How David Beats Goliath

Monday, May 18th, 2009

A non-stop full-court press gives weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger teams — it’s how David beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell says — so, why have so few adopted it?, he asks.

He doesn’t really answer the question though, which opens up many game-theoretic avenues of thought.

Instead, he cites an amusing example, the “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City who went to the National Junior Basketball championships under the coaching of Vivek Ranadivé, who had never played basketball growing up in Mumbai, but whose daughter, Anjali, played on the team:

A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes — and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection.
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. 

Gladwell emphasizes that the full-court press demands more effort and a higher level of fitness, and he seems baffled that the other teams coaches and parents would be downright angry about the press. The little blond girls are just trying harder.

What he ignores is that these are 13 year-old girls still learning the game, and that a press works much better against easily flustered young players — and it does this by keeping them from using the skills they’re trying to learn. The youth league isn’t an end in itself; it’s training for the older leagues.

Leave a Reply