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Recipe for an Underdog

(Apologies for shortage of posts today. The cold I had last week ... apparently has now spread to my computer.)

Basketball is full of tactics that are a departure from the whole "get the most skilled players and let them do their thing" approach to life.

There are zone defenses. There is the Princeton offense. There is the triangle offense.

But the granddaddy of trying to weird up a game is the full-court press.

Instead of passing, shooting, picking, cutting -- all the teams most people think of as basketball -- a press changes the game, basically, into a game kind of like capture the flag. Five people have five seconds to pass the ball to a covered player, and then a limited number of seconds (eight in the NBA, ten at most other levels) to get that ball 47 feet, to half court.

There are times when one basketball team is basically guaranteed to lose a conventional game. At those times, in my mind, it is a dreadful shame not to change the metrics in some way -- for instance, with a press.

In the current New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell discusses underdog tactics. He does so brilliantly, roping in examples as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia, David and Goliath, some naval warbot gamer and Rick Pitino. It's good stuff.

But the crux of the story is a Redwood City basketball team of pre-teen girls -- many of whom had never even played before. Their coach -- Vivek Ranadivé -- hadn't played or coached much himself. But they enjoyed tremendous success simply by pressing every instant of every game. The competition couldn't handle the ball very well, and turned it over. Redwood City tended to get layups galore, and won.

Their own coach admitted that they could have been easily threatened -- if the other team would simply press them. They couldn't handle the ball well either, and spent all their practice running, to stay in shape to do all that pressing.

Gladwell points out that the little used and effective tactics that change things in favor of underdogs are often considered "socially horrifying." Here's how that came to affect Redwood City:

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 wasn't playing fair-that it wasn'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 valuable-that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged. But the coaches on the other side of Redwood City's lopsided scores were disinclined to be so philosophical.

"There was one guy who wanted to have a fight with me in the parking lot," Ranadivé said. "He was this big guy. He obviously played football and basketball himself, and he saw that skinny, foreign guy beating him at his own game. He wanted to beat me up."

Roger Craig says that he was sometimes startled by what he saw. "The other coaches would be screaming at their girls, humiliating them, shouting at them. They would say to the refs-'That's a foul! That's a foul!' But we weren't fouling. We were just playing aggressive defense."

"My girls were all blond-haired white girls," Ranadivé said. "My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she's half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn't even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get." Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. "Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn't stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them."