My latest New Yorker piece, on how David beats Goliath, is here.
I've been very pleased with the reaction. I did want to respond, though, to a number of comments that have been made about the parts of the piece dealing with Rick Pitino and college basketball. (Nothing is quite as fun as arguing about sports,)
Since most of the commenters make the same arguments, I'm going to pick a post by Ben Mathis-Lilley, over at New York magazine's blog. He writes, in part:
The truth is that almost every team tries to make its opponents work for all 94 feet in some fashion, and not every underdog is born to run a full-court press. For example, take a team of mediocre players plus two pretty good athletes — one a tiny but quick guard, the other a big man who’s strong but slow on his feet. If that team ran a full-court press, the opposition would exploit the big guy by sending the player he guards sprinting down the floor on a fast break, while the small guard would be wasted guarding someone who probably doesn’t have possession, since the standard reaction to a press is to pass the ball around. A better strategy would be for the quick guard to pressure the opposition’s ball handler while the other players retreat, giving the big guy time to lurk near the basket and shot-block.
The first sentence--that almost every team makes its opponents work for all 94 feet--is, of course, nonsense. But the rest of the paragraph makes perfect sense. The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it's surprising that more underdogs don't use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it's also true on the basketball court. The press isn't perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized. Isn't that strange?
The New York piece then goes on:
The most misleading part of Gladwell’s case concerns Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach who was famously defeated on a last-second play by Duke in the 1992 NCAA tournament when he decided not to guard Grant Hill, who was inbounding the ball (ignoring the inbounder is a key component of the press).
Hmmm. Small point. Ignoring the inbounder is not a key component of the press. It is a key component of someversions of the press. Pitino also uses a version of the press that does guard the inbounder. (Also Pitino is no longer the coach at Kentucky. He's now the Louisville coach.) The piece then objects to my attempt to "shoehorn Pitino's teams into the underdog category" because Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team "featured featured a staggering nine players who would go on to play in the NBA." A number of others have pointed this out, and I'm still somewhat baffled by the criticism.
Pitino has been a college head coach since 1978 at four schools--Boston University, Providence College, Kentucky and the University of Louisville. At BU, he took over a team that had won 17 games in the two years before his arrival. He went 91-51 in five years, and took the team to the NCAA. At Providence, he took over a team that had gone 11-20 the year before. Two years later, he won 25 games and went to the Final Four with what may have been one of the most spectacularly untalented teams to have ever reached that level. And at Louisville he took his team to their first final four in 19 years in 2005. The star of that squad? Francisco Garcia. Ever heard of him? Exactly. Not to mention this year's Louisville squad which reached the Elite Eight with really only one NBA caliber player. You can also make an argument (and Bill Simmons at ESPN does) that Pitino did an awful lot with a very little while at the Boston Celtics, briefly, in 1998. Pitino's Kentucky experience is an anomaly. And by the way the nine players who got drafted into the NBA off that anomalous 1996 Kentucky squad consisted of eight journeymen and one, marginal star--Antoine Walker. Pitino has had a fraction of the talent that his contemporaries at Kansas, Carolina, Duke or Connecticut have had.