Macro, Phenomenal: Free Darko Writers Talk Bulls, New NBA Book

Time Out New York calls their new book of NBA analysis of today's NBA "Emersonian." The Times went with, "fabulously eccentric, gloriously illustrated,... phenomenal swag."  For those unfamiliar, the blog FreeDarko is the cool hangout spot for smart kids who love the NBA. And their Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac is the beautifully illustrated Cliff Notes you need to get up to speed. Two of Free Darko's big brains -- Chicago residents Dr. Lawyer IndianChief and Brown Recluse, Esq. -- were kind of enough to discuss the book's process, how Chicago affects their perspective, and whether or not the Bulls "are Free Darko."

NBC Chicago: I'll start with the process of the book. Was it difficult, as bloggers/essayists of a very niche kind, to sell a publisher on the idea of the book?

Dr. Lawyer IndianChief: From the very beginning of FREEDARKO we had always discussed writing a book, but mostly as hyperbole.  The early ideas were also much more fantastical (Ray Allen's ascension to presidency as told by the canonical gospels of the New Testament … or a Munich-esque depiction of the USA Basketball team being taken hostage by terrorists and the NBA players on ther national teams plotting their rescue).  Eventually, we decided that the NBA was so fantastical to begin with, that we would not need to enhance it to write such a book.
The most interesting thing I found in trying to get the book published was that every single person we talked to thought this book was an incredible idea (they may have been blowing smoke, who knows), but those same people expressed extreme reservations about whether anybody else would be interested in it.  This became our paradox: everyone thought an absurdist illustrated semi-intellectual sports book was a great idea, but the concept was so much at the border of various genres that no definitive "audience" for the book could be identified.

NBC: Who is the book's audience?

DLIC: I think the book's audience at the core is hoops junkies. but I think where this book separates itself from other sports books is that it speaks to people who don't have the slightest interest in basketball. That means people who are interested in culture (broadly speaking), people who enjoy satire, people who collect comic books, people who like college radio stations, history buffs, people who like rap music, people who skateboard, guys who have girlfriends and their girlfriends. That is what I hope our audience can be.  It would be great to do for basketball what Anthony Bourdain has done for food, or what Steven Pinker has done for cognitive science -- basically present a niche subject in a way that is applicable to everybody.

Brown Recluse, Esq.: I think the glowing rejection letters we received from publishers were ironically pretty telling about who the audience for the book is. We kept hearing that whoever read it loved it, especially the friends of editors who were NBA fans, so right there you have people who appreciate good writing and design and the basketball fans who associate with such people. Obama's landslide victory is proof that that there are more intelligent hoops fans out there in this great nation than people realize. Or, at least, that's what I like to think it means.

NBC: Both of you guys are located in Chicago. Part of the founding Free Darko creed has to do with freedom from regional fandom, or, rather, instead of just rooting for the home team because That's What You're Supposed To Do. With that in mind, has being in Chicago helped inform your perspective on the NBA?

BR: I've only been in Chicago for a couple years, so I don't think Chicago has informed my perspective on the NBA at all. We tend to like teams with young players full of potential, but I've never been a Ben Gordon fan and was only really moved by Deng during that run he had in the 2007 playoffs. Scott Skiles and his brand of basketball rate pretty low on the FreeDarko scale. I respect that he once tried to fight Shaq, but beyond that, I don' t have a lot of love for the guy. I'll give Del Negro a little more time, but from what I've seen so far, I think we could've done better. Derrick Rose is pretty damn inspirational, though; his layups are beautiful.

DLIC: The Bulls are a very idiosyncratic team.  They represent almost the extreme opposite of liberated fandom because they have such a devoted fanbase that will cheer for the team no matter what--whether Michael Jordan is playing or Toni Kukoc or Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford or Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni.  The marketing slogan for a while was "Through Thick and Through Thin" which is pretty accurate of the fanbase here.  So despite the fact that Bulls fans are clearly rooting for a team rather than for individual players, there is something incredibly liberated about allowing oneself to root for those incredibly crappy Bill Cartwright-coached teams.

NBC: I'd almost forgotten about Bill Cartwright. Yeesh.

The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac is broken up into groups of players, sections with names like "Uncanny Peacocks," "Master Builders," "Lost Souls," etc. For anyone familiar with the blog, the categories make sense and the essays themselves are what I would call a coherent, focused version of the stuff you guys have been batting back and forth for years. Was there a conscious effort to get the entire FD "thing" -- your favorite players, pet cases, Tracy McGrady -- into something more organized, but also maybe a little more accessible?

BR: Organization and distillation are central to the writing of any book, especially one evolving out of a blog. Since one of our tenets is the celebration of the individual player over the team, we decided to pick certain players that we felt were important to understanding our perspective on the NBA. I say "important," because the players featured are not necessarily our favorites. We don't even like some of these guys.

DLIC: Sure, we wanted to tackle our favorite players (Gilbert Arenas, Josh Smith, Gerald Wallace), but we also wanted to challenge ourselves to write about guys that we don't necessarily talk about or praise on Free Darko (the blog), such as Tim Duncan and Yao.  I think covering the multitude of players that we did gave us a chance to apply the full FD treatment to players that don't fit our conventional definition of a stylish, swaggering, Free Darko player. As far as making oursevles accessible, there was no conscious effort toward doing that, but we did always keep in the back of our minds that idea that we wanted non-sportsfans to like the book, and for it to really speak to people who would not have the slightest clue about basketball.

NBC: How did the Style Guides -- diagrammed descriptions of individual players' personal styles -- originally come about?

BR: We're really big on the idea that a player's style expresses something about their soul and their personality, and the Style Guides were our attempt at capturing that in pictures. As far as the specific diagrams, those all came out of Shoals's magical brain and were brought to life by our immensely talented illustrator Big Baby Belafonte.

NBC: What effect did the book's editors have on the final output, and how would you compare that to working on the blog?

BR: Bloomsbury, our publisher, pretty much just let us do our thing. Our agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, and our editor, Nick Trautwein, provided us with some valuable comments and feedback, but they generally respected our vision and trusted us to do what felt right to us. To me, at least, the writing process wasn't that different from working on the blog. Having Big Baby Belafonte do the illustrations and layout, rather than relying on random Google image searches, was a huge upgrade.

NBC: Last thing: Almanac has a nice yearly ring to it. Any chance we'll see another book in the future, a la Baseball Prospectus?

DLIC: I hope so. I'm sure Big Baby needs a break though. We've thought a lot about what the next book might look like. Perhaps a series of interviews? Stay tuned.

BR: We are definitely interested in doing another book, but to be frank, it's kind of dependent on how this one does. Pick it up!

The Free Darko Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, published by Bloomsbury, is available Tuesday, Nov. 11.

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