The sui generis Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative piece in the May 11 New Yorker, “How David Beats Goliath”, that demonstrates that the underdog can often win by adopting an unconventional strategy. The examples were numerous, and included Lawrence of Arabia, but the central point-maker was a girls basketball team. Their coach, an Iranian national who was not terribly familiar with basketball, couldn’t understand why basketball teams were routinely coached to simply allow the offense to bring the ball into the forecourt, essentially not defending about 70 feet of the court’s 94 foot length.
Gladwell explained the near-irrefutability of the coach’s logic which was underscored by the team’s success against much more skillful opponents. (They made it to the finals of the state championships before they lost and, according to this article, the referees working on their opponents’ home court were largely responsible for that.) And he did a bit of research, relying heavily on an interview with longtime pro and college coach Rick Pitino to get some historical perspective and to understand how the fullcourt press strategy worked at higher levels of the game.
Pitino had been a scrub guard on the University of Massachetts basketball team that had Julius Erving, the immortal “Doctor J”, as its star player. UMass had been defeated by a scrappy but presumably inferior Fordham team in 1971 because Fordham used a fullcourt press and disrupted the better team’s offensive flow. That Fordham team had a star forward named Charlie Yelverton who was about 6-foot-3, nowhere near tall enough to play that position on most successful college teams. But the press mitigated the height disadvantage.
A few years later, Pitino was a young coach at Boston University and used the press to get the team into the NCAA tournament, an unusual event for them. Pitino has made a career of using the press successfully at Providence, the University of Kentucky, and Louisville. But, oddly enough, as Gladwell notes, nobody else has.
All of this demonstrated, to me, that research is great, but you can’t beat a long memory unless you do all the research. And my long memory beats Gladwell’s research with Pitino.
The first coach to use a tip-off to final buzzer full court press as a staple tactic was John Wooden, undoubtedly the most successful college basketball coach of all time. Wooden had been the coach at UCLA for 15 years when he put the press in for his UCLA teams, which also lacked height, for the 1963-64 and 1964-65 seasons. These were the first two UCLA championship teams. And they beat presumably superior teams from Michigan and Duke to win those championships.
It’s too bad Gladwell didn’t know this, because the Wooden history confirmed and validated his “David and Goliath” paradigm. Those first two UCLA champions were, indeed, “David”s. They lacked height and conventional basketball star power. They needed to change the tactics, as Gladwell says Davids do, and the press worked perfectly for them. They made use of the unique talents of 6-foot-5 Keith Erickson (who was a star volleyball player in the basketball off-season), making him the roving backstop for their press. Erickson’s quickness and jumping ability frustrated opponents who tried to beat the press with a long pass.
But the success of those two UCLA teams led to Wooden being able to recruit far superior talent to UCLA in the future. In 1965, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) arrived on the campus and, from then on, UCLA was Goliath, not David. (By the way, fellow freshman Mike Shatzkin arrived on the campus at the same time, which is how he knows all this stuff so well!) Wooden gave up the press as an all-game tactic and won 7 championships in 8 years by more conventional means.
So it turns out that Gladwell’s entire case could have been proven with one example: John Wooden at UCLA.