Thursday, May 07, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, Murray Gell-Mann And Rick Pitino

I bet you've never seen that post title anywhere before. This actually has to do with the Malcolm Gladwell article "Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath" in The New Yorker that is making a run around the blogosphere this week. Gladwell wrote about how underdogs use unconventional strategies to beat superior enemies, and the centerpiece is the example of the coach of a 12-year-old girls' basketball team who knew nothing about basketball and yet used the full court press to get his unathletic kids to beat vastly superior opponents. He then tries to relate this to college basketball by giving the example of Rick Pitino, who supposedly continues to beat superior teams by using the "unorthodox" full court press. As Gladwell describes it (and it just is too good for me not to post in its entirety):

College coaches of Pitino’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 doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

If you're reading this blog then you probably know a little something about college basketball and the sport of basketball in general. And you're probably laughing pretty hard right now. As we all know, while Rick Pitino is an excellent strategist he is also an outstanding recruiter. Gladwell brags about his 1995-96 team that won the National Championship, but fails to point out that it featured nine (yes, nine) future NBA players. Beyond that, the full court press is anything but new to basketball, and if anything was more popular in the past. Chad Orzel gives a number of examples of outstanding teams in the past that used the press. As Orzel points out, the teams that successfully employ the press actually tend to be more athletic teams, and for good reason:

First of all, the press requires a lot of athleticism to work at all. You have to be able to keep up with the man you're defending over a much larger area, and have to be able to do a lot without help defense (despite Gladwell thinking it's a good thing to be defending a larger area, as an unathletic team it is unquestionably advantageous to defend as little of the court as you can get away with). Also, you create more possessions in the game. If you are the inferior team you want fewer possessions. This is why the best examples of unathletic and vastly inferior teams winning games tend to be teams that play at a slow deliberate pace, creating as few possessions as possible (Pete Carril's Princeton teams and Dick Bennett's Wisconsin-Green Bay teams are two that come immediately to mind). Finally, the press works most of all by creating uncertainty and nervousness in your opponent. In other words, where will it work better than against a bunch of 12 year old girls? This is also, of course, why the press works best at the end of games when teams with the lead get tense, and why so many teams turn on the press and use it succcessfully to make late comebacks. Either way, nobody with any knowledge of basketball would recommend "40 Minutes of Hell" for an unathletic underdog at the college or professional level. It would be a recipe for disaster.

Getting back to the point about glorifying somebody using this strategy on 12 year old girls, I absolutely have to quote a hilarious passage from Steve Sailer's takedown of the Gladwell article:

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.

As Kevin Drum puts it:

Gladwell seems oddly insensitive to the criticism that "playing '40 Minutes of Hell' is kind of a dick move in a league of twelve-year-old girls." But, really, it is. The coach who did this isn't a brilliant innovator, he's kind of a dick.

The disaster that is this Gladwell article reminds me of a the great Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, a theory from the late Michael Crichton:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on a subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Honestly, I think that this theory applies to Gladwell as much as it applies to newspapers and our other sources of news. Whenever he writes about something that you don't know anything about he seems extremely interesting and seems to come to wonderful and very convincing conclusions. And yet when he writes about something that you know a little something about you get the sense that he doesn't have the slightest clue what he's talking about. You see that he clearly is taking disparate anecdotes and trying to fit them to the conclusion he wants (in this case that unorthodox strategies are the ideal strategies for underdogs... not exactly controversial or particularly enlightening when you boil it down like that). And yet we keep reading Gladwell and think of him as some genius of sociology...

In the end, I think Gladwell is to writing what weight loss pills are to healthy living. As Joseph Epstein puts it:

The first step in the bestseller formula is to tell people something that they want to hear. Gladwell tells his readers that, with a few sensible alterations--a nip here, a tuck there in society's institutions, throw in a bit of persistence and lots of practice--everyone has a shot at success such as that achieved by the Beatles, Bill Gates, J. Robert Oppenheimer, you name him. In prose that never lingers over complication, he explains that life is fairly simple; no great mystery about it. Nothing cannot be explained, nothing not changed, nothing not improved. Knowledge is ever on the march. Life need no longer be unfair. Utopia is at hand, ours, with the aid of social science, to seize.

Gladwell does it again with this basketball piece. Thousands of people read it and suddenly think that if only they could get in charge of one of these basketball teams, gosh darn it, they could beat those big athletic teams with only a little creative full court press! Of course, basketball isn't that simple. Nor is life.

No comments: