Gladwell's generalizations

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent David and Goliath essay at the New Yorker has created the kind of buzz that Gladwell’s articles usually do — but this time, unusually, from a lot of basketball fans. Gladwell’s thesis, or the basketball portion thereof, goes like this: Based on watching a girl’s basketball team and teams coached by Rick Pitino, all of which make heavy use of the full-court press, I have concluded that the full-court press is a highly effective strategy which basketball coaches do not employ because they are locked into old bad habits that they lack the imagination or courage to break. (Seriously. “The coaches who came to Louisville [to see Pitino’s team practice] sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.”)

Many, many basketball fans have responded by saying that Gladwell is full of shit. (Sometimes — not always — they use other words too.) Several commentators have pointed out that one of Pitino’s Kentucky teams that Gladwell singles out as made up of undertalented overachievers ended up sending nine players to the NBA. Gladwell has now responded on his blog:

The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it's surprising that more underdogs don't use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it's also true on the basketball court.  The press isn't perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized.

But Gladwell never cites the “track record” of the full-court press. He offers no evidence that coaches who use the press prosper more than coaches who don't. The plural of anecdote is not data, especially when the anecdotes can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He goes on to cite all the success Pitino has had with what he calls “untalented teams” and then concludes:

And by the way the nine players who got drafted into the NBA off that anomalous 1996 Kentucky squad [note that he now acknowledges it as “anomalous,” whereas before he characterized it as typical] consisted of eight journeymen and one, marginal star — Antoine Walker. Pitino has had a fraction of the talent that his contemporaries at Kansas, Carolina, Duke or Connecticut have had.

(It turns out that when his prose isn't scoured by the New Yorker’s master editors Gladwell isn't so good with commas. But I digress.) To this I have several responses:

  1. I will make no comment about Antoine Walker.

  2. Producing eight NBA “journeymen” from one team is not something that Kansas, Carolina, Duke, or Connecticut has done recently. An NBA journeyman is by any reasonable measure one of the best basketball players in the world.

  3. Define “talent.”

  4. You can't measure the overall talent of a team by the number of players it sends to the NBA. (See #2 above.) To take just one example, Gonzaga has been quite successful in recent years not because it has had NBA-quality players — I’m looking at you, Adam Morrison — but because it has consistently had four to seven very, very good college players who have been coached to play well together. One could also mention Duke in this regard: if you just looked at that program’s record over the years, you would assume that it has produced far more significant NBA contributors than in fact it has.

  5. Above all: Gladwell is simply assuming that the success of Pitino’s teams has been attributable to his use of the press. He doesn't mention anything else that Pitino does. If you asked Gladwell what kind of offense Pitino’s teams run, and what they do to make themselves hard to defend, I guarantee you he would have no idea. And if you asked Gladwell how often Pitino’s teams press — what percentage of opposing possessions he presses against in a given year — and to compare that ratio to those of other successful teams, I bet he wouldn't know that either.

Gladwell is always fun to read, but he invariably commits one of the sins we English teachers most warn against when we’re teaching freshman writing: he loves to make vast generalizations from one or two particular cases.