Slam Dunk: Nick Greene goes hard in the paint with ‘How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius’

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SURPRISING SOURCES Greene interviews a magician, a civil engineer, a traffic expert, a Harvard geography professor and a cartographer whose job it is to make ‘the invisible visible.’

You don’t have to be gaga about basketball or be a Mensa member with a 150 IQ rating to enjoy a romp through Oakland-based writer Nick Greene’s debut book, How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius (Abrams Press). A contributing writer for Slate and previously editor-at-large for Mental Floss and web editor at the Village Voice, Greene spins a compelling narrative and displays the signature wit and healthy self-deprecation—especially about his hoop hindrances—that characterize his general approach to other topics he covers in essays and op-eds often written about pro sports.

The history told—and Greene’s deconstruction of basketball’s architecture, a game whose origins, unlike baseball, football and other sports can uniquely be traced to a single inventor, James Naismith—sets an intriguing pathway. In each of the book’s 11 chapters, facts are rooted in a journalistic, exhaustive, investigative approach. No surprise there, especially for readers familiar with Greene’s tendency to dive deep: the best examples might be his attempt to ride the entire New York subway system in one day, or subjecting himself to a week of cold showers for a men’s health article.

What is more remarkable than the book’s well-researched historical facts and sports stats that arrive often enough to feed game purists who love numbers, but are not so prevalent they become roadblocks as the stories speed along, are Greene’s primary sources. Interviews he conducted with coaches, basketball scholars and players are minimal. Instead, Greene features a professional magician, analyzing the art of dribbling; a civil engineer and traffic expert who address the 24-second shot clock; a Harvard geography professor and cartographer whose job it is to make “the invisible visible” and creates in his leisure time colorful maps marking the location data for every shot taken in the NBA. Philosophers, scientists, a marriage counselor, board-game inventors, Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig and others weigh in. Among the most rewarding: words written by the late poet Donald Hall, who provides what Greene agrees in an interview is a spot-on description of the game:

“Professional basketball combines opposites—elegant gymnastics, ferocious ballet, gargantuan delicacy, colossal precision…It is a continuous violent dream of levitating hulks. It is twist and turn, leap and fly, turn and counter turn, flick and respond, confront and evade. It is monstrous, or it would be monstrous if it were not witty.”

Of course, basketball in its earliest days was definitely monstrous and seldom witty. Nuanced facets of the sport arose only after Smith’s unsuccessful attempts in 1891 to cool the angst of a gang of young guys by tasking and taming them with hoisting a ball into a peach basket resulted in mass chaos. Even so, the slim set of 13 rules added by Naismith barely prevented the men from practically killing each other during the early days of low-scoring games. Throughout its history, basketball evolved by fostering a culture of innovation and inventions according to one primary aesthetic: the game should be massively entertaining for viewers to watch and fun to play. How to Watch steps through the history of shot clocks, 3-pointer definitions and strategies, dunking, free throws, defense, assists, the ego and elitism and racism among players and leagues, and all the bells and buzzers of today’s corporate-sponsored college basketball and the NBA’s all-star, mega-salaried players and televised, merchandised, glorified sports-spectacle-making and more.

In an interview prior to writing the book, Greene said he took the fact that one man invented the game for granted. “As I researched it, I realized that other sports cannot be traced to a single inventor,” he said. “We have those 13 rules that started the game. From that, we can trace the watchability, see how the rules changed in this one, rare, fishbowl. It’s almost like a science experiment.”

Experimentation and constant change prevail. Greene says that culture points back to Naismith: “He was passionate about it being fun to watch. If it was always evolving. He knew there’d be more demand and it would attract viewers, but also there’d be more people who’d want to play it. It’s why I think he was chill about others fiddling with his invention. He could see it made it more entertaining and that’s been a driving force of the game. It turned it into part spectacle, part art.”

Even so, not everyone loves basketball, right? Greene responds, saying, “you can’t please everybody,” but suggests that if basketball is broadcast on television in a restaurant or other public location, people will always watch it. “Some people hate the NBA for some reason, but no one says about the sport of basketball that they don’t like it,” he insists.

New York advertising veteran John Emmerling told Greene it is important for creative people—like a certain well-known player who bucketed a shot from behind the backboard—to have rules. Did Greene set rules himself as a writer while working on his first book? “It was helpful to have a deadline,” he says. “If I didn’t have that, I’d still be talking to people. And I did watch the sport a lot and avoided in the writing getting into the minutia of the game.”

Greene wrote most of the book during the pandemic lockdown and learned how important it is to have a singular focus for each day. “It was reassuring,” he says. “I write about news as it happens and that has an ephemeral element. With a book, this wasn’t instant coffee. I learned on bad days when not writing well to reassure myself that tomorrow might be better. When words weren’t coming, I could research, do another interview. You can do other things when you can’t put words on the page.”

Some words were hard, but vital to put on the page. Writing about the early days of the Harlem Globetrotters, he says, “People don’t realize that for over a half a century, pro basketball was white’s only, Blacks separate. You think of integration with baseball: everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. In basketball, they kept two separate tracks for decades. There’s this awful segregation of a sport that we now see as a global unifying enterprise. It’s worth reminding people of it so they know all these wonderful twists and turns and inventions were made by people in that environment. You think of Harlem Globetrotters and people don’t know they started as a segregated team of Black basketball players who no teams could beat. They won and took the crown as the best team and I think that helped the game to integrate.”

What does a guy who most loves basketball and soccer do when he’s not glued to the screen watching a game or match? “I used to love the board game Clue,” Greene says. “Because it demands the player assumes a self-contained setting, follows rules and it has an imaginary arena, a mythos you can get lost in. I got a Nintendo Switch to keep me off my phone during the pandemic. I was playing the Zelda game: it was stunning. You just start and can do anything in this mythical fantasy world. There’s exploration and wonder. I can only imagine how difficult it was to create, and I’m amazed at how you can play it so naturally.”

Jumping to the future of basketball in the Bay Area, Chicago-native Greene admits he’ll always be a Bull’s fan, but says, “It’s crappy the Warriors went to San Francisco. I’m a transplant, and Oakland has an amazing fan base.” That means the idea of a women’s pro team coming to Oakland is a winner. “That would be awesome,” he says. “A WNBA team would be a great fit.”