Malcolm Gladwell Is No Charles Barkley

I'm never quite sure what to make of Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of smart people seem to be favorably impressed by his writing and ideas, but whenever I actually read anything by him, there doesn't seem to be much there.

Take, for example, this New Yorker piece on basketball as a metaphor for innovation. As seems to be his general practice, Gladwell frames the whole thing around an engaging anecdote, about Vivek Ranadivé, a Silicon Valley businessman who coached his daughter's team of twelve-year-old girls in a National Junior Basketball competition:

Ranadivé looked at his girls. Morgan and Julia were serious basketball players. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his 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. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, "little blond girls" from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees. They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. Ranadivé knew that if they played the conventional way--if they let their opponents dribble the ball up the court without opposition--they would almost certainly lose to the girls for whom basketball was a passion. Ranadivé came to America as a seventeen-year-old, with fifty dollars in his pocket. He was not one to accept losing easily. His second principle, then, was that his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships. "It was really random," Anjali Ranadivé said. "I mean, my father had never played basketball before."

Gladwell spins this off into a whole big thing about David and Goliath stories, and how scrappy underdogs can only defeat larger powers by changing the rules, and forcing the opponent out of their comfort zone. This spans a wide range of topics, from sports to business to warfare, and the whole thing is very engagingly written and superficially convincing.

It kind of falls apart, though, if you think about the basketball thing too much. Gladwell isn't much of a basketball analyst, and the deep flaws in his description make me question the validity of the rest of his claims.

Gladwell writes in a manner that suggests he has never heard of this, how do you say, bass-ket-ball before, and it's a tough call as to whether this is "charmingly naive" or "unbelievably credulous." He goes on at some length about what a bold innovation up-tempo basketball is, and how it completely changes the game in favor of the scrappy underdog.

This whole line of argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that there are several decades' worth of examples of people using pressure defense successfully in basketball. OK, he does make a nod to the history of the game by talking with Rick Pitino, but contrary to what you might take away from talking with Rick Pitino, pressure defense in basketball does not begin and end with Rick Pitino. Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, Billy Tubbs Paul Westhead, and others had success with pressing teams well before Pitino's success at Kentucky.

And, in fact, Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team is a terrible example of the point Gladwell is ostensibly making. Yes, they were a pressing team, but they were hardly scrappy underdogs-- nine of the players on the 1995-6 Wildcats went on to play in the NBA. This is not some scrappy group of nobodies who took it to the big boys with their unorthodox style of play. Quite the contrary, in fact-- that Kentucky team was loaded with top-flight basketball talent.

If you want to find real examples of people using the pressing style to overcome opponents with superior talent, you won't find many at the championship level. In fact, you're more likely to find stacked teams losing in spite of playing an up-tempo game than you are to find real teams of scrappy underdogs using the press to beat better competition. Arkansas and UNLV won titles in the early 90's with a pressure game, but more or less the same UNLV squad lost to Duke in a classic game in the '91 Final Four, and Billy Tubbs's Oklahoma team lost to a Kansas team that fits the "scrappy underdog" mold a lot better-- they had Danny Manning and not much else.

There's a reason for this: the press works, as long as the other team isn't ready for it. The idea of a full-court press is to force the opponent into a rushed and frenetic game and get them out of their routine. A team that's ready for it, though, and has skilled and disciplined players, won't get rattled by the press, and can pick the press apart for lots of easy baskets. You can use the full-court press to rattle a superior team that isn't expecting it, but if they know it's coming, there are a lot of ways that pressure defense can fall apart-- missed traps in the back court lead to two- or three-on-one breaks, over-aggressive defense leads to fouls, etc.. The teams that have won titles using pressure basketball have also had lots of talent, because you need something to fall back on if the press doesn't work.

And that's just one of the things that bug me about the article. There's also the way he slides right past some creepy racial subtext in the story about the "little blond girls" from Silicon Valley. Or the way he brushes off the criticism that playing "40 Minutes of Hell" is kind of a dick move in a league of twelve-year-old girls. Or the way he makes several disparaging remarks about George Washington's abandoning guerilla tactics in the Revolutionary War, conveniently ignoring the fact that Washington won the war by defeating the British in straight-up battles. (Having been born onto the losing side of that one, he can perhaps be forgiven that lapse...)

This is pretty much my experience of Gladwell in a nutshell. On first pass, it all sounds very plausible. On a second look, it's far more glib than convincing. His examples all sound great, but whenever he dips into an area I know something about, his articles seem to have more flaws than arguments.

Is there a valid point to be taken away from all this? Maybe. Whatever it is, though, it doesn't involve basketball.

(I was pointed to the Gladwell article by Michael Nielsen on FriendFeed.)

More like this

Your first paragraph basically covers my ideas on Malcolm. Interestingly, whenever he talks about something I know a little about (different from your area) I find the same 'issues'.

So that's two of us in different fields feeling the same way about his 'facts'.


I feel the same way about Gladwell--some style, little substance. Often, especially when he talks about education or literacy (my specialities), I get extremely frustrated at his ability to generalize to a pre-determined conclusion.

My impression of Gladwell is that he is a professional dabbler. He has interesting ideas, and he's good at explaining and expressing them, but his knowledge is much more broad than deep. To someone who knows nothing about basketball (i.e. me), the metaphor is interesting and informative, and the fact that the basketball side of it isn't entirely accurate may not be important. To someone who does, it's probably more irritating than anything else.

The other problem with Gladwell is, I don't know whether he jumps on ideas slightly late or whether other people jump on his ideas right away, but it seems like whenever I read something he's written I feel like I've read most of it somewhere else before.

Your second to last paragraph basically sums up my views on the guy: He sounds more convincing the less you know about the field under discussion. This has led me to believe that he's a charlatan and professional bullshitter, and I cannot understand otherwise intelligent people's fascination with him.

How many of "his girls" could walk without prosthetics or surgery after "their" victory? A resource kept in inventory is a liability. Have it, use it, consume it, write it off against gains. Do lunch.

Management is about process not product. Insert any goal into the professional managerial matrix and Officially realize success. Detroit, Health and Human Services, FEMA, Department of Education; the USSR, the United Nations... and tranched mortgage securities.

George Washington's troops had long rifles against British muskets. Britain was slow to appreciate the difference. Its ranks marched shoulder-to-shoulder uphill through barbed wire against German machine guns in the Battle of the Somme. The US in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan hardly denting local reproduction while its own government frantically suppressed birth control and abortion at home. Management is rewarded for enforcing rules whether they are pertinent in context or make any sense at all (e.g., HUD, Head Start; "the right way, the wrong way, the Army way").

Gladwell annoys me. I keep hearing how great he's supposed to be, so I've tried reading his stuff. I've yet to find any of his arguments convincing - they all seem to be tangentially related anecdotes with any details inconvenient to his simplistic conclusion removed.

I generally like writing that turns conventional wisdom on its head, but only when it seems true and convincing. Gladwell definitely fails.

Is there a valid point to be taken away from all this? Maybe. Whatever it is, though, it doesn't involve basketball.

The valid point is what Lethe said, "He sounds more convincing the less you know about the field under discussion." This is generally true for all fields: physics, tech, sports, you name it. The trick is finding the very very small number of journalists and commentators who actually do know what they're talking about, and follow them exclusively, filtering out the rest.

Note: it's not surprising that the number of journalists worth paying attention to is very very small. A) Each of these fields is complicated. B) most practitioners aren't qualified to comment intelligently about their field either.

An earlier comment touched on my entire problem with Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk ("the fact that the basketball side of it isn't entirely accurate may not be important"). The universe is vast, with many compelling examples. If someone can't find at least one really apt comparison to illustrate a supposedly general overarching principle, it might say something about how much that principle really overarches.

If he'd chosen the princeton offense, would that have worked better? That's the classic "cerebral disciplined team confounds/frustrates a more athletic team" story. I think the overarching theme is roughly correct (if obvious).

By Brian Ledford (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

The princeton offense is perfect for teams with little skill or athleticism. But unless you're a believer, it's slow and boring. Herb Sendek used it at NC State, and it helped keep that school competitive in a very fast league. And Chad's right about beating the press; just look at how Carolina handled it all season long this year.

By astroheel (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

Just read that article via a VT fan website. Experienced coaches will tell you that a press works to win big against teams you are close in talent to, but you will also lose big against good teams. The evidence in the article is about a 12 year old girls team, those girls are just not physically and emotionally ready for a well-designed and implemented press. It's impact is exponentially greater than what a press can do even just two years later. Chad's right, poor choice of evidence.

Yet, I enjoy and likely agree with the premise that underdogs must find ways to change the general parameters of a contest in order to increase their chances at success. i have no proof or line of reasoning for it though, just intuition...not the best proof to bring to a physics blog...I know.

The problem with Gladwell isn't just that he knows nothing about basketball. It's that, once the basketball metaphor has fallen apart, I'm not so sure any of his other examples work, either. He cites George Washington and a Vietnamese general as examples of insurgents who started out bucking the rules, then switched to more conventional tactics and suffered a bunch of setbacks, which is fine as far as it goes, but neglects to mention that both of them eventually won the wars in question.

The Colonial army didn't start off being able to go toe-to-toe with the British, but once they got going, they figured it out, and won critical victories in relatively conventional fights, including a big one just up the road from me in Saratoga. They eventually forced Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown, in a very conventional battle. The Vietnamese army took some initial losses against the French, but eventually beat them at Dien Bien Phu. For an encore, they held their own against the US, then removed the Khmer Rouge and fought back the Chinese.

Now, you can argue about whether they would've done better by sticking to guerilla tactics for longer, but the fact is that after an initial period in which they "changed the rules," they abandoned those tactics. And they still won, beating the big boys at their own game. The failure to even mention those facts strikes me as a rather significant gap in Gladwell's argument.

Our youth basketball league outlaws the full-court press because it defeats the purpose of youth basketball to have it going. At the kid level, it actually allows one or two "better" athletes to dominate the game and demoralize the kids who are still learning things like dribbling and passing.

I think Gladwell addresses the primary criticism here. I thought he made it clear that the strategy wouldn't have worked if the opposing teams properly prepared for it or adopted it themselves. His point is that the opposing teams didn't prepare for the press, they just complained about it -- and that if you're an underdog, your opponent's belief that you should play a particular way even though the rules don't compel you to is something you can take advantage of. The example of the naval simulation game in the article is an even better example of this, I think.

And on a different subject, I think "dick" is the exact opposite of the word I would use to describe a coach who never yells at his players -- nevermind what tactics he adopts.

The pile-on seems to be a little vehement and overall misplaced.

There's a reason for this: the press works, as long as the other team isn't ready for it.

You've just restated the essence of Gladwell's point. After all, if Goliath knew that slingstones were coming he would have just put his helmet on, yeah? And presto. . squashed David. He refers to David running out precipitously from the battle line to explicitly point out the fact that he's moving before Goliath is ready.

Or the way he brushes off the criticism that playing "40 Minutes of Hell" is kind of a dick move in a league of twelve-year-old girls.

No, he doesn't. He refers to the opposing coaches storming out and getting frustrated, etc, etc. It's just tangential to his point. He isn't writing an article about how to be a nice girls' basketball coach. He's writing an article about how underdogs win. And it turns out that underdogs often have to be dicks to win (he refers to this specifically multiple times. . about how the underdogs often must ignore rules about what is considered acceptable behavior. . i.e. not being a dick).

So in short, you basically restated Gladwell's points as your own and then accused him of being a fraud.


conveniently ignoring the fact that Washington won the war by defeating the British in straight-up battles

What? 'by' doesn't mean you're using it for here. The reason that the British lost a war against an entire population in an area 5 times its own size with no capital across 3,000 miles of ocean is not that Washington beat them in 'straight-up battles'.

The "dick move" comment relates to the fact that just because an unorthodox strategy is effective doesn't mean it's appropriate. To give an extreme example, if I were running a donut shop, I could increase my share of the donut business by doping the icing of my donuts with a highly addictive chemical. This would certainly be an unexpected and unorthodox method of marketing baked goods-- changing the game, as it were-- but I hope you'll agree that this would be rightly regarded as reprehensible and inappropriate conduct.

In the basketball example, I think that Gladwell-- and some of the commenters here-- brush off the complaints of opposing coaches and parents as sour grapes from people who lacked the innovative mindset of the star of the article. I suspect, however, that at least some of them were upset because they had a perfectly reasonable expectation that a basketball program for twelve-year-old girls was going to involve a little more learning of the game, and a little less win-at-all-costs cuttthroat competition. That is, while the pressing tactics employed were successful, they were not appropriate to the context.

There's a nice bit of unintentional irony in the fact that the comments made by the genius coach after their loss are every bit as whiny and unsportsmanlike as the behavior attributed to his opponents in their losses. It's just that, being the hero of his own story, he doesn't describe them that way.

MRW - thanks for linking to that Weekly Standard review. I'll hang on to it for the next time I need an example of a reviewer failing to distinguish between "necessary" and "sufficient."

And to continue the pile-on on the coach, it seems pretty clear from reading the article that he didn't yell because he didn't deem it effective. One could infer that if he did think yelling would be effective, he'd morph into Bobby Knight! After all, he doesn't like to lose. Even at 12-yr-old basketball.

"kind of a dick move"

Nonsense. The full court press not only produces exciting basketball, but emphasizes basketball fundamentals. Executing the press requires precise teamwork and so does beating it. You need to move without the ball and make good passes. Either way, a lot of exciting transition baskets ensue.

Far too much youth basketball consists of one good player doing most of the ball handling and shooting while the other members of her/his team are just decoys. The press strikes directly at this - it is very hard to beat it without everybody getting involved in passing and moving. Kids who play the press will learn a lot more basketball and get better conditioned. So will those who learn to play against it.

He's a really good writer, though, and he makes people think, if only to take his arguments apart. I can't hate him for being compelling, even if his arguments are simple and sometimes wrong.

The military stuff is old hat too. Attacking your opponent's weak spots is a great idea. Unless your opponent is not totally stupid, in which case they will fall back, let you charge in all willy-nilly, then cut off your supply lines and surround you. Oops!

"...conveniently ignoring the fact that Washington won the war by defeating the British in straight-up battles."

His point on Washington isn't too far off. Washington himself lost more battles than he won in the war. And one of his few victories was a sneak attack: crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians. At Yorktown, the underdog comparison doesn't apply. He joined forces with the French and had 16,000 troops, double the size of the British army.

A lot of people keep saying Gladwell is totally unfamiliar with bastketball... FYI, Gladwell is actually an NBA fan. Enough so that he apparently *wrote the foreword* for Bill Simmons' NBA book. Simmons is "Sports Guy" - a writer (and basketball fanatic) on for Simmons also interviewed Gladwell quite a while back and IIRC, was fairly surprised/impressed with his basketball knowledge.

"This is pretty much my experience of Gladwell in a nutshell. On first pass, it all sounds very plausible. On a second look, it's far more glib than convincing. His examples all sound great, but whenever he dips into an area I know something about, his articles seem to have more flaws than arguments."

I mostly agree. Gladwell sometimes shows what I consider the "debate team" mentality of downplaying/ignoring inconvenient facts that don't help or hurt his main points. This is annoying, but I suspect he would argue that he's not trying to "prove" anything in his articles - his aim is bring up and discuss ideas that "break with conventional wisdom". The anecdotes are there to provide an interesting framework (rather than a totally apt one) to explore his premises. Part of the problem, then, is that there's not much there besides the anecdotes. But for me at least, the saving value is that the anecdotes in his books/articles are pretty interesting and sometimes bring up studies and things worth reading about, even if his conclusions about them are flawed.

As a guy who covered an awful lot of high school and youth sports, I would say the big issue is not that the press works, or worked for Ranadive, but that it is not at all innovative. Every team of 12-year-old girls wins because they press. Period. It's not because it's a surprise either, all the good teams press because there are only a handful of 12 year old girls who have any chance of breaking the press with any consistency. You meet them at nationals where you're back to skill and teamwork.

When both teams press, the team with more talent (which includes teamwork and understanding the game) wins. And good teams comprised of 12-year-old girls always press. Always.

Gladwell's metaphor misses the point because he starts with a false assumption.

By Ed Sanders (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

BTW, I see that "Todd" (post 11) basically made the same point I was making earlier in the thread and I'll sort of give half a nod to his point about it's effectiveness later. If you're better than the opponent, the press basically ends any chance they have right up through high school if you're any good at it. The talent pool at that level just isn't deep enough, in most cases, to break the press effectively either.

Later on though, Division 1 college and certainly the NBA, the talent is just too good to make the press anything more than one part of a larger defensive plan. If an NBA team tried to defend the entire court all the time, they would get crushed.

By Ed Sanders (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

Ed, I don't believe Gladwell is saying a press in and of itself is innovative. It is that using it in the NBA would be an innovative tool for teams who are height-limited and lack the typical qualities that make for great basketball teams.

The idea is that many innovations are rather simple iterations of what already exists, but one's ability to apply them successfully to another medium are what make them innovative. Like how it's discussed that a beef patty with two buns isn't innovative, but putting them together and calling it a Big Mac suddenly is.