Friday, May 8, 2009

How David Beats Goliath

Every once in a while I read a magazine article that really knocks the ball right out of the park (for what is about to follow, pardon the sports analogy). In this week’s New Yorker, there’s an article “How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules” by Malcolm Gladwell. You’d think that this might be a primer for terrorists wishing to take on the U.S., and perhaps in a way it is, but mostly it’s about girls’ basketball and T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian campaign.

I know several of you have coached basketball, including girl’s basketball, and some have coached other sports as well. For those who have coached and those secretly thinking about it, here are a few passages from the article on how to win when the other team has all the talent. I apologize for the length of this; but it was all so good, I couldn’t figure out where else to cut. It seemed to me that the author relied on a lot of what I would call “Harvey thinking.” Anyway, here’s the secret formula: how David beats Goliath.

When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams.

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

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.”

Ranadivé’s basketball team played in the National Junior Basketball seventh-and-eighth-grade division, representing Redwood City. The girls practiced at Paye’s Place, a gym in nearby San Carlos. Because Ranadivé had never played basketball, he recruited a series of experts to help him. The first was Roger Craig, the former all-pro running back for the San Francisco 49ers, who is also TIBCO’s director of business development. [TIBCO is a software company founded by Ranadivé.] As a football player, Craig was legendary for the off-season hill workouts he put himself through. Most of his N.F.L. teammates are now hobbling around golf courses. He has run seven marathons. After Craig signed on, he recruited his daughter Rometra, who played Division I basketball at Duke and U.S.C. Rometra was the kind of person you assigned to guard your opponent’s best player in order to shut her down. The girls loved Rometra. “She has always been like my big sister,” Anjali Ranadivé said. “It was so awesome to have her along.”

Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. “Think about football,” Ranadivé said. “The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass.” Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. “When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything,” Anjali said. “So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.”

The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.

“What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,” Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. “We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles.” A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. “They were awesome,” she said.

Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence [in his Arabian campaign] extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence [and] . . . courage.”

“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.” He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?”

The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, ATTITUDE!”

That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.

For the entire article, see How David Beats Goliath.

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