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Sam Pratt

As someone who has actually beaten a few Goliaths (such as the world's largest cement company, which spent $60 million on a failed campaign in a small rural town) on repeat occasions, I must say was underwhelmed by this piece. The lessons readers may glean from the article may even be counter-productive.

Most underdogs imagine that they are going to hit upon some novel scheme or lucky break to beat Goliath, such as finding a Native American burial ground on the site of a proposed Wal-Mart, or some other long-shot "eureka!" strategy. The mostly random hunt for a silver bullet often becomes a substitute for real work.

The truth is more prosaic (and I don't consider examples from either sports or 19th Century warfare terribly germane to modern day David-v.-Goliath strategies, though they make for fun reading). Winning against the odds requires a ton of patient, steady, tenacious and utterly prosaic work.

Underdogs need first of all to survive the initial onslaught from Goliath, then to drag out the fight long enough to build up the capacity to enact a winning strategy. The longer one is able to harass and delay the outsized opponent (growing your strength and agility all the while), the greater the chance that one can either win conventionally, exhaust the adversary into withdrawing, or in some very rare situations, discover some "novel" way of winning.

But the novel solutions rarely come readily to hand, unless you first pass the endurance test and do the slow, boring work of reversing the asymmetries with your opponent. As Ben Hogan put it (I'm paraphrasing here): "I've had a lot of luck in my career. But the more I practice, the more lucky I seem to get."

One of these David v. Goliath battles in chronicled in the PBS/Independent Lens documentary, "Two Square Miles." http://www.twosquaremiles.com

Best,

--S.P.

Daniel Smith

"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."

Having lots of pro prospects is not a prerequisite to success at the college level.

And you may not have heard of Francisco Garcia, but I (and anyone else who watched college basketball closely at that time) knew his game very well. The guy averaged 16 points a game and was deadly in the clutch.

Pitino has bucked the odds with less-talented teams in the past--at Providence and his first year at sanctions-torn Kentucky--but maybe that has something to do with the fact that he's a great basketball coach, not necessarily the inherent superiority of the full-court press.

Chris Heine

Your example of a youth basketball team to bolster the David v. Goliath argument misses an important point. The reason the press works at the lowest level is due to the relative lack of skill of the participants. My age 10-13 basketball team won every game but 1 over 2 seasons employing the full-court press. My memory of this experience is that our opponents succumbed to the mental pressure of full court defense and didn't have the basketball skills to deal with a trap. There are strategies you can employee across youth sports that don't translate to the professional level. For example, little league pitchers have trouble throwing strikes. So, if you want to win more games you have your batters take a lot of pitches. Great strategy but kind of lame sportsmanship. (My successful little league baseball coach would most likely disagree). Most importantly it doesn't translate to the professional level. NBA teams exploit trapping defenses because once you've beaten your man you have created a break and pro players can do this efficiently. In MLB, pro pitchers throw strikes.

Chris Heine

I completely agree with what Pete wrote a few posts up. I responded with a similar observation but apparently in the wrong thread (sorry Malcom :)). My point was that strategies like the press work well at the youth level because of the relative lack of skill and strength of kids. Another example of this is that little league pitchers have trouble throwing strikes so an opposing coach can exploit this by having his hitters take a lot of pitches. It's a winning strategy but bad sportsmanship. Most importantly these strategies don't work at the professional level because the players are proficient enough to break presses and throw strikes.

Konrad

Three things I love:

1. The New Yorker
2. Basketball
3. Your Work

Thank you for bringing these things together in your David vs. Goliath piece. Please keep up the good work, as it is much appreciated!

David Ray Carson

Short version: It's about will, and ignoring judgment.

Long version: Reminds me of how the North Vietnamese beat the USA, and a Col. Kurtz quote out of Apocalypse Now:

"Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. [...] We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. [...] We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."

Tnic

do you erase all comments that are critical? I didnt consider mine to be slander, and as I said, I admire your thinking and writing tremendously.

curious.

Tnic

please erase my above comment (and this one), I didnt see that my original posting had not been erased. apologies.

Hankthetank

These girls are David? How, exactly, does this a team with a tech millionaire head coach who has the resources to call upon a former pro football player and a D-1 woman's basketball player as assistant coaches constitute underdogs? Sounds like Goliath to me.
Are they underdogs because they are white and blond and don't have any black girls? And why is that so, because white blonds girls are stupid and unathletic? Because blacks are better at basketball?

Orval Eugene

What are a wonderful article you wrote recently in the New Yorker and what a great follow up to the truly "successful ideas" you illuminate in Outliers.

BUT I think you were taking advice on basketball from one of the Goliaths in Rick Pitino. I love him as a coach and very much see how it tied into the story of the UMASS game....

HOWEVER, the true "insurgent" / outsider / guerilla / full court press team of the nineties was the Arkansas Razorbacks. The teams Nolan Richardson coached in the late 80's and early 90's were the true modern pioneers of the full court press "40 minutes of hell" mentality. Pitino still plays and has always played a quasi version of up tempo basketball but when he was at Kentucky (the ultimate Goliath) I can tell you he often had so much talent that he would fall back into the ways of conventional warfare. Not to mention, I think he fibbed a little if he said the only player to have NBA success under his tenure at Kentucky was Antoine Walker. Off the top of my head (and a little Google help) here is a list of Kentucky players who went on to NBA success while Pitino was there: Jamal Mashburn (All-Star), Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Tony Delk, Mark Pope and Derek Anderson.

The Razorbacks on the other hand, literally had players that very rarely made it to the NBA, but were all heart and effort on a college basketball court. They were the team that had very little tradition of basketball success before Nolan Richardson and it was Richardson, being one of the first big time black coaches (along with John Thompson), who had the true outsider mentality and broke all the rules of traditional college basketball. Unfortunately, he may have been a little too unconventional for the aging Athletic Director Frank Broyles who held a death grip on the powers that be at the University of Arkansas and eventually forced Nolan out only a few years after winning the National Championship. The legacy lives on, however, as his long time assistant Mike Anderson, head coach at Missouri, had a story book season this year taking a rag tag team to the Elite 8 when in pre-season they were only picked to finish middle of the pack in the Big 12. Anderson received several National Coach of the Year awards.

Being a life long fan of the Razorbacks, I cannot tell you how much I could relate to Mr. Ranadive's frustrations in the Orange County game where the refs intentionally tried to emasculate his innovative style of play. Many a time as a child, I watched helplessly as referees called foul after foul on my Razorbacks motivated only by contempt for Arkansas's insurgent and unconventional style of play. "Who do these newcomers think they are?" I could always see those words written on the faces of opposing fans, coaches and referees. The Final Four against Duke in 1990 definitely comes to mind as does many regular season games at the all-time SEC Goliath the Kentucky Wildcats. This "style" of play can even be traced back to Texas Western and Coach Don Haskins. In 1966, Haskins took an almost all black team to the National Championship and won and sure enough they won by playing a full court press against the traditional powerhouse... none other than the University of Kentucky. (this where I think your article should have started instead of Digger Phelps one foray into full court basketball at Amherst)

Nolan Richardson played for Haskins at Texas Western (now UTEP) and took his tenacious philosophy with him. He took with him to Western Texas Junior College, where he won the Junior College National Championship. He took it with him to the University of Tulsa, where he won the NIT and then on to Arkansas where he went on to three Final Fours, a National Championship and a National Runner Up. A record, I would argue would have been even better if not for some highly unfavorable refereeing :) And a body work sadly interrupted by (and I hate to say it) a racist Athletic Director, who could not never quite comfortable with pace of the changing world.

I love your work, please keep on writing and inspiring me.

john

BY the way the points you and Billy Simmons made about using the back end of the NBA bench to form a good full court pressing unit were absolutely brilliant. Its a shame more imaginative coaches and GMs don't make it or have the patience to stay in the NBA... I suspect the same reasons you two found for its non occurrence: too much money and too little incentive for bad teams per the current set up of the NBA lottery

JF

I love the writing of Gladwell but a lot of the things written about Pitino are just patently false. The notion that Pitino has gotten a fraction of the talent of UCONN, for example, is just not true.

Since 1986, Jim Calhoun has coached 21 NBA players at UCONN. That's 25 years and just under 1 NBA player per year. (0.84 to be exact)

Rick Pitino coached Kentucky for 8 years and has now coached Louisville for 8 years. In those 16 total years, he has coached 14 NBA players. Also just under 1 per year on average (0.875 to be exact).

To say Pitino gets a fraction of the talent of UCONN is factually incorrect.

I think it makes even more sense to look at who Pitino is recruiting. Is he recruiting HS stars? Yes. He consistently has excellent recruiting classes.

Here is a very curious point from Gladwell's chat with Simmons.

"“The other, related question is whether you can ever truly run the press with elite players. ... Realistically, could you convince a couple of McDonald's All-Americans, who have been coddled and indulged their whole lives, to play that way today? When we were talking, Pitino called over Samardo Samuels, who is, of course, Jamaican — his point being that this was his ideal kind of player, someone who substituted for a lack of experience with a lot of hunger. There is something weird, isn't there — and also strangely beautiful — about a coach who deliberately seeks out players who aren't the most talented?”

This really doesn't make sense considering Samardo Samuels actually was a McDonald's All-American himself!?!?!

Pitino is getting almost entirely 4 and 5 star high school recruits and as someone else noted this year's team as way more than 1 NBA caliber player.

And when you look at the '96 team that has been discussed, so what if most of the 9 NBA players were journeymen? They still were easily the most talented team that year and it wasn't close at all. In the Final Four that year UK beat Syracuse and UMASS (each of whom had a total of 1 player than went on to play in the NBA). The aforementioned UCONN was a 1 seed in that tournament and they had just 2 future NBA players on their roster.

Bottom line - Pitino gets plenty of talent, saying otherwise is not true.

Jennifer

Thought you might like this fun quiz.

http://www.humanitarianiq.com/

Will

Malcolm...I'm a big fan of your books, and your blog keeps me afloat while at work. But I do have a bone to pick with you. In your recent pieces on basketball (both here as well as on ESPN) you keep eluding to PC in a rather unfavorable way. Us friar fans are painfully aware that we're a second tier team (at best), and kindly ask you not rub our faces in that fact.

I kid of course. I appreciate your insight and truly enjoy reading your work.

Chris

For a science writer, it is surprising that Gladwell's column seems to lack sharpness in the area of statistical inference.

Curious that a fellow who pens a bestseller called "Outliers" argues from a position disregarding basic principles of variance.

So Fordham once randomly won a game with the press? Villanova once randomly won a championship by making almost all their shots in the second half. Will Malcolm's next article advocate all hoops teams emulate those miracle '85 Wildcats?

For the statistically minded, the best argument against the press in this thread is the weaker team slowing the game to limit the total number of possessions. Limiting the total number of possessions increases the variability of the outcome - which increases the likelihood of an "Outlier" result (the underdog winning).

Chris

One other odd thing about the article/email exchange: Gladwell insinuates that Pitino winning with "press+inferior talent" is partly explained by the unwillingness of McDonald's All-Americans to put forth the effort necessary to fit into Pitino's demanding system.

However, in Outliers, Gladwell explains the 10,000 hour rule, which states that greatness is entirely attributable to outsized effort. Effort matters much more than native talent.

If McDonald's All-Americans are the greatest basketball players, but they are apparently averse to exceptionally hard work, how on earth did they ever become the best?

Chris

Above all else, there's this:

I liked Outliers. I particularly liked the argument that a person can achieve greatness with the proper context and with the proper effort. Effort and context matter a lot more than your genes, social upbringing, or even whether the Hamburglar and Ronald McDonald anoint you great in an annual promotional tool.

Rick Pitino is a head coach at a topflight school in the nation's best conference. It is therefore facie absurd for Gladwell to argue that Pitino gets "a fraction of the talent of his peers". (Someone notify the hyperbole police!)

Even if Pitino doesn't land Grimace's most favored high school seniors, Pitino would at worst land players in the next tier. Subsequently, Pitino's rigorous training program would seem like EXACTLY the type of context that develops greatness, that is, if you take Outliers seriously.

Instead, in the New Yorker, Pitino turns out to be the coach of a bunch of no-skill, overmatched underdogs who can't compete but for the use of gimmicks.

Thing about Gladwell is, he writes in a very entertaining manner, but if you try to think too long about what he argues, you'll often find yourself with a severe headache.

Chris

I apologize that my recent posts were not very nice in spots. One other thought on this topic:

Seems like its important to distinguish between tactics an underdog uses to level the playing field and strategies inferior competitors can use to improve themselves and become more competitive.

Consider the Kentucky Derby. Jockey Calvin Borel allowed Mine that Bird to trail the field, then he bolted up the rail to victory. This seems like an insurgent tactic. Mine that Bird was a legitimate underdog; Borel's strategy could have failed for many reasons, and the tactic didn't really make Mine that Bird any better a horse relative to the other horses in that field.

When one talks of the press as a trademark tactic in NCAA hoops, many folks think of Nolan Richardson's 1994 champion Arkansas Razorbacks and their "40 minutes of hell". That team was surely the best in the country that year - not to mention the champions - even though only two players (Williamson and Beck) had (mostly undistinguished) NBA careers.

Was "40 minutes of hell" 'insurgent' for the Razorbacks? Or was it an essential element of what made them the best team in the country? I'd argue the latter, which would distinguish that team's success from more insurgent-like strategies such as Borel's at the Derby.

In conclusion, if David spends thousands of hours honing his skills with the slingshot, such that he can kill an opponent much more reliably than any other slingshotter, he might well not be an underdog anymore - those early bookies might well have ended up putting their money on David based on his slingshotting accomplishments.

Drellberg

Mr. Gladwell and Ivan Arreguín-Toft both apear to be unfamiliar with the Klein-Priest 50% "rule." A seminal work (1984) in the legal literature, it says that cases that reach trial [read: come to all-out war] have a strong a priori tendency to be decided 50% for the plaintiff and 50% for defendants, irrespective of which side is David and which is Goliath. The argument is just a bit too detailed to relay here, but the idea is that pre-trial institutions and negotiations weed out exceptionally strong and exceptionally weak cases. As a simple empirical matter, cases that come to trial [or go to all-out war] aren't at all likely to be decided disproportionately in favor of the "stronger" player. None of what Gladwell or the political scientist describe is especially surprising in light of this Klein-Priest rule. Even the basketball stuff is overblown ... There are all sorts of selection biases that serve to level the playing field of competing sports teams.

Drellberg

Some other problems, specifically related to the press, that undermine the Gladwell argument.

First, Teams like Grinnell that run the press consistently end up dog tired by season's end, precisely when they want to be peaking. Second, winning the press requires an element of surprise, which works perhaps consistently in 12-year old girls basketball and perhaps early season in college. Practice it consistently and teams will prepare for it.

Amy Showalter

It's great to see you bringing your intellectual firepower to this topic, Malcolm!

I agree that the underdogs have to use unconventional tactics.

In fact, research I have conducted for my upcoming book on influencing "up" the food chain (the book focuses on interpersonal influence) shows that successful underdog influencers use counter-intuitive tactics to gain agreement, like being nice to their adversary, building a relationship, and leaving lots of things unsaid.

We all are underdogs at one time or another, so thanks for starting a dialogue going on this topic.

Chris

In the 25 years since Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, about a dozen or so consensus first-team All-Americans have led their team to the title.

You can see their names at Wikipedia; suffice it to say that included are players like Emeka Okefor (Connecticut, '04), Christian Laettner (Duke '92), and Tony Delk (Kentucky (Pitino) '96).

These are guys who, like Francisco Garcia, Malcolm might rightly say "who?" regarding their NBA careers. None will make the Hall of Fame. Few will ever be All-Stars. Except for Rip Hamilton (Connecticut '99), Danny Manning (Kansas '88) and Laettner, most are guys about whom the casual fan knows next to nothing.

Not sure that NBA superstardom is the best criteria by which to judge college talent.

John

Hello!!!

I've read you article and discuss and the whole story reminds the cheeky monkey theory. Where there is an alpha male that leads the pack and everybody has to play with his rules but from time to time comes a monkey that challenges not to take the leadership but to take a female a procreate.

I believe your article reflects the nature of interactions between the strong and the weak, where the last one have to come with creative strategies to achieve his goal.

Good Piece Malcolm!!!
John from Colombia.

dixza

I've read you article on the NY times, I found it insightful and got the message in a phrase it is expect the unexpected without prejudice!, I really liked the stories and I would love the see you in real life in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on the 24th of June, would you help me with the tickets? Money is not a manifestation right now and I could easily sneak in but I don't want to bear the Karma consequences so I rather ask, I'm sure you have no problem with that, email me and see you there :)

Jason Laughlin

I agree the talent level of NBA players makes the press a losing proposition on the whole. However, it is clear that to employ a solid press with the right players could give you huge advantages in individual games. No one in the NBA prepares for it. And we've all seen how rapid changes of pace or intensity can swing a game one way or the other. In situations like the playoffs when match-ups matter and one game matters, a press would be an ideal strategy to have at your disposal.

At the college level, I think one of the more important things being left out of the equation is mentioned by Gladwell and Pitino: How hard a coach works and how prepared a coach is matters as much as the players.

Malcolm mentions that the practices at Louisville are so tightly run the longest the players are at rest is 7 seconds! 7 Seconds! Are you kidding me. That's insane. To be able to coach these kids and to have everything running almost literally to the second shows a ridiculous amount of effort by a coaching staff. No one else can or is willing to do it.

Though Malcolm shouldn't kid himself about the talent Pitino has had. A team of Antoine Walker, Jamal Mashburn (incredibly underrated NBA player), Tony Delk (perhaps the greatest shooter without a neck ever), Francisco Garcia, McCarty, Mercer and throw in Scott Padget for the token white guy would be a pretty good team.

Also Earl Clark and Terrance Williams will be chosen in the first round of this albeit weak draft.

Mary

I loved the Underdogs piece. I'm hoping it might be part of your next book. Is it?

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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