Malcolm Gladwell Is No Charles Barkley

I’m never quite sure what to make of Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of smart people seem to be favorably impressed by his writing and ideas, but whenever I actually read anything by him, there doesn’t seem to be much there.

Take, for example, this New Yorker piece on basketball as a metaphor for innovation. As seems to be his general practice, Gladwell frames the whole thing around an engaging anecdote, about Vivek Ranadivé, a Silicon Valley businessman who coached his daughter’s team of twelve-year-old girls in a National Junior Basketball competition:

Ranadivé looked at his girls. Morgan and Julia were serious basketball players. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees. They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. Ranadivé knew that if they played the conventional way–if they let their opponents dribble the ball up the court without opposition–they would almost certainly lose to the girls for whom basketball was a passion. Ranadivé came to America as a seventeen-year-old, with fifty dollars in his pocket. He was not one to accept losing easily. His second principle, then, was that his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships. “It was really random,” Anjali Ranadivé said. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before.”

Gladwell spins this off into a whole big thing about David and Goliath stories, and how scrappy underdogs can only defeat larger powers by changing the rules, and forcing the opponent out of their comfort zone. This spans a wide range of topics, from sports to business to warfare, and the whole thing is very engagingly written and superficially convincing.

It kind of falls apart, though, if you think about the basketball thing too much. Gladwell isn’t much of a basketball analyst, and the deep flaws in his description make me question the validity of the rest of his claims.

Gladwell writes in a manner that suggests he has never heard of this, how do you say, bass-ket-ball before, and it’s a tough call as to whether this is “charmingly naive” or “unbelievably credulous.” He goes on at some length about what a bold innovation up-tempo basketball is, and how it completely changes the game in favor of the scrappy underdog.

This whole line of argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that there are several decades’ worth of examples of people using pressure defense successfully in basketball. OK, he does make a nod to the history of the game by talking with Rick Pitino, but contrary to what you might take away from talking with Rick Pitino, pressure defense in basketball does not begin and end with Rick Pitino. Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, Billy Tubbs Paul Westhead, and others had success with pressing teams well before Pitino’s success at Kentucky.

And, in fact, Pitino’s 1996 Kentucky team is a terrible example of the point Gladwell is ostensibly making. Yes, they were a pressing team, but they were hardly scrappy underdogs– nine of the players on the 1995-6 Wildcats went on to play in the NBA. This is not some scrappy group of nobodies who took it to the big boys with their unorthodox style of play. Quite the contrary, in fact– that Kentucky team was loaded with top-flight basketball talent.

If you want to find real examples of people using the pressing style to overcome opponents with superior talent, you won’t find many at the championship level. In fact, you’re more likely to find stacked teams losing in spite of playing an up-tempo game than you are to find real teams of scrappy underdogs using the press to beat better competition. Arkansas and UNLV won titles in the early 90’s with a pressure game, but more or less the same UNLV squad lost to Duke in a classic game in the ’91 Final Four, and Billy Tubbs’s Oklahoma team lost to a Kansas team that fits the “scrappy underdog” mold a lot better– they had Danny Manning and not much else.

There’s a reason for this: the press works, as long as the other team isn’t ready for it. The idea of a full-court press is to force the opponent into a rushed and frenetic game and get them out of their routine. A team that’s ready for it, though, and has skilled and disciplined players, won’t get rattled by the press, and can pick the press apart for lots of easy baskets. You can use the full-court press to rattle a superior team that isn’t expecting it, but if they know it’s coming, there are a lot of ways that pressure defense can fall apart– missed traps in the back court lead to two- or three-on-one breaks, over-aggressive defense leads to fouls, etc.. The teams that have won titles using pressure basketball have also had lots of talent, because you need something to fall back on if the press doesn’t work.

And that’s just one of the things that bug me about the article. There’s also the way he slides right past some creepy racial subtext in the story about the “little blond girls” from Silicon Valley. Or the way he brushes off the criticism that playing “40 Minutes of Hell” is kind of a dick move in a league of twelve-year-old girls. Or the way he makes several disparaging remarks about George Washington’s abandoning guerilla tactics in the Revolutionary War, conveniently ignoring the fact that Washington won the war by defeating the British in straight-up battles. (Having been born onto the losing side of that one, he can perhaps be forgiven that lapse…)

This is pretty much my experience of Gladwell in a nutshell. On first pass, it all sounds very plausible. On a second look, it’s far more glib than convincing. His examples all sound great, but whenever he dips into an area I know something about, his articles seem to have more flaws than arguments.

Is there a valid point to be taken away from all this? Maybe. Whatever it is, though, it doesn’t involve basketball.

(I was pointed to the Gladwell article by Michael Nielsen on FriendFeed.)