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Malcolm Gladwell Scoffs at Your Puny Half Court Defense


Malcolm Gladwell has an article in prominent sports magazine The New Yorker about how you're all playing basketball wrong. (Also, that the U.S. didn't fight the Revolutionary War particularly well and England really deserves a rematch.) His evidence for this? A group of twelve year-old girls in California who went pretty far in a basketball tournament by playing a full-court press, until they, you know, lost. Also, Rick Pitino.

It's a really annoying article that hits on every reason I dislike Gladwell's writing, from his expansion of one historical paper to a Grand! Theory! Of Humanity! to the complete credulousness with which he approaches a sport he evidently has never heard of and yet instantly grasps in a way decades of basketball coaches apparently were unable to. Mostly it's frustrating of course because it's very, very, wrong about basketball, as has been pointed out elsewhere.

It's odd, because if he'd generalized even further, the article would make more sense. It's not the full court press that wins upsets, it's taking the opponent out of their game that gets you wins. UNC stormed through the NCAA and jumped to big early leads with a rapid-fire pace and a good half-court defense. Pete Carrill did it with a slow game and a backdoor cut; as at one time, did Dean Smith. There's a reason every "keys to the game" of every basketball game boils down to "do what your team is good at, keep the other team from doing what they're good at" - it's how you win in every sport. Al this article taught me was if Malcom Gladwell is so wrong about things I do know about, how right is he about the things I don't? (A problem I also have with Gregg Easterbrook, every single time he talks about science.)

So just because Roger Craig and a guy in Silicon Valley are dicks to twelve year-old girls does not mean they've discovered the secret to basketball. In fact, they creeped me out a bit, from the "I have Roger and Romerta Craig helping me" (and really, having a former women's basketball player to help coach didn't have an effect?) to the incredible sore-loser recap of their tournament loss. These are the type of folks I groan at whenever they take the floor in a pick-up game. Yech.

(Full disclosure: I play in a charity basketball tournament every couple of years in Woolen with some buddies; this is relevant as we play with the talent of twelve year-old girls. We almost always run a full-court press against lesser talented teams, because it gets us big leads early so there's no danger of being upset, and the starters can get some rest late. And it's very fun for us, but it's a dick move to the other team.)