Welcome back to “The Curious Guy,” where I e-mail questions to somebody successful — whether it’s a baseball pitcher, an author, a creator of a TV show, another writer or whomever — and we trade e-mails for the rest of the week.
This week’s exchange is with Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of “Blink” and “Tipping Point,” as well as the longtime cleanup hitter for the New Yorker. You would never think that the most successful non-fiction writer alive would double as a huge sports fan … but he does. So, I couldn’t resist the chance to exchange e-mails with him intermittently over the past six weeks. Because of the length of the transcript, we’re breaking it up into two parts. This is Part II.
Don’t forget to check out Part I.
Simmons: You brought up Phil Jackson. … Isn’t it strange that NBA teams keep hiring and firing the same types of coaches — either former players who end up being overmatched or college coaches who fail for a few years, then run back to college with their tails between their legs? And yet, someone like Jackson — and Gregg Popovich, to a lesser degree — has shown that the best NBA coaches are always the ones who:
A. trust their players and allow them to think on their own
B. know how to manage egos
C. keep things as simple as possible
D. are smart enough to avoid having head cases and bad apples around who could potentially undermine them
E. seem to connect with their players on a level beyond just player-and-coach?
Being a great NBA coach is like being a great college professor — the best professors challenge their students intellectually, figure out ways to connect with them individually and have enough charisma that students rarely tune them out but, at the same time, those students still have to get the work done. And yet, there’s something in those great professors that makes the students want to do the work. You rarely see that dynamic with NBA coaches and players, and I’m not sure why.
In Phil Jackson’s case, there’s no rational reason why the rest of the Lakers are playing so hard when everything revolves around Kobe, but he has most of them killing themselves on the court like worker bees, and none of them seem to mind except for Odom. Some of that is happening because of his reputation — when you have succeeded in the past, that builds a certain level of trust from the people currently around you — and some of that is happening because he puts players in positions where they have to worry only about doing things in their wheelhouse. At the same time, someone like Kwame Brown is going through the motions this season, which could mean that he’s completely unredeemable (very possible), that he still needs to find a team more suited for his skills (also possible), that MJ inflicted enough mental damage on him in his formative years that he simply can’t bounce back (far-fetched, but not implausible), or that Jackson hasn’t gotten through to him yet. Anyone who can put up a 30/19 in an NBA game has talent. We know that much. And you know it’s killing Jackson — he’s probably going home every night thinking, “There has to be a way I can get to this kid. … What can I do? … What can I do?”
Which brings me to my next question: Is it that difficult to coach an NBA team, or is this one of those professions where 95 percent of the people approach it the wrong way? For instance, let’s say Larry Brown called you and said, “I want to change some of my coaching methods, how do you think I can get through to my crappy team?”
What would you tell him? Should NBA coaches be approaching their job from a more intellectual standpoint? Should they be consulting with well-known psychiatrists and sociologists searching for any tidbits that could make their jobs easier?
|ALL THINGS GLADWELL|
|Find out why the Sports Guy is insanely jealous of Malcolm’s writing.|
“The Tipping Point”
Gladwell: Is it just the coach? Or should we also think about the other players? The big insight in child psychology recently has been, for instance, that parents matter less in how we turn out than we think and peers matter more. That doesn’t mean I don’t think coaches are critical; they are. But I think we underestimate the role that teammates and peers can play. I think Larry Brown, for instance, got way too much credit in Detroit. The Pistons’ success is a peer effect. The core of that team, I suspect, is just incredibly grounded and mutually supportive, and something about the combination of players that Dumars put together brings out the best in all of them. How can you play on a team with Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton and not try hard? You’d have to be a sociopath not to be infected by their enthusiasm and work ethic. That’s why I think (much as I hate to admit it) that Darko is irredeemable. If he didn’t try while he was on the Pistons, he’s not going to try in Orlando. He’s like the kid in Jamie Escalante’s class who still manages to fail calculus. Kwame Brown’s problem is that the Wizards made a prediction about his basketball abilities when he was 18. When I asked an Ivy league admissions officer why the SAT is such a lousy predictor of how good a student is going to end up being, he said to me (memorably): “People take the SAT when they’re 18. When you’re 18, we can’t even predict what you’re going to be like three hours from now.”
Back to your question. I love the notion of good coaches being like good college professors. But I slightly disagree with you that we know what makes someone a good college professor: The most striking thing about the teachers I loved the most, in retrospect, was how different they all were. It’s like when people ask you what your romantic “type” is: If we’re really honest, we have to admit that we don’t have a type — that there are all kinds of combinations of strengths, weaknesses, eccentricities, shapes and sizes that can win our hearts. Bill Cowher is obviously a great coach. And so is Phil Jackson. And so is Bobby Knight. But Cowher, Jackson and Knight really couldn’t be more different, and the kinds of feelings that they inspire in their players are probably quite different too. If I were an NBA general manager, I’m not sure where I’d go to find a good coach. I’d probably hire a retread, fire him 30 games into the season and then take over and guide the team to an 0-52 conclusion.
Simmons: While we’re on the subject of the Knicks, please enlighten the readers on your convoluted theory about why Isiah Thomas is a terrible GM, because he’s one of my favorites.
Gladwell: Here’s the real question. If I was GM of the Knicks, would I be doing a better job of managing the team than Thomas? I believe, somewhat immodestly, that the answer is yes. And I say this even though it is abundantly clear that Thomas knows several thousand times more about basketball than I do. I’ve never picked up a basketball. I couldn’t diagram a play to save my life. I would put my level of basketball knowledge, among hard core fans, in the 25th percentile.
So why do I think I would be better? There’s a famous experiment done by a wonderful psychologist at Columbia University named Dan Goldstein. He goes to a class of American college students and asks them which city they think is bigger — San Antonio or San Diego. The students are divided. Then he goes to an equivalent class of German college students and asks the same question. This time the class votes overwhelmingly for San Diego. The right answer? San Diego. So the Germans are smarter, at least on this question, than the American kids. But that’s not because they know more about American geography. It’s because they know less. They’ve never heard of San Antonio. But they’ve heard of San Diego and using only that rule of thumb, they figure San Diego must be bigger. The American students know way more. They know all about San Antonio. They know it’s in Texas and that Texas is booming. They know it has a pro basketball team, so it must be a pretty big market. Some of them may have been in San Antonio and taken forever to drive from one side of town to another — and that, and a thousand other stray facts about Texas and San Antonio, have the effect of muddling their judgment and preventing them from getting the right answer.
I’d be the equivalent of the German student. I know nothing about basketball, so I’d make only the safest, most obvious decisions. I’d read John Hollinger and Chad Ford and I’d print out your mid-season NBA roundup and post it on my blackboard. I’d look at the box scores every morning, and watch Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on TNT. Would I have made the disastrous Marbury trade? Of course not. I’d wonder why Jerry Colangelo — who I know is a lot smarter than I am — was so willing to part with him.
Would I have traded for Curry? Are you kidding? All I know is that Chicago is scared of his attitude and his health, and Paxson knows way more about basketball — and about Eddy Curry — than I do. Trade for Jalen Rose? No way. One of the few simple facts that basketball dummies like me know is that players in their early thirties are pretty much over the hill. And Jerome James? Please. I have no idea how to evaluate a player’s potential. But I’d look up his stastistics on NBA.com and see that’s he’s been pretty dreadful his whole career, and then I’d tell his agent to take a hike.
Now would I be as good as GM as Jerry West or Joe Dumars? Of course not. But just by sitting on my hands, and being scared of looking like a fool, and taking only the safest, most conservative steps, and drafting only solid players that everybody agrees are a can’t miss, I could make the Knicks a vastly better team than they are today — as could any reasonably cautious and uninformed fan. (The big exception, of course, would be you. You would draft the starting point guard from Holy Cross, a handful of short Irish guys from the South End, and various members of Larry Bird’s extended family — and then try to package them to Milwaukee for Bobby Simmons). The point is that knowledge and the ability to make a good decision correlate only sporadically, and there are plenty of times when knowledge gets in the way of judgement. That’s Thomas in a nutshell: He knows so much about basketball that he believes that he knows more than anyone else about the potential of previously undistinguished players. He thinks he can see into the true basketball soul of Jerome James. The truth is, of course, that James doesn’t have a basketball soul.
By the way, while we’re on this topic, let’s play a real world application of this. Let’s say I’m so dumb about basketball that all I know is that the best college programs in the country are Duke and UConn, and so as a GM my rule is only draft and/or trade for the first and second team players, in any given year, from those two schools. So I fire all my scouts. I disband my front office, and basically say that I cede my basketball judgment to Jim Calhoun and Mike K. What’s my team? It’s some combination of Elton Brand, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Rip Hamilton, Corey Maggette, Jay Williams, Caron Butler, Donyell Marshall and Grant Hill — which is a really wonderful team. Now, of course, in the real world I couldn’t get all those people, because lots of them were really high draft picks. But let’s say I got Brand in a trade, after Chicago soured on him, and I was lucky enough to be in the lottery for Okafor. Maggette was a 13; Hamilton and Deng were 7s; and Butler was a 10 — so at least some of them are doable, particularly since in off-years for Duke and UConn I can trade down and stockpile picks. Battier I wine and dine in the free agent market, because who wants to be stuck in Memphis? Ditto for Gordon, who, it seems, Chicago is thinking of moving anyway. Is that the best team in the league? No. It is better than the Knicks? Absolutely. The point is that clinging to a very simple rule of thumb here — that doesn’t require knowing much about basketball — can leave you looking pretty smart.
Simmons: I’m just glad that you passed me on Isiah’s “smug writers whose asses I want to kick” list. My biggest problem with NBA GMs (and I go crazy about this every June) is how they ignore hardcore results and get seduced by potential; it’s like they out-think themselves. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade are the ultimate examples why this league is so screwed up: Wade was incredible in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, and Paul was so talented at Wake Forest, his teammates almost couldn’t handle playing with him because they weren’t on his level, but scouts discounted them because they were 2-3 inches shorter than the prototypical heights for their respective positions. Wade ended up falling to fifth (three spots behind Darko) and Paul to fourth (two spots behind Marvin Williams, one behind Deron Williams).
In retrospect, two things were amazing about this:
1. In the past three decades alone, guys like Ben Wallace, Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, Tim Hardaway, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley, John Stockton, Isiah and others have proven that you should never, ever, ever, ever, EVER use somebody’s height as a determining factor for whether you should draft someone. If you’re good, you’re good. And yet, three teams passed on Paul (four if you include Portland) when he was the most talented, NBA-ready product with the best chance to succeed.
2. Using your college analogy, someone drafting Darko over Carmelo/Wade or Williams over Paul would be like Yale accepting a kid with 1500 SATs, a 3.1 GPA at a subpar public school and no extracurricular activites whatsoever, over a kid with 1350 SATs and a 3.9 GPA at a competitive private school who captained three sports teams, served as class president and ran the school newspaper. How can you justify taking the first kid over the second kid? There’s no way.
And the same goes with the NBA draft. I think it’s more fun for GMs to hit a home run with a risky pick over a safe pick. For instance, Portland could have taken Paul and traded Sebastian Telfair, since Telfair could best be described as “someone with the potential to be as good as Chris Paul.” Instead, they traded DOWN three spots, then rolled the dice with another high schooler (Martell Webster). But Blazers GM John Nash didn’t care about the risks — if that Webster-Telfair backcourt emerges into something special, he becomes the Red Auerbach of this decade, right? So he swung for the fences. And within the next two years, he will be unemployed.
Here’s the ironic thing: Fans complain about this mentality, then we pull the same crap in fantasy leagues, where guys with potential always go higher than proven guys. Just look at last year’s draft: It was much more seductive to take someone like Nate Burleson in the third round over someone like Hines Ward; you know what you’re getting with Ward, but Burleson was replacing Moss in Minnesota, and there was a decent chance that he could have exploded for 1500 yards and 15 TDs. That made him more appealing. So what happened? Burleson stunk and Ward had another typically good season. (And by the way, I was one of the idiots who took Burleson over Ward.) Which brings me to my next question: What do you think of the fantasy sports boom? Do you participate in any leagues? Did you ever think that fans would care just as much about their fake teams as their real teams? Are you amused by the whole thing? Delighted? Confused? Disgusted?
Gladwell: You’re right. It is profoundly weird that GMs take such incredible chances with their draft picks. The biggest complaint or observation that is made of executives of large organizations is that they tend to be overly conservative when it comes to high-stakes decisions like that. General Motors would never draft Darko. The effect of working for a bureaucratic organization is to enforce a level of accountability in decision making, and the need for accountability generally biases decisions in an conservative direction. Are professional sports franchises not bureaucratic enough, then? Perhaps. I think both of us are of the mind that GMs would do better if they simply played it safer, so maybe what’s needed in the NBA and the NFL is the introduction of more traditional corporate organizational structure. That’s why I’m such a fan of the “Moneyball” generation of baseball GMs: It’s not so much that their analytical tools are brilliant ways of predicting baseball success (and I have my doubts, sometimes), it’s simply that they have an analytical tool. And when it comes to personnel evaluation, any tool is better than no tool, especially if your last name is Thomas.
Speaking of Thomases, I loved your recent Atrocious GM Summit column, although I think that you flatter Isiah Thomas far too much by suggesting that he is merely one of a number of atrocious GMs. The truth is that Rob Babcock and Billy King are Einstein next to him. The mess he is creating right now in New York will be studied by business school students 50 years from now alongside Enron and pets.com. But wait, is it enough to say that GMs behave this way because it’s more fun? An economist would say that people pursue high-risk strategies when they are protected against the consequences of failure. The technical term for this is “moral hazard”: When the federal government agreed to guarantee the safety of deposits in savings and loans, the savings and loan industry in the 1980’s went crazy and made tens of billions of dollars in ridiculous loans. Their thinking was: If we score, we score big. If we lose, the government bails us out. That’s the moral hazard of insurance. Don’t general managers have the same kind of moral hazard problem? If you hit a home run, you’re a genius. If you screw up, the dumb owner you worked for prior to the dumb owner you work for now will always give you another chance. So why not just always swing for the fences? It’s the old boys club in the front offices that causes the problem. Somebody out there is going to give Thomas and Babcock another chance, and so long as that’s true there’s no incentive for any GM to behave better.
Fantasy leagues? I used to do rotisserie baseball for a few years, and loved it — until I had my baseball meltdown and gave up on the sport. I worried, though, that it began to erode my sense of team. I mean, the great appeal of watching sports is that you have a commitment to a team, and the players become secondary players in that love affair. I fell for the Buffalo Bills when they had Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and went to four Super Bowls, and I’m still in love with the Buffalo Bills even though not a single vestige of that original team remains; even though, in fact, the very thing that attracted me to the Bills in the first place — that thrilling offense — has completely disappeared. Sports team loyalty is really an extraordinary act of unconditional love. Suppose, for instance, that I love BMWs and have loved them all my life. There is a meaningful connection between the three series car I might be driving now and the 2002 I first drove 25 years ago — not just in the feel of the cars and the engineering and the look, but also, I’m quite sure some of the same people helped to build both cars.
Sports teams demand the same loyalty from us. But where’s the continuity? The uniforms change. The stadiums change. The owners and players and coaches and styles of play change. All that’s constant is some ineffable and fragile sense of the team as a meaningful psychological entity. Now fantasy leagues come along and allow us to junk that concept as well. So I worry. Of course, it’s conceivable I’ve over-thought this. I’ve been known to do that in the past.
Simmons: I love your “moral hazard” theory and have always believed that teams should hold general managers more accountable for their mistakes. What if Orlando’s John Weisbrod wanted to trade Tracy McGrady to Houston two summers ago, and Orlando’s owner told him, “All right, I’ll sign off on the deal, but if you’re wrong, and we win fewer games than we did the previous year, and the media and the fans are killing us for making the trade next summer, you have to give me back your entire 2004-05 salary”? Would Weisbrod still pull the trigger? Or would he try a little harder to work it out with T-Mac? And when you think about it, it’s really too bad that we didn’t have professional sports in its current form back in the 1700s and 1800s — instead of getting fired, not only would failed GMs have been routinely beheaded or hung, but it’s entirely possible that Shaq and Kobe would have reenacted the Hamilton-Burr duel.
(And while we’re on the subject, I think my favorite random sports theory of yours is the one about how NFL quarterbacks should be trained the same way Gavin DeBecker trains the bodyguards for his security agency — by putting them through these terrifying exercises where he fires bullets at them or turns angry pit bulls on them, then continuing to do them until their heart rate drops. You made the point that, if you were running an NFL team, you would put your QBs through DeBecker’s program and live-fire exercises at Quantico, and you would even have them work with a trauma team in South Central L.A. I loved this idea for two reasons: First, it makes total sense as a training tool, especially for someone like Peyton Manning, who practically craps himself during any big game. And second, the thought of guys like Gus Frerotte or Tommy Maddox dodging pit bulls and gunfire … at the very least, even if it doesn’t work for football purposes, it would make a helluva show for the NFL Network.)
All right, a few more quick questions and then I’ll let you go back to reading your Sports Illustrated collection from the 1970s. First, what was your baseball meltdown?
Gladwell: It came after the Blue Jays (my team) won the second of their World Series titles. Economic reality hit, and they basically stopped trying to compete at the top level, and I wondered to myself: Why do I care so much about a sport where some teams have $200 million to spend and some teams have $20 million to spend? I know, I know — as Rob Neyer and others point out — that there is no necessary correlation between payroll and success. It is possible, as “Moneyball” reminds us, to win with less by being smarter. But the point is not that if you have more money than someone else you automatically win more games. The point is that if you have more money that someone else you’re playing a different game than they are. Wal-mart is not competing against mom-and-pop corner stores. They’re in a different business. And it isn’t fun, at the end of the day, to watch a mom-and-pop compete against Wal-mart. It’s painful and pointless.
I loved “Moneyball.” I thought it was one of the best books of the past decade. I think it should be taught in psychology classes and business schools as a treatise on the subtle effects of bias on expert decision-making. But do you think that Billy Beane, for a moment, wouldn’t trade his situation with Theo Epstein or Cashman? To me, the hard cap in football — and, to a lesser extent, the soft cap in basketball — are what makes those sports so interesting. It’s what makes them sports. Contests where one player has significantly more resources than another are not sports. They are marketplaces. To root for the Yankees or the Red Sox is the functional equivalent of rooting for Microsoft or General Electric. No thanks.
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Simmons: Second question: Can you explain in one paragraph why you’re against Vegas?
Gladwell: Where to start? You get there. You can’t get a cab. Last time I waited 30 minutes in line at the airport. You get to your hotel, you wait another 45 minutes to check in. It’s 120 degrees outside, and inside it’s 45 degrees and all you can think about is there’s about to be a epidemic of Legionnaires Disease. The food is terrible. Everyone loses money — everyone. The amount of plastic surgery is terrifying. There are large packs of enormous, glassy-eyed people in stretch pants, pulling the levers on slot machines. (By the way, greatest and most under-appreciated gambling story ever: William Bennett, he of one best seller after another lecturing Americans on moral values and virtue and the bankruptcy of our culture, turns out not only to be a degenerate gambler, but a gambler who only played the slots. The slots! Had he been a great poker player — even a decent poker player — I’m in his corner. But the slots?) I digress. Back to Vegas: Why would I want to see Celine Dion, ever (and I’m Canadian)? Or white mutant tigers? Or the Village People? Or Tony Orlando and Dawn? I have more fun walking to the laundromat from my apartment in New York than I do in Vegas.
Simmons: And the final question … in one of my mailbags from last year, I wrote about when athletes reach “I’m Keith Hernandez” status (like the “Seinfeld” episode where he decided to make a move on Eliane simply because he was Keith Hernandez) and their confidence swells to impossible heights. Like when MJ kept making 3s in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, then shrugged to the announcers, that was his Keith Hernandez moment. So given that you have written two monster best sellers, and you’re writing for the most respected magazine in the country, haven’t you entered Keith Hernandez territory here? For instance, have you ever pitched a ridiculous story idea with limited appeal to the New Yorker, just to see if you could get away with it? Do you walk into the offices and tell them, “You know what? I’m writing 20,000 words about Eddy Curry this week and you guys are gonna LIKE IT!” And by the way, I don’t care what the answer is, as long as you don’t switch to writing about rocks for the next 20 years like John McPhee did.
Gladwell: Wait, is anyone still reading at this point? This has gone on longer than one of Rickey Henderson’s at-bats. All I can say is that if I asked David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, if I could do 20,000 words on Eddy Curry he’d probably say yes. But not because there’s anything special about me. David is a huge sports fan. For an intellectual, he’s got a great low-post game, serious length, and the kind of upside you just don’t see in fortyish Pulitzer Prize winners. How long do you think before Isiah Thomas signs him?
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.