by William H. Benson
January 15, 2015
Vivek Ranadivé coached his daughter’s National Junior Basketball team at Redwood City, south of San Francisco, in Silicon Valley. Because Vivek had grown up in Mumbai, where he had played cricket and soccer, Vivek knew very little about basketball, His daughter’s team was composed of twelve-year-old girls, who were short, white, and displayed no talent. They could barely shoot, dribble, or jump, and yet they won most of their games, losing only in the championship game. How?
Malcolm Gladwell tells of this junior-high dream team in his recent book, David and Goliath.
Vivek insisted that his girls run a full-court press. A team has five seconds to pass the ball inbounds to a teammate, and then another ten seconds to cross the mid-court. Vivek’s team contested that inbound pass. He told his girls, “Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbound plays.”
One of Vivek’s girls explained, “We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams better than us, and we would beat them.”
Vivek did not bother teaching his girls to shoot three-pointers, or set a pick, or execute a play. Instead, he taught them to rattle the other team’s players, steal the ball, and make a quick layup. They ran and chased the ball, but under their own basket. Vivek said, “We followed soccer strategy in practice. I would make them run and run and run.”
If the other team did complete that first inbound pass, Vivek’s girls would trap and force a turnover. Vivek’s assistant explained, “What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses.” Gladwell explained that this was how David, small and weak, defeated Goliath, tall and strong.
Gladwell states the obvious. “The puzzle of the press is that it has never become popular.” Why is that? First, it exhausts the players, and then, a well-prepared opponent can break a press, or run it themselves. Yet, it can give a poor team an advantage.
Gladwell tells of a game played in January of 1971 between the University of Massachusetts and Fordham University. The great Julius Irving, “Dr. J,” played for Massachusetts, but Irish and Italian kids from New York City, with only a fraction of Massachusetts’ talent, played for Fordham. Yet, Fordham won that night 87-79, because those city kids ran a full-court press for four quarters.
One Massachusetts player there that day, Rick Pitino, sat on the bench, astonished, and came away a believer in the press. Later, as a college coach first at Boston, then Providence and Kentucky, and now at Louisville, he instituted the press and took those teams to the NCAA tournament eighteen times. Gladwell writes, “Again and again, in his career, Pitino has achieved extraordinary things with a fraction of the talent of his competitors.” He is David, and he faces Goliath.
Sports writers consider the Washington Generals “the sorriest team in the history of sports—14,000 losses and counting.” The team has won only six games in the past sixty-two years. Who are they? In 1952, Abe Saperstein asked Louis “Red” Klotz to put together a team to tour with and play against Abe’s Harlem Globetrotters, as a foil for their comedy routines. Crowds pay to watch the Generals lose every game to the Globetrotters.
Yet, the Washington Generals won on January 25, 1971 at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Red Klotz, only five feet and seven inches tall, made a two-handed shot, and put his Generals up 100-99. With seconds to play, Meadowlark Lemon hooked his shot, missed, and the buzzer ended the game. Perpetual underdogs, the Washington Generals, had beaten the perpetual winners, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the spectators booed. David should not have defeated Goliath.
Perhaps, if the Washington Generals would run a full-court press, they would win more often. Gladwell says, “every team that comes in as an underdog should play that way. So why don’t they?”
Gladwell points out that effort can trump ability on the basketball court, on the battlefield, in business, or in academics. Those who ignore the conventions of the day, hide their weaknesses, take daring risks, and maneuver themselves into position for a steal can slaughter their competitors. That is guerrilla warfare, that is judo, and that is how the English defeated the Spanish armada.
Gladwell says, “When effort trumps ability, the game becomes unrecognizable.” Panic strikes, and the Philistines run for cover.
“Only a boy named David. Only a babbling brook. Only a boy named David, but five little stones he took.” But then he used just one stone. Gladwell writes that “David brought a shepherd’s rules to the battlefield,” and that “we all assume that being bigger and stronger and richer is always in our best interest. Vivek Ranadivé and a shepherd boy named David will tell you that it isn’t.”
This basketball season cheer for the underdog.