The Crackle Wonders: Bethlehem Shoals

Justin February 9, 2011 1

Judging by the troubles I had filling out an 8 team  fantasy basketball league earlier this year, the NBA’s popularity is waning in some circles.  Well, I may have the cure.  FreeDarko’s The Undisputed Guide To Pro Basketball History is now in paperback.  It’s also got really cool artwork, which we’ve sprinkled throughout this piece. One of the contributors, Bethlehem Shoals, sat down for a few minutes to answer some questions.

We discuss sports writing vs writing about sports, the art of google images and a cultural juggernaut that spreads its message through a bucket of confetti and a behind the back pass.

SCP: While FreeDarko is, first and foremost, a basketball venture, I’ve always been struck more by the literary quality of the writing. I’ll admit I sometimes get through a post or an article and realize I didn’t fully understand what I just read. Where does that command of the English language come from? Do you consider yourself a writer who focuses on basketball or a basketball writer? Am I over thinking this way too much?

BS: No, I think that’s about right. Certainly, in the earlier days when we tried to be more experimental, I’d write things that made no sense to me hours later. And there was a period of the blog where it was a litany of strong, conflicting emotions about one team or player over the course of a playoff series, or big stretch of the season. Blogs are supposed to work like that, I think. I don’t think of them as permanent, or authoritative. As for the actual question, yes, I definitely would go with “writer who focuses on basketball” — in part because I do like to weigh in on music, film, politics, and technology, and also because I’m really not any kind of trained journalist. Unless “music critic” counts as that.

SCP: How does “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History” differ from Bill Simmons “Book of Basketball?” Do you have any plans to create a website solely devoted to correcting hundreds of factual errors that were published in your book the way he had to? Is there a Disputed Guide to Pro Basketball History floating around out there?

BS: We’ve address some of the errors we made. For a while, I was working on a theory of mistakes: which ones people needed to give us the benefit of the doubt on, versus actual missteps that might have changed the substance of our argument. I think the entire book is dispute-able. It’s not indisputable. The point is that, like when a fighter wins the title, at the moment we sent the manuscript off we felt like it could not be fucked with. That feeling didn’t last, of course. Nothing’s perfect, or airtight. But for one brief moment, it was king. Also, we wanted UFC to sue us so we could get some free publicity. All that said, if for some reason there were a second printing, I could think of a few things I would absolutely change. They’re just too distracting, and might influence future generations in a negative manner.


SCP: There are myriad debates about who’s the best player in NBA history, But who’s the most important? And who was the coolest? Most underrated? Overrated?

BS: Well, that’s how we’re different from Simmons. I don’t think we once argue that any player is the most this or that, or try to compare across eras. I think that, looking back at history, you learn that basketball is more cyclical than other sports, but at the same time, evolves faster, and more violently, than any other sport. So archetypes recur, just in totally different contexts, and fine-tuned for their era. Most important, well, that depends on what you think makes a player matter. Coolest, I’d go with Earl Monroe. Most underrated, Nate Thurmond. Overrated, wow, that’s tough. Reggie Miller, but I probably wouldn’t be saying that if he didn’t annoy the living hell out of me as a broadcaster.

SCP: How about eras?  When did the quality of play peak? What decade of basketball had the greatest impact on the culture as a whole?

BS: I really think you have to look at each era in itself, and say, “what year was the best year for that style of basketball?” People like to talk about the glory of the 1980’s. But the Bulls don’t start winning titles until the 1990’s. And that 1984 draft class sets the tone up until Jordan retires the second time. That’s 18 years. Plus, within that time-frame, you have a tremendous shift in how strong and athletic the average player is and, yes, a change in how structured a “system” had to be. We differentiated between the 1980’s and 1990’s; I’ve never heard anyone forced to choose between those two epochs. They’re both understood as great in their own right. Just different.

SCP: Do you buy into Chuck Klosterman’s theory that a person’s entire personality can be predicted by finding out if they preferred Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics?

BS: I see what he’s getting at, and I understand using style as a metaphor for personality. I do it a lot myself—sometimes, when talking about the players themselves, I take it as pseudo-fact. There’s a difference, though, between looking at that contrast in the abstract, and looking at what it means in a historical context. At the time that rivalry was also polarizing along race lines. If you want to over-simplify, the Lakers played for the future, and the Celtics hewed to traditional values. Except the Lakers were closer to the classic Celtics teams of the 1960’s. And Bird got frustrated at the C’s not running more. It’s hard for me to not take all of that into account.

SCP: Pro Basketball isn’t just the NBA. The Globetrotters have been really important in growing sports popularity. Can you put their impact into some perspective?

BS: The Globetrotters were arguably the best team in all of pro basketball, for decades, before the pro game was integrated. They understood the practical and psychological value of playing with style, and through barnstorming, spread the gospel to cities and towns that weren’t necessarily epicenters of hoops. Think of it this way: The Globetrotters were the best option for African-American ball players, the entire country over. Imagine the entire Negro Leagues rolled into one team. There were other notable black operations, like the Rens, and certainly, basketball was rough-and-tumble enough that choosing another line of work was understandable. Other than that, Saperstein had his pick of young black talent for decades.

SCP: Let’s say five years from now, you decide to put out an updated version of the book. What do you think you’ll have to add? What players or trends will set the tone for the NBA’s immediate future?

BS: Well, the formation of this year’s Heat, for sure. Other than that? We tried to take an educated guess by including Durant. But three months into 2010-11, it looks like Blake Griffin might be the best power forward of his generation, and no one predicted that.

SCP: One of my favorite parts of the website are the seemingly random images you add to your posts. Are you a mad genius when it comes to using google images or is there a rhyme and reason to which pictures you use?

(eds note: Here’s an example. Who the hell is she and what is she looking at?)

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BS: It really depends. Sometimes, it’s an analogy or metaphor that I think goes well with the text at that point. I used to be really into making fun of what I had just written. I would say that about seventy-five percent of them make sense to me when I look back at them today.

SCP: Free Darko began as a blog, then grew into appearances elsewhere on the web, in major newspapers and magazines and ultimately in a pair of well received books.  Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if the Pistons had drafted Carmelo Anthony?

BS: Well, we never really cared about Darko, so the blog would probably have existed anyway. That said, a lot of our early exposure came because of the name, so who knows, without Darko, we might still be toiling in obscurity, waiting for pretentious, artsy hoops writing to get hot on its own.

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