Race and the Full Court Press.


Malcolm Gladwell has caught a lot of flak for his piece last week on how underdogs win, and perhaps rightly so. His central point, though — that the outgunned can have a fighting chance at success if they ditch convention and play to their strengths — is one worth considering, and given the resilience and tactics of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a topical one, too.
But in making his point, he goes to some weird places. The framing device for this story is a not-particularly-talented eighth grade girl’s basketball team at Redwood City in the Silicon Valley. There are only two decent players on the squad, and their coach is a TIBCO software executive named Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian emigré who had never seen or played basketball before he arrived in the States. The upshot of that background is that he didn’t have any preconceived notions about the right way to play basketball. So instead of having his players run back on defense after a score or an opponent’s rebound and wait to be picked apart by more skilled players, he instituted the full-court press. His team proceeded to beat up on and frustrate teams with better players, and found themselves in the national championship game. Obviously, the press can make up big gaps in talent.*
But one of the things that raised the eyebrow of my blogmate and fellow sports junkie blackink was the problematic way the Redwood City Girls were described, versus the way their ‘talented’ opponents were characterized.

“My girls were all blond-haired white girls,” Ranadivé said. “My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she’s half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn’t even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get.” Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. “Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn’t stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them.”

Let’s not touch the half-Indian bit right now. But the other part speaks to a very old, very insidious meme in the sports world, and basketball in particular: Black players are natively talented, and white players work hard and play smart. This is in no way a compliment to black folks, of course, what with its insinuation that black athletes are lazy, dumb, and possessed of some kind of peculiar physicality. But the idea is so much a part of the way sports are discussed in America that people will try to shoehorn reality into it.**
Gladwell didn’t utter those sentences, but he left the quote in, which has the regrettable effect of perpetuating this problematic racialized shorthand. Ranadivé’s quote also downplays his own girls’ considerable  advantages in terms of resources; their fitness consultant was Roger Craig — a former NFL Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers who still runs marathons. 

“It’s an exhausting strategy,” Roger Craig said. He and Ranadivé were in a TIBCO conference room, reminiscing about their dream season. Ranadivé was at the whiteboard, diagramming the intricacies of the Redwood City press. Craig was sitting at the table.

“My girls had to be more fit than the others,” Ranadivé said.

“He used to make them run,” Craig said, nodding approvingly.

“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.”

In short, these “little blonde white girls” may not have been better basketball players than their opponents, but they were better conditioned and fitter; they were, in the end, better athletes. But that narrative is a much harder sell.
*Within reason. It can be run effectively on the college level, but a deep team with good ballhandlers could easily beat it. It would be near impossible to employ full-time on the pro level; the NBA season is nearly three times as long as the college season, and even the tallest NBA players are competent enough dribblers and passers to break the press.
Gladwell uses Rick Pitino, the head coach at Lousiville to expand on his point about the press’s virtues. Pitino became a die-hard disciple of the press when he was a benchwarmer on a Dr. J-led UMass team that got their asses handed to them by a far less talented Fordham team using the press. Gladwell writes, somewhat disingenously, that Pitino won national championships on the college level with teams have didn’t boasted the kind of talent that goes on to become NBA stars.

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.

‘All-Star’ is the key phrase there. Not to put to fine a point on it, but even a marginal NBA player is a few orders of magnitude better than a very good college player. A  good college team might have one NBA prospect on it. A great college team might have two or three. What Gladwell conveniently left out is that Pitino’s 1996 Kentucky Wildcats team that won the national championship boasted an astounding nine players that went on to play in the NBA. They were absolutely loaded.

Wondering what it look like when a team full of future pros runs Pitino’s press? It ain’t pretty.
Underdogs, my ass. Gladwell knows his sports, so we can only assume that that elision was intentional. And his team was so laden with talent that it would have been dominant, press or no. 

**Scouting projections regularly compare white players to other white players , even when their games/physiques/builds are not that similar. And of course, for a very long time, black quarterbacks would be switched to other positions once they got to the pros, because they were so “athletic” and their “talents” would be better used at, say, wide receiver.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • quadmoniker

    Yeah, I cringed at that quote as well. It’s actually one of my problems with Gladwell. As always, an overall good point and a great read, but he makes some convenient exclusions to reach conveniently tidy conclusions that a disciplined social scientist never would. Sometimes, that’s the fault of the social scientists. Other times, it shows why Gladwell could use more discipline.

  • WestIndianArchie

    I mentioned this exact paragraph on OKP.

    1) I agree with his over all point
    2) The sports people will tell you that GENERALLY, full court press is for superior opponents to dominate weaker opponents. And the sports folks had a great time ripping apart Malc’s take on sports
    3) Gladwell is great at bringing up ideas, but he’s not the kind of person to carefully vet every fact, nor will he consider all of the counter arguments.

    But I only add to the debate here because I find that half Jamaican/Half Canadian Gladwell is like the New Yorker’s much cooler version of John McWhorter. I’m not saying everybody has to be on that Elijah Muhammad status like myself, but he has lots of racial gaffes, much like another biracial guy that I won’t mention.

    Ways to read the inclusion of the Indian guy’s quote
    – Gladwell buys into the “born with basketballs”
    – Gladwell wants to show how racist and classist this Indian guy is, one who can call up big times sports people for his team of privileged blonde girls.
    – Gladwell is just reporting the facts.

    Often I can’t tell where he’s coming from. His last chapter in outliers, where he talks about the colorism in Jamaica, and how not being dark allowed his mother/grandmother to make moves is well…it’s just hard to read.

  • Amen. I don’t have much more to add to the discussion about the quote from Ranadive other than it’s troubling to see people readily embrace the meme that black people are naturally superior athletes, even from the earliest ages. How would anyone have much of a clue as to the relative athleticism of 8-year-olds? If Ranadive assumes some girls were born with a basketball, what would he assume when faced with a classroom of 8-year-old black girls?

    But on the full-court press angle, Gladwell and ESPN’s Bill Simmons actually have a really interesting back-and-forth about how the application of a 94-floor defensive strategy might work in the NBA. Basically, it would require the deployment of one of the team’s better scorers surrounded by the 9th through 12th-best players on the team. And the coach would then use that unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters.

    This works, I suppose, because it would have the effect of briefly altering the pace of the game, possibly taking advantage of the opposing team’s weaker units (since the start of the second and fourth quarters is often when coaches turn to their bench), wearing down the opposing team’s best player and finding a use for every player on the roster.

    It actually makes sense, I think. But I might argue that you’d have to be a little more unpredictable with the substitution pattern. Otherwise, the opposing team would too easily know when to anticipate the press.

  • young_

    Thanks for posting, G.D.– I was pretty infuriated by the quotes when I read the piece last week and I’m glad to hear he’s been called out on it. The lengthy “born with a basketball girls” quote was the most offensive and I can’t see why Gladwell would have used it stylistically unless he bought into it himself. I agree with Archie’s take on his stuff about full court press piece strategy being extremely suspect too (I thought it was a given that full court presses are what more athletic teams do to emphasize their athletic advantages over their opponents, which sounds like it’s exactly what Pitino and the girls team did…)

    Also, kind of convenient that Gladwell doesn’t make any effort to confirm Randives’ descriptions of the refs and the other teams and their coaches, or at least give us something on their side of the story. I agree with Quadmonicker that this piece is representative of the general lack of rigor in Gladwell’s approach, a flaw for which he has rightly received harsh criticism from many academics.

    In his defense though, I’m glad he at least disclosed the Roger Craig information (albeit in such a strange way that made me wonder whether he even realized how extraordinary it is for a 12-years girl team to have an all-pro NFL fitness coordinator…) But at least he put that out there for discerning readers to dissect.

  • Aisha

    I have to read the whole article before I comment. I just read Outliers last week and what I read in this post seems to contradict the points he makes about opportunity.

  • Kia

    I generally like Gladwell but I’m also frustrated that this article essentially perpetuates the black vs white smart & hardworking vs talented & athletic dynamic.

    A while back Michael Lewis’ piece on Shane Battier made the point that what is commonly perceived as the right/white way to play basketball, diving for balls, taking charges, is a direct result of how and where you learn to play. Diving on parquet in a adult supervised youth league is a lot different from doing so on a concrete playground. And learned habits are hard to shake.

  • R.

    I remember Tony Delk was also a member of that Wildcat team. He might have not flourished in the NBA as Walker did but the dude was no pushover (All-American & NCAA Tourney MVP).

    I’m big fan of Gladwell’s writing but I found this to be a generally lazy piece (and it dragged on forever). His lack of thoroughness is normally the source of complaints and I can understand him not being an expert on the topics he covers but in this case, he seems to sidestep the point he made in his last book. Besides the fact that Ranadivé was utterly unfamiliar with the sport (and that he had Roger Craig as his fitness consultant) we really don’t know much about the skill of the girls his team, well, other than being “little blonde girls,” and even less of the other girls in the league. All we know is that his team had access to resources that would not be readily available to just any team (in any league). Who knows if these are the conditions one of those girls needs to move on to bigger and better things?

    Maybe he’s setting us up for his next piece: David the hard working Outlier and Goliath the mismanaged talent.

  • Lemmy C

    I have to wonder: if the story had been reversed – about a group of (largely non-white) kids from an inner city school whose chess team makes it to the national finals, would you have the same qualms about the racial aspects of the narrative? Or would those aspects get foregrounded?

  • t.o.a n

    Lemmy C:

    I am not sure I believe that Ranadivé’s students came into the game later in life. How does Ranadivé’s know that these girls on the opposing team had been playing for a really long time? How do we know that the other girls on Ranadivé’s team, besides his daughter, had not been playing for a really long time? If he knew nothing of basketball before this how was he able to so accurately attest to the experience of all the girls on his team and all the girls on the other team?

    Additionally, I don’t believe this story or the other story in Gladwell’s article about a game of battle ship strategy really have anything to do with underdogs because in these two examples if we take the definition of underdog to be one that is at a disadvantage in neither case was there a disadvantage. You could argue that based on the fact that in both cases there is a perception that both teams should lose based on having less experience (as stated above, I am not convinced that the girls on Ranadivé’s team were less experienced), however, in what ever way having less experience would have put them at a disadvantage the sheer volume of resources that was available to both teams (How many people have access to a super computer or former professional athletes in the sport that they are competing?) more than make up for that. A truer title for Gladwell’s article would be “New and Innovative thinking with the Backing of Resources Beats Following the Rules of Engagement”.

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  • David Cone

    Gladwell’s piece on the Redwood girls’ team was cute. I can almost see Dakota Fanning in the movie with Denzel as Roger Craig.

    Sorry, but that’s NO underdog team if Roger Craig’s the trainer.

    Second, Gladwell’s premise, while certainly enjoyable to a jaded sports fan who automatically thinks pro basketball players, as a whole, are lazy but ironically that same fan who would throw a beer on a basketball for “not hustling/giving the fan his money’s worth” couldn’t do all that running and jumping and hit rim on a free throw if his life depended on it. So all the bellyaching about the fundamentals or lack of hustle or lack of floorburns, etc. is a bit, well, typical for Gladwell and Bill Simmons, but I’d hope regular folks that live in the real world could understand that.

    Good points up above about the nature of the pick-up game of basketball played outdoors on the asphalt. The reason that some guys that grew up in that type of game don’t shoot jumpshots well is that 1) outdoor courts sometimes have something called WIND and it will affect your jumper, so drive the ball to the bucket for a closer shot, 2) the court conditions aren’t always perfect outdoors–the rim could be bent up, down or at an angle, and the shooting background isn’t always conducive. There ARE anamolies like Chris Mullin who honed his game INDOORS at a gym at his Catholic school and THEN took his game to the street. No indoor court, no millions of jumpshots in a more controlled environment. Great points about the “lack” of floor burns. I submit to you that candy-asses like Gladwell and Simmons aren’t stupid enough to dive for a loose ball on asphalt. And, guess what, folks? Battier trying to draw a charge or hip-checking a guy Wojo style on asphalt will most certainly either cause an injury or cause the Dukie to get his butt beat.

    I think Gladwell’s article smacks of a sick paternalism that some NBA fans have about the game of basketball. They expect an aesthetically perfect game with high shooting percentages by both teams AND defense clingier than Kim Kardashian’s thong on her derriere. Getting both of those things at the same time isn’t a Constitutionally protected right. So fans that act all indignant when a game’s not aesthetically pleasing act like a caricature of Celtics fans in “Celtic Pride.” And it’s not very cute.

    Also, I find it interesting that Gladwell advocates a helter-skelter style of press-and-run game. There’s a term that style of play is called when black players play that style or when a black coach coaches it. I won’t recount it here, but you’ve all heard it before. N-word ball. And it wasn’t meant back then in a nice way. But Rick Pitino “invents” it as Gladwell opines and it’s a revelation? Puh-lease. Pitino stole that style from guys named McLendon, Jobe, and Thompson. I recommend that Gladwell look THOSE men up before he opens his mouth about basketball ever, ever again. It would be like me discovering his living room and planting my flag there while he eats his dinner.