Starting Lineup: 11 of the Best Nonfiction Books About Basketball
I requested to write this post because I have become a rabid fan of NBA basketball. My devotion to watching NBA games as an adult started during the second summer of the pandemic, when I watched the playoff finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. There’s something so compelling about seeing people at the top of their craft perform. Not to mention all the feats of athleticism! That fall, I decided to watch every Celtics’ game — because home team — and that turned into watching all the Celtics’ games and even more basketball games. And then I combined my two loves, books and basketball, and started reading tons of books about it. And now here we are, getting ready to read about 11 of the best nonfiction books about basketball!
In this list, you’ll find memoirs and biographies, histories and deep dives. I have a serious collection of basketball books, mostly about the Boston Celtics, because I bleed green. But I won’t be biased in my choices below (even if the Celtics are the best). Before I start, I can’t write a post about basketball books without mentioning The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, one of the greatest sports writers ever. It’s a wild look at the Portland Trailblazers’ 1979-80 season. It’s no longer in print, but you can still find copies.
Like most sports, the men’s teams in basketball have been around longer than the women’s teams. So most books about basketball reflect that, and are about the men’s teams and their players. The Women’s National Basketball Association has only been around a fraction as long as the NBA, since 1996 to be exact, but with the popularity of such stars as Sue Bird, Brittney Griner, Candace Parker, and A’ja Wilson, hopefully there will be a lot more books about them soon. I would love to read a memoir by any/all of these amazing players!
And as for new books about basketball, I am hoping to get to The Education of Kendrick Perkins: A Memoir by Kendrick Perkins and pick up The Basketball Vault: Great Writing from the Pages of Sports Illustrated by The Editors of Sports Illustrated and Chris Ballard. Now, let’s get this show on the road!
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Abdul-Jabbar is not only one of the greatest players to ever grace a basketball court, but he’s one of the most brilliant, fascinating people you’ll ever read about. This is his story written for younger readers, about the prejudice he faced and how he fought to achieve his dreams. It’s sure to inspire fans of the sport and anyone with a dream. (Abdul-Jabbar is also a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan and has written a trilogy for young readers about Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes.)
Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson
This is an ambitious look at Oklahoma City, from its founding, to its weather, to the 1995 bombing. And also more specifically, one season of its team, the Thunders, and the controversial trading of its star player, a young James Harden, before the beginning of the 2013 season began.
Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA Champion by Mirin Fader
This is an excellent biography of one of today’s (literally) biggest NBA stars. Giannis Antetokounmpo, also called the “Greek Freak” led the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship in 2021. This is the story of his rise from a young kid in Athens to a superstar and why he’s important to the game today. You can also learn more about Giannis’s younger years and the story of his family, which includes two other basketball-playing siblings, in the new Disney+ series Rise.
When The Game Was Ours by Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson, Jackie MacMullan
The NBA was defined in the 1980s by the biggest rivalry in basketball: the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. The star players for each team, Bird and Johnson, competed fiercely against one another for years, but fostered a lifelong friendship off the court, one of mutual respect and admiration. It’s great to hear from two legendary giants of the game.
Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks by Chris Herring
This recent book is so much fun. It’s an examination of the New York Knicks in the 1990s, starting when they lured coach Pat Riley away from the Lakers and started building a winning franchise…for a while. If you like wild stories and hot gossip, albeit about basketball, this is a great book to read. Some of the court behavior discussed isn’t acceptable in the NBA anymore, and for good reason, but it sure is fun to read about.
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto
The American Basketball Association existed alongside the National Basketball Association from 1967 to 1976. It promoted a flashier, more raucous version of the game, with things like three-point shots and six more seconds on the shot clock. Many of the great legends of basketball, such as Julius Irving and Moses Malone, got their start in the ABA. It was incorporated into the NBA in 1976, changing the face of NBA basketball forever, and its story is fascinating from start to finish.
Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League, 1978-1981 by Karra Porter
And here’s a look at the beginnings of women’s professional basketball. Before we knew the WNBA with Sue Bird, Candace Parker, A’ja Wilson, and Brittney Griner, women fought long and hard for their place in the basketball spotlight in the WBL. This covers the early years of that league, including its teams, its star players, and the murder of one of the players.
Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball by Mike Prada
And this one is a little insider baseball, er, basketball. But it’s really interesting! There was a time when there was no three-point shot in basketball. All those long shots used to be two points. And then the NBA adopted the three-point shot in 1979, and it changed the game. And now we have huge stars known for their three-point shooting, like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. It’s wild to think about how Wilt Chamberlain set all kinds of scoring records without the three-point shot (or how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar only made one in his career.)
Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA by Theresa Runstedtler
This was actually the excellent book I read recently that gave me the idea for the list. It’s a needed examination of the contributions of Black players to the NBA, with a focus on the stars of the game in the 1970s and how they ushered in change to the NBA in the face of racism and prejudice.
Go Up for Glory by Bill Russell and William Mcsweeny
And like you can’t have a list of sports books without David Halberstam, you can’t have a list of basketball books without Bill Russell. Very few players made such a huge impact and contribution to the game. Russell was one of the first Black players on an NBA team, spending his career as a center for the Celtics. He also became a player coach, making him the first Black coach in the NBA, and later the first Black coach to win a championship. All while dealing with racism and violence directed towards him, even in Boston where he played. Russell was a legend, who sadly passed away in 2022. The NBA retired his jersey number, #6, across all teams, and if you watch a game this season, you’ll see the number on all the jerseys and the courts in his honor.
Raise the Roof: The Inspiring Inside Story of the Tennessee Lady Vols’ Historic 1997-1998 Threepeat Season by Pat Summitt, with Sally Jenkins
Summitt was the winningest coach in women’s college basketball, and one of the most beloved coaches of the game. This book is her story of helping her team, the Tennessee Lady Vols, win a “threepeat” or third consecutive championship. This includes not just the story of the games, but a lot of the action and anxiety that went on behind the scenes. Summitt, who died in 2016, also wrote a book about achieving your goals called Reach for the Summitt, and a memoir about her early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Sum It Up.
For more sports books, be sure to check out 8 Sports Romance Books That Are Sure to Score Points, 25 Of The Best Sports Books for Kids Of All Ages, and 20 Must-Read Nonfiction Sports Stories to Immerse You in the Games You Love.