When discussions of basketball take place at the higher brow, they frequently focus on more than mere X's and O's. You may or may not know the type: The game as reflection of changing socioeconomic conditions (see, for example, "Breaks of the Game" by David Halberstam) or as platform for redemption and forgiveness ("The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever," by John Feinstein). At the highest levels, the writers and thinkers get the basketball correct.
Such is not the case with a recent piece, "How David Beats Goliath," in one of the highest-brow, mass-market publications -- The New Yorker -- by an author of best-selling books on success and "pop economics," Malcolm Gladwell. And because the hoops are not right, the life lesson Gladwell attempts to advance -- that underdogs can win by refusing to play by the rules of a dominant opponent (aka, innovation) -- flutters to the floor like an air ball.
Not to say there isn't truth to the notion that innovation can trump superior numbers, talent or force. However, wrapped in facts and anecdotes about the efforts of various Davids is Gladwell's tale of a 12-year-old girl's basketball team, Redwood City. Its basketball-inexperienced coach flexes his Silicon Valley intellect to conjure a strategy of nonstop, full-court pressing to slay enough giants to reach the nationals. As if full-court pressure was the purview of the uniquely inspired sort that Gladwell loves to portray, such as his main subject, Vivek Ranadivé, or, er, Rick Pitino, whose genius was to use pressure to propel his underdog Kentucky Wildcats to the 1996 NCAA championship.
What an innovator, that Pitino -- to press with an athletic and deep team composed of future NBA players Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker, with more future NBAers in Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope and Jeff Sheppard coming off the bench. Not that Red Auerbach or John Wooden ever made hay in their day by pressuring with athletically superior teams. And still, Gladwell, via Ranadivé (or vice versa), mocks the other youth coaches' inability to grasp the folly of not contesting every inch of the basketball court.
To which we need to call a 20-second timeout. Please, just stop right here.
To our way of thinking, what sets Ranadivé apart is not his retreating to the press (as opposed to likely option No. 2, the zone defense) to mask his inability to spend the team's time on, I don't know, teaching 12-year-olds how to dribble. No, it's his utter devotion to the concept, to the exclusion of all else. Concluding that he didn't have enough time to teach basketball skills, Ranadivé spent his practices running and building fitness -- and he enlisted former NFL running back Roger Craig to assist in the effort.
This sort of focus on one thing (another Gladwellian theme) of course can have its successes, but it also has its limitations. What fueled the success of Redwood City, which Ranadivé describes as "all blonde-haired white girls" as an illustration of the team's shortcomings, was not innovation or, as Gladwell asserts, its "willingness to try harder than anyone else." It was, simply, the similar, but not nearly as thorough, inexperience of Redwood City's opposing coaches.
As any coach worth her or his dog-eared playbook would know, a team on lower levels of basketball that likes to press usually does not like to be pressed back -- precisely because the time required to be good at one thing leaves little or no time to be good at its counters. So if one coach with a team of "born-with-a-basketball" girls had just thought to press Redwood City back, Ranadivé's girls would have been cooked. After all, by Ranadivé's own admission, almost none of his girls knew how to handle the ball, pass it or even shoot it beyond a layup; all they knew was how to press (though it's unclear they knew, in the classic sense, how to employ angles and athletic stances, steer ballhandlers or trap).
In fact, even Gladwell, on some level, knows this. He concludes his tale by inferring the only way to defeat innovation is by cheating. Redwood City is forced to play early on the opponent's home floor, leave even earlier to avoid traffic and endure a game officiated by a referee provided by the home team. Worse, as Gladwell somehow knows, this referee considers Redwood City's philosophy an abomination to basketball and calls forth a flood of "ticky-tack" fouls.
Some of us know that it isn't only in fables where parents, coaches and players believe they were thwarted by overzealous, "homer" referees. Still, we'll accept Gladwell's "facts" and come to a different conclusion than he does. Under a hail of whistles, Ranadivé loses players to fouls, so he must call off the press and force his girls to function as basketball players. They are exposed as anything but, of course, and lose.
Though we appreciate the foray of someone as prominent as Malcolm Gladwell into the world of girl's basketball and all the celebration behind it the past week or so, we must spin this particular tale the way we've seen similar ones play out time and time again. Unconventional X's and O's may alter reality in the short term, but there really are no shortcuts to success. Further, success can't always be defined by conventional measures of winning and losing because, in many contexts, simply moving forward can be a great victory.
As Gladwell paints the picture, it's not very acceptable that people like Vivek Ranadivé raze a path strewn with fallen foes so humiliated or disillusioned as to risk losing connection with a sport that could, over time, instill them with empowerment and skills that will better equip them for life. After all, a 12-year-old still is in a state of exploration, deciding whether she even likes basketball -- or sports, for that matter -- and should be free to sample life's offerings without the colorings and judgments imposed by adults. Nor is it acceptable that Ranadivé's "blonde-haired white girls" learn that it is possible, or even preferable, to attempt constructing a successful future without employing some of life's basic building blocks: practice, adaptability and humility.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.