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Don't Worry, It's Just Malcolm Being Malcolm Again
It's easy to tell how good Michael Lewis's sports articles in the New York Times Magazine are by comparing them to Malcolm Gladwell's sports articles in The New Yorker.
Malcolm now has an enormous article up which, when you leave out his voluminous retelling of the little-known plot of an obscure movie called "Lawrence of Arabia" and an extended anecdote about some computer game that I didn't bother to read, consists of Malcolm arguing that basketball coaches are fools -- fools, I tell you -- for not using the full court press, which is, according to Malcolm, the best way for an underdog to defeat a superior team: by changing the rules! The article is based -- honest to God -- on a 12-year-old girls basketball team that had a lot of success full court pressing.
How David Beats Goliath
When underdogs break the rules.
When [Silicon Valley zillionaire] Vivek RanadivĂ© decided to coach his daughter Anjaliâ€™s basketball team, ... RanadivĂ© was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team Aâ€™s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court pressâ€”that is, they would contest their opponentâ€™s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and RanadivĂ© thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponentâ€™s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good? ...
As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldnâ€™t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. RanadivĂ©â€™s girls were maniacal.
The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponentâ€™s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood Cityâ€™s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and â€śtrapâ€ť her. Anjali was the designated trapper. Sheâ€™d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe sheâ€™d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panicâ€”or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle.
The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4â€“0, 6â€“0, 8â€“0, 12â€“0. One time, they led 25â€“0. ...
The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasnâ€™t playing fairâ€”that it wasnâ€™t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuableâ€”that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.
More likely, the 12-year-old girls who found themselves losing 25-0 without ever getting a shot off learned a simpler lesson: I hate basketball. You'd have to be totally gay to like basketball. I'm never going to play any sport again. Hey, I just realized that my dad can't force me to play sports if I'm pregnant!
This reminds me of when my kid was in a baseball league for 9-year-olds at the local park and his genius manager came up with a foolproof strategy for winning: "Don't ever swing! Nine year old pitchers can't get the ball over the plate enough to get you out on called strikes, so you'll almost always get a walk as long as you never swing." So, his team would get seven or eight walks in a row. The little boy who was pitching for the other team would be reduced to tears. He's be replaced by another little boy who would soon be crying because the batters would just not swing.
One time my kid disobeyed orders and hit a hard foul ball. He was pretty excited because it was the only time he got his bat on the ball all year, and he was under the impression that hitting a ball with a stick was more or less the point of playing baseball, but his coach bawled him out for disobeying orders. (He turned out to be a decent hitter in later years.)
My kid's team had the best record that year, but the parents got together and decided not to let that guy coach anymore.
Then Malcolm goes off on a rant but how practically the only college basketball coach who was smart enough to understand how full court pressing allowed underdogs to win by "changing the rules" was Rick Pitino who won the 1996 NCAA at Kentucky:
College coaches of Pitinoâ€™s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesnâ€™t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.
Uh, what about Jamal Mashburn? Don't they have fact-checkers at The New Yorker anymore?
Let's look at Pitino's 1996 U. of Kentucky line-up in terms of their subsequent NBA careers:
Derek Anderson - 11 years - $56 million in total salary
Ron Mercer - 8 years - $35 million
Tony Delk - 10 years - $20 million
Walter McCarty - 10 years - $15 million
Antoine Walker - 12 years - $99 million
Mark Pope - 6 years - $4 million
Jeff Sheppard - 1 year - 0.7 million
Anthony Epps - 0 years - $0 million
Nazr Mohammed - 11 years (so far) - $38 million
A total of 69 years in the NBA and over a quarter of a billion dollars in salary. Heck, I could have coached those guys to, say, the Regional finals.
And it's not a fluke that an athletically awesome team won by full court pressing. Traditionally in basketball, the full court press has not been the underdog's weapon, it's been the overdog's way to insure that their superiority is manifested in the final score. The biggest overdogs in college basketball history were John Wooden's UCLA teams that won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. They generally ran a 2-2-1 zone press with the 1 who played free safety often being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton, which helped a lot when the opponents would beat their press and get a fast break, only to run into an all-time shot-blocking legend.
Similarly, the Boston Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA titles with Bill Russell as centerfielder on their full court press.
In a book co-authored by Wooden and Swen Nater (who led both the NBA and ABA in rebounding despite never starting in college due to Walton), they write:
Why do teams use a pressing defense? At UCLA, we chose to use it for two primary reasons. One was to avoid getting stuck in a half-court game in which the opposition could dictate the pace andâ€”even if outmannedâ€”reduce the number of possessions to keep the score close. Two, we believed the press allowed us to exploit opponents who were not fundamentally sound in their spacing, cutting, passing, and dribbling.
In other words, UCLA had better players and a better coach, so they would contest every bit of the game to maximize the sample size by which the game was decided. In contrast, if you are an inferior team, the smart tactic is to slow the game down so that luck will play a larger role, as 11th seeded Villanova did in beating Patrick Ewing's #1 Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final. Villanova only took ten shots in the second half, but happened to make nine of them, so they won.
In contrast, consider the spectacular 1983 NCAA semifinal game between#2 Louisville (The Doctors of Dunk) and #1 Houston (Phi Slamma Jamma). Louisville had a ferocious full court press, with excellent athletes, such as the McCray brothers, but Houston had great athletes, such as Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. In the second half, Houston repeatedly went over the Louisville press for spectacular fast break dunks in a 94-81 win.
I don't know my basketball history well enough to say this with any confidence, but that Phi Slamma Jamma game might have been the beginning of the end for the full court press. It had worked wonderfully for Red Auerbach and John Wooden in the old days, but Houston's sensational 1983 win showed conclusively how vulnerable the press was to a high-flying team.
In the boring 1983 Final game, an inferior North Carolina State team slowed down the tempo and packed the inside and dared Houston to make enough outside shots and enough free throws to beat them. This gave NC State just enough of a chance to win on a fluke final play.
Malcolm draws large conclusions:
Davidâ€™s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan ArreguĂn-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact.
No, it's not all that remarkable because countries will generally avoid war if they are highly likely to lose. For example, recall the 1994 war between America and Haiti. What? You don't recall that one? Well, that's because there wasn't a war. The Haitian government surrendered to the American invaders rather than fight. Similarly, Canada hasn't got into a war with America recently. But if it had, it wouldn't have a 28.5% chance of winning.
My off the top of my head guess would be that wars would be most likely to happen when the odds are about 60-40 in favor of one side. The overdog would tend to think it's going to win while the underdog think it has a fighting chance so it would be dishonorable to cave in without a struggle.