In an interesting piece from this week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference and Outliers: The Story of Sucess) leaves us with one more tidbit about perseverance: In order to win the battle with Goliath, David doesn’t play by the rules.
Gladwell’s example? Basketball’s full-court press.
Like our biblical hero, who–rather than awaiting the advance of the lumbering Philistine–engaged Goliath on his own terms, undermanned basketball teams can prosper through their use of the full-court press. By attacking even superior opponents over the full 94 feet of the floor, underdog teams are far more likely to emerge victoriously than those who retreat into a half-court defense, ostensibly playing a game that favors the more talented opposition.
Take for example, your 1971 Fordham Rams (as if you were really expecting a reference to a Fordham team assembled during our lifetime):
In January of 1971, the Fordham University Rams played a basketball game against the University of Massachusetts Redmen. The game was in Amherst, at the legendary arena known as the Cage, where the Redmen hadn’t lost since December of 1969. Their record was 11–1. The Redmen’s star was none other than Julius Erving—Dr. J. The UMass team was very, very good. Fordham, by contrast, was a team of scrappy kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their center had torn up his knee the first week of the season, which meant that their tallest player was six feet five. Their starting forward—and forwards are typically almost as tall as centers—was Charlie Yelverton, who was six feet two. But from the opening buzzer the Rams launched a full-court press, and never let up. “We jumped out to a thirteen-to-six lead, and it was a war the rest of the way,” Digger Phelps, the Fordham coach at the time, recalls. “These were tough city kids. We played you ninety-four feet. We knew that sooner or later we were going to make you crack.” Phelps sent in one indefatigable Irish or Italian kid from the Bronx after another to guard Erving, and, one by one, the indefatigable Irish and Italian kids fouled out. None of them were as good as Erving. It didn’t matter. Fordham won, 87–79.
In the world of basketball, there is one story after another like this about legendary games where David used the full-court press to beat Goliath. Yet the puzzle of the press is that it has never become popular. People look at upsets like Fordham over UMass and call them flukes. Basketball sages point out that the press can be beaten by a well-coached team with adept ball handlers and astute passers—and that is true… Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath. If Fordham had played UMass the conventional way, it would have lost by thirty points. And yet somehow that lesson has escaped the basketball establishment.
What did Digger Phelps do, the season after his stunning upset of UMass? He never used the full-court press the same way again. The UMass coach, Jack Leaman, was humbled in his own gym by a bunch of street kids. Did he learn from his defeat and use the press himself the next time he had a team of underdogs? He did not.
The only person who seemed to have absorbed the lessons of that game was a skinny little guard on the UMass freshman team named Rick Pitino.
That skinny little guard went on to amass quite the coaching resumé for himself, and it didn’t start at big name programs like Kentucky or Louisville, either.
Pitino became the head coach at Boston University in 1978, when he was twenty-five years old, and used the press to take the school to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in twenty-four years. At his next head-coaching stop, Providence College, Pitino took over a team that had gone 11–20 the year before. The players were short and almost entirely devoid of talent—a carbon copy of the Fordham Rams. They pressed, and ended up one game away from playing for the national championship.
“One game away from playing for the national championship…” “A carbon copy of the Fordham Rams…” “Short and almost entirely devoid of talent…” Hell, we got those last two parts down. So what’s really keeping us from being competitive?
Oh wait. Now I remember.