I’ve always had problems with fables. Like take, just for instance, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” A speed-merchant hare mocks a tortoise for clogging up the bases. So the tortoise challenges the hare to a race, which the hare naturally accepts. Then, just while he is totally cruising to a victory, the hare decides to take a nap. When he wakes up, he discovers that the tortoise, just pluggin’ along like a lil’ plugger, has passed him by and won the race. Moral of the story: Slow and steady wins the race.
Wait…what? Isn’t the moral something more like, “Don’t take a nap in the middle of a race?” The tortoise’s slow-and-steadiness doesn’t really seem like the salient bit of info in this little narrative. But that’s the thing about fables: they can be told in such a way as to impart any lesson the fabulist chooses, whether it’s the edifying virtues of perseverance or the importance of always leaving a note. And the more fantastically implausible the scenario, it seems, the less likely the audience is to notice that the conclusion is pretty much nonsense. It’s maybe worth noting here that fabulist also means liar.
I’ve always gotten a similar feeling reading Macolm Gladwell. To be sure, he’s a super-duper, glow-in-the-darkly talented writer, a keen observer gifted with sight-beyond-sight for small but important things. But, as with Aesop’s fables, Gladwell’s conclusions don’t always necessarily follow from the stories he tells.
Gladwell’s usual brilliance is on display in his recent New Yorker article, “How David Beat Goliath,” but so are his shortcomings to a more than typical degree. For starters, and this is just personally irksome and could be considered a corollary to my complaint about fables, and that is this: the story of David and Goliath didn’t happen. Or, at the very least, it’s unlikely that it happened, and it certainly didn’t happen exactly the way the Bible would have us believe. Chances are, Goliath was not over 9 feet tall, and there is some healthy contention amongst scholars regarding David’s real age when he slew the giant. That is, if David even did the deed. Some commentators surmise that the true story involves an obscure dude name Elhanan, and that his opponent was just some generic Philistine, and that as the story was transmitted through time, it took on tall-tale qualities and was ascribed to the more famous David. Still others contend that Elhanan was actually David, but using an assumed name. Even more still others think that the Philistines had nothing to do with the whole thing, and that somehow the ancient Greeks are mixed up in it. Point is, it’s a real convolved and messy story.
But Gladwell wants to use it as a concise and firm basis for his grand thesis, which is that underdogs win to a surprising degree when they adopt the assymetric tactics employed by David to defeat Goliath. In doing so, he wants to ground his theory in a larger historical perspective, and give his observations more heft by piggybacking them on the holy solemnity of the Bible. Maybe this criticism is a bit unfair; Gladwell, after all, ain’t suggesting that underdogs would do well to literally mimic David, just to draw inspiration from his victory.
But, tellingly, just as the story of David and Goliath isn’t literally, entirely true, neither is Gladwell’s story about the power of the full-court press to allow longshot teams to defeat superior opponents . First off, in describing iconoclastic basketball coach Vivek Ranadivé’s path towards implementing the press, Gladwell describes National Junior Basketball, in which he, Ranadivé, coaches, as “the Little League of basketball.” Then, describing the mostly 12-year old girls who comprised Ranadivé’s team, Gladwell writes:
Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and [Ranadivé's] own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening.
That may all be true, but couldn’t it also be true of the competition? Gladwell notes later in the article that some opposing coaches were rankled by Ranadivé’s tactics, feeling that he was being unfair to “twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game.” If this is true, then can we really consider the opponents to be the Goliaths in this analogy? Troublingly, Gladwell allows Ranadivé, whose players were “all blond-haired white girls,” to suggest another team was superior to his own because they were an “all-black team from East San Jose.” That aside, Gladwell never convincingly establishes Ranadivé’s team as the underdogs, or that it was their tactics that allowed them to overcome superior opponents, and not just that their opponents were inexperienced. Could a full-time, full-court press work in, say, the NBA, where the players are not just grasping the rudiment of the game? Does a tactic that works in Little League have any significance beyond the beginner-level? Perhaps, but it’s hard to make that leap without actually applying the theory under those conditions.
Next, and kinda really lazily, Gladwell says this about Rick Pitino, one of the few big-time coaches to really embrace the press the way Gladwell argues for:
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.
Say huh? Here is a quick list of solid NBA contributors who played for Pitino at Kentucky: Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope, and, yeah, Employee #8. Ok, sure, we’re not exactly talking the Dream Team here, but it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest, as Gladwell does, that Pitino is winning despite his personnel. Furthermore, except for Mashburn, all those players plus Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner, who each made an NBA roster for one season, were on the same 1996 team, which won Pitino’s sole championship. Yeah, they may have been “the greatest example of the press [Pitino] ever coached,” but it’s not like they were some ragtag band of hopelessly overmatched yet plucky dreamers–they entered the tournament ranked #1 in the country, and finished the year with a 34-2 record. Like “The Tortoise and the Hare,” Gladwell seems to be drawing the wrong conclusion–the secret to Pitino’s success, at least as it is described by Galdwell, isn’t so much due to the full-court press as McDonald’s All-Americans.
To lend his argument some sabremetric-style analysis, Galdwell turns to political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, who “recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants,” and found that Goliaths only won 71.5% the time. Gladwell feels that it is a “remarkable fact” that in conflicts where one side held a 10-to-1 advantage in armed might and population, the underdogs emerged victorious almost a third of the time. Maybe. But just citing the results of the study aren’t convincing enough. Like for instance how did Arreguín-Toft score conflicts like the Korean War and Vietnam, where not only were there no clear victors, but the U.S.’s apparent advantage was mitigated by aid from China and the Soviet Union? Or what about the mujahideen who used David-like insurgency tactics to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan, but learned those tactics from CIA operatives? And also what about those conflicts that didn’t happen because one side held such a huge advantage, the other side opted not to fight? Certainly those countries “lost” in the sense that the larger country was free to annex the disputed territory or whatever–are these included in the study? Would they lower the weaker combatants’ Pythagorean record?
Gladwell’s larger point isn’t really about basketball as such, it’s about how undermanned, overmatched, and outspent dark horses can thrive in a competitive environment, and in that sense his thesis is unassailable: if you can’t beat them at their own game, change the game. And like him, I’m curious about why there isn’t more strategic experimentation in athletics. Sports (at least its on-field aspect) is a zero-sum game–there can be only one champion (more or less). Still, over and over, a new season begins with most teams having no real chance at winning, yet continuing to employ the same exact strategies of the overwhelming favorites. Why not switch to a four-man rotation? Why not go for it every fourth down? Obviously, calcified conventional wisdom and institutional inertia are pretty tough to overcome, but every so often a team does something truly innovative and achieves a stunning success. Gladwell may have found another example, and I want to believe he did, because there are few things in sports, or life, as awesome as some Cinderella story out of nowhere, following the same rules as everyone else but playing a totally different game. I just don’t think he’s done enough to convince me he has.