Some of the books listed below are biographies or autobiographies of players, but some also delve into the history of the game. This reader’s advisory will list some of the best that I’ve found in this specific genre. You’ll find short synopses and reasons why I think the books are good.
They are listed in no particular order for now. I’ll expand it as I find more basketball books (or remember others I’ve read), so come back and look because the list won’t remain static. Where possible, I’ve tried to include information so that finding copies is easier.
- The Breaks of the Game. David Halberstam. ISBN 978-1401309725 and 1401309720. Hachette Books. Older versions available. A classic book about basketball, this tome follows the Portland Trail Blazers through their trials and travails during the 1979-80 season. That year was just a couple seasons after the Trail Blazers won their (only) NBA Championship. Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins and others were members of the 79-80 team. Well-written and an enjoyable read.
- Cousy: His Life, Career, and the Birth of Big-Time Basketball by Bill Reynolds. ISBN 978-0743482158 and 0743482158 (paperback). Pocket Star Books. Also available in hardback. An excellent biography of one of the early NBA superstars. Reynolds presents Cousy sympathetically and in a thorough, well written fashion, so that the reader may feel he/she knows Cousy.
- Wilt: Larger Than Life by Robert Cherry. ISBN 978-1572439153 and 1572439157 (paperback). Triumph Books. Also available in hardback. The best basketball biography I have read to date and possibly the best biography I’ve read, period. Well-documented, well researched, well written and the reader sees Wilt as the complex man he was, not the caricature he was portrayed as late in his life.
- Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto. ISBN 978-1416540618 and 141654061X (paperback). Simon & Schuster. This book covers the history of the American Basketball Association (ABA) from its conception through its merger with the NBA. It is highly entertaining, informative, and plain fun. The league is explained through the memories of the men who were there, whether media (e.g., Bob Costas), front office personnel and coaches (like Bob “Slick” Leonard) or the players themselves (such as Dan Issel, Julius Irving, Steve “Snapper” Jones).
- 24 Seconds to Shoot: The Birth and Improbable Rise of the National Basketball Association. Leonard Koppett. ISBN 978-1892129093 and 1892129094 (paperback). Total/Sports Illustrated. Earlier versions may be found. Koppett traces the history of the NBA from its inception through approximately 1970 or so. This is a fast-paced, eminently readable work that has become the de facto history of the NBA, though that was not apparently Koppett’s aim. A great basketball book for those who are interested in the NBA game’s history, its early personalities and how the 24 second shot clock led the game to be what it is today.
- Cages to Jumpshots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. Robert W. Peterson. ISBN 978-0803287723 and 0803287720 (paperback). Bison Books. Also available in hardback. An academic work (published by the University of Nebraska’s book wing), it takes an objective look at basketball’s evolution from local gymnasiums (like the YMCA) to professional status, with games played in a caged ring and center jumps following every dead ball. The early years end with the development of the jump shot. Good for those who are interested in basketball’s roots, if perhaps a bit dry reading.
- Vintage NBA Basketball: The Pioneer Era (1946-1956): A Mostly Oral History. Neil D. Isaacs. ISBN 978-1570280696 and 157028069X. Master’s Press. Each chapter is a transcription of interviews Isaacs did with key figures in the game’s early history. Some interviewees include Dolph Schayes (player), Maurice Podoloff (owner/commissioner), and Norm Drucker (referee). These interviews add color to the early history beyond the bare boxscores you might find if you dig deeply enough. Interesting, first hand accounts of the game’s rise and changes.
- West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. Jerry West. ISBN 978-0316053495 and 031605349X. Brown, Little & Co. Also available in paperback. The autobiography of a man who accomplished much as Los Angeles Laker and later basketball executive (Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies). Like Chamberlain, he is far more complex than might be thought from interviews. A highly readable, first-hand account of a remarkable basketball life.
- Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon. Roland Lazenby. ISBN 978-0345510839 and 0345510836. ESPN. A well written biography of this unique Laker great, it fleshes out areas that might be missed in West’s autobiography. This is a well-rounded biography of West as a player and man. Read together with the autobiography, the reader will have as complete a picture of West as can be had by anyone who’s not an intimate friend.
- The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949. Murry R. Nelson. ISBN 978-07864-4006-1 and 0786440066. McFarland & Company. A very detailed history of the predecessor league to the NBA, this provides much information that is not found elsewhere. Gives names of early stars (such as Leroy Edwards, Bobby McDermott, John Wooden) and the teams they played for, many of which were industrial teams. Combined with the Peterson and Koppett books, a reader interested in basketball will have fairly covered the genesis of today’s game and league from the NBL to the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to the NBA. Included for completeness for those seeking historical knowledge of basketball.
- The Origins of the Jump Shot: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball. John Christgau. ISBN 978-0803263949 and 0803263945. Bison Books. Another book that traces early hoops history, this time in search of the creator of the jump shot. Every region of the nation had a player who was remembered as having been the first to elevate when shooting, and those men are named and discussed here. Some later had NBA careers (Kenny Sailors), while others are remembered only for their innovative shot. Regardless of who took the first jump shot, this book brings forth some information on this essential element of today’s game, an innovation that changed the game forever.
- The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. Bill Simmons. ISBN 978-045-511768 and 034551176X. Ballantine Books. Also available in paperback. Simmons covers the history of the NBA in an amusing way and is pretty accurate in his descriptions and explanations of the game, its players, and the impact individual players make. While I don’t agree with everything he writes, any book that mentions, even in passing, George Yardley and Max Zaslofsky deserves to be read by anyone calling him/herself a hoops fan.
- Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story. David Wolf. No ISBN; LOC number 71-117272. Warner Paperback Library. Also available in hardback. Traces the life of Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins through his 2nd NBA season. Provides in-depth explanation of the scandal that wrongfully kept Hawkins out of the NBA for nearly a decade (the NBA blackballed him and reached a settlement through the work of a young attorney for the firm representing the NBA, David Stern). A fascinating read and a good look at the trials and hardships of athletes, both professional and amateur, and a thumbnail of the racism faced by athletes through the late 60s and early 70s.
- The Killer Instinct. Bob Cousy with John Devaney. ISBN: 978-0394494692 and 0394494695. Random House. Celtic legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Cousy discusses his coaching career, the highs, lows, and drawbacks, as well as his “killer instinct.” This is an indictment of the need of some to win at any costs, both in sports and in society at large. It is a strong cautionary tale to all, whether athlete, coach, or civilian, to focus on what is important lest you miss out on more than you might anticipate.
- The Jordan Rules. Sam Smith. ISBN: 978-0671796662 and 0671796666. Smith covers the Chicago Bulls’ first championship season, 1990-91 and the different personalities that played on, coached, and ran the team. A well-written effort that shows the trials and tribulations, ups and downs of a basketball season and also reveals the complex personality that is Michael Jordan.