great coach, his tactics and life principles. Bill Walton who followed Lew Alcindor (he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971) as a transformational player at UCLA understands the full scope of Wooden’s legendary leadership. His synopsis of the book: “his latest masterpiece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is even better than all the rest… I’m captivated, enthralled, educated, and entertained as The King’s words roll off the page even smoother than his skyhook did off his fingertips.
“I Love Being the Enemy: A Season on the Court with the NBA’s Best Shooter and Sharpest Tongue (Reggie Miller with Gene Wojchiechowski; 1999)
Reggie Miller will always be known as one of the greatest trash talkers in NBA history, and equally famous as a remarkable clutch shooter. What makes Reggie tick? You’ll learn all about it in the pages of this iconic basketball book.
Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball (Rafe Bartholomew; 2011)
Through the prism of basketball — and an unconventional investigation of the game’s roots and cultural imprints — Bartholomew’s tour de force is equal parts longform eloquence and anthropological excellence. In short, there’s nothing about the game of basketball in the Philippines that isn’t explained in this funny, smart tome.
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association (Terry Pluto; 1990)
From a cast of ABA characters (coaches, players, journalists, et al), the definitive history of the league is told through their shared memories. An oral history, season-by-season highlights are shared in long, back-and-forth conversations.
Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich (Mark Kriegel; 2008)
Kriegel provides a tell-all history of Maravich’s family, from his father’s obsessive coaching and Pistol Pete’s experience as a child prodigy to the latter’s later years as a great pro with a thrilling style of play who suffered devastating injuries and a tragic death on the court at age 40.
Best-selling author Pat Conroy was captivated by Kriegel’s finished product. In a review posted on Amazon, he wrote:
“I’ve marveled at the supernatural skills of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant — all of them were greater basketball players than the ‘Pistol’. Yet none of them could touch the magical, otherworldly qualities he brought to the court, the genius and wizardry and breathtaking creativity. He could light up a crowd like a match set to gasoline. His game was lordly, inimitable and he should have been the greatest player to ever play the game. This great book by Mark Kriegel will explain why he was not. I never saw a greater or more electrifying basketball player and the ‘Pistol’s’ is one of the saddest stories ever told. What a book!”
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (David Halberstam; 2000)
Published only a couple years after His Airness had six NBA titles on his CV, the timing of Halberstam’s thorough analysis of Jordan’s career gave it an immediacy. The book packs a punch from start to finish, with Jordan’s rise to global superstardom the thread that connects the tales about every facet of the entire league.
Hard Labor: The Battle That Birthed The Billion-Dollar NBA (Sam Smith; 2017)
This is an important examination of the forces that enriched NBA players beyond their wildest imagination and how it came to pass. The creation of the players union and the fight for solidarity, benefits, a pension and free agency are chronicled, with Oscar Robertson’s role in the 1960s as a key leader of the movement told with revealing anecdotes and hard-hitting facts.
My Unforgettable Season: 1970 (Red Holzman with Leonard Lewin; 1993)
Hall of Fame New York Knicks coach Holzman looks back on the team’s first NBA championship. Enriched by nostalgia but also by the legendary bench boss’s recollections of key games and moments from the team’s glorious run.
From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA (Pete Croatto; 2020)
Everything you ever wanted to know about the NBA’s transformation from a struggling mom-and-pop business to a global monolith is printed within the pages of Croatto’s noteworthy project. Consider this the definitive dissertation of the NBA’s economic, marketing, business, media and competitive growth.
I wrote this review in 2021.
A Sense of Where You Are (John McPhee; 1965)
Written with beautiful prose and rich observations from Bill Bradley, the book’s subject, McPhee’s venerated text is timeless. Bradley wrapped up his college career at Princeton the year the book was published.
A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers (John Feinstein; 1986)
Like Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, this year-in-the-life tale of a hoop squad pulls the curtain back on what goes with another high-profile team. The behind-closed-door team meetings, the profane moments, the rivalries, the ups and down and frustrations and celebrations of iconic Indiana University coach Bob Knight’s 1985-86 team are laid out in graphic details.
Life on the Run (Bill Bradley; 1976)
One of the most intelligent, articulate and thoughtful pro athletes of the 20th century, Bradley, who served three terms as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey, gives a vivid snapshot of the Knicks’ 1975-76 season while focusing on a 20-day stretch. The future U.S. presidential candidate is a great storyteller, as evidenced by this classic book.
The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End (Gary M. Pomeranrtz; 2018)
In their twilight years, the intertwined lives and legacies of Celtics greats Bob Cousy and Bill Russell are captured in this dynamic, dual biographical project. But more than that, Cousy’s thoughts and regrets as he nears age 90 are shared. His life becomes an open canvas, and the thoughtful discussions on race relations (and problems) in America are bandied about, as Cousy confessed to the author that he regretted how he interacted with Russell decades earlier when they were teammates.
How so? As summarized on the book’s jacket:
“As the decades passed, Cousy blamed himself for not having done enough, for not having understood the depth of prejudice Russell faced as an African-American star in a city with a fraught history regarding race. Cousy wishes he had defended Russell publicly, and that he had told him privately that he had his back.”