PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3
Only Malcolm Gladwell would turn down a podcast request by saying, “Instead of coming on the ‘B.S. Report’ for 45 minutes, why don’t we spend infinitely more time exchanging 9,000 words of e-mails over a few days?”
Fine, twist my arm. We tried this concept three years ago — here are Part 1 and Part 2 from 2006 — so I guess you could call this edition a rematch. Like Tyson-Holyfield II, only without the ear-biting. You can read Malcolm regularly in The New Yorker or on gladwell.com. And if you haven’t read “The Tipping Point”, “Blink” or his most recent best-selling effort, “Outliers,” you’re missing out. I couldn’t be prouder to have him write the foreword of my upcoming basketball book. And on that note, I think I just broke the record for most plugs in one paragraph.
This is the first of our three-part exchange. Part 2 can be found here, and Part 3 is here.
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Malcolm, thanks for agreeing to exchange e-mails with me even though “Outliers” topped The New York Times best-seller list for five straight months (and counting) and earned you enough money to purchase the Grizzlies with your March residuals. (Just remember to hire me as your GM. Don’t forget me. DON’T FORGET ME!!!!!!) Anyway, it’s not like your book needs more pimping because, again, you’re probably reading this e-mail while sailing on a 120-foot yacht in St. Bart’s or feeding strawberries to Anne Hathaway on the Riviera. But I do have an idea for your next book.
Everyone loves sequels, right? Given that Hollywood made “Species II” and “Smokey and the Bandit 3,” I stand by that remark. So why not make an “Outliers” sequel?
In “Outliers,” your thesis was that success wasn’t as random as people seem to think, and that outside factors play a much bigger role than we realize (example: Canadian hockey players with January and February birthdays experiencing a higher degree of success). You also argued that an inordinate amount of practice can transform some from “good” to “great,” even throwing out the figure of 10,000 hours, which seems about right because that’s the exact amount of time that passed before I figured out how to lightly poke fun at ESPN without getting fired. And you argued Kobe Bryant has many of the same personality traits as John Wilkes Booth. (OK, I made that up.) I thoroughly enjoyed the book even if you totally missed an obvious chapter: How the dawn of the Internet made Anna Kournikova about three times as wealthy as she would have been had she broken onto the tennis scene 10 years earlier. Does she bank $50 million in endorsements without horny teenagers Googling her? No way. I am almost positive this would have been more fun to research than a loser like Chris Langan, especially if you ended up meeting Enrique Iglesias. I also think you should have done Donna Summer, Scooby-Doo and Jerry Seinfeld chapters. If you want me to explain why, I will. Or we can leave it hanging for eternity.
My idea for the sequel? “Inliers.” Not as catchy, and it kind of sounds like a bad George Clooney movie, but bear with me.
Just as timing plays a huge role in success, it can play a huge role in failure and/or a falling short of potential that could have been reached in another era. Take Dave Roberts, a speed/defense/intangibles guy whose career spanned from 1999-2008 (the heart of the steroids era). He retired right when it became illegal to show up for spring training carrying 35 pounds of extra muscle and a bigger head. Five years ago, Roberts was a fringe starter; today, he’d be a hot commodity with savvier teams gravitating toward speed and defense. You have to create runs from scratch in 2009, which means you need guys like Dave Roberts. Simply by showing up 20 years too late or 10 years too early, his career went in a direction that it shouldn’t have gone. And he isn’t even the best sports inlier example. That would be David Thompson. Unfortunately, I have to save that story for my NBA book.
So let’s tackle the second-best sports inlier ever: Larry Holmes. He’s one of the five greatest heavyweights ever. He could box, punch, take a punch, have a street fight I mean, Larry Holmes had everything you’d want. But he rose to prominence during the most loaded stretch in heavyweight history — the early to mid-70s, when Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Earnie Shavers ruled the division — and couldn’t land a big fight because the big guns wanted to fight other big guns or total stiffs. (Holmes actually worked as a sparring partner for some of them just to make money.) After Ali vacated his title, Holmes outlasted Norton in a 15-round slugfest for the belt that featured one of the greatest rounds in boxing history (Round 15, which played out like Creed and Balboa in the first “Rocky”), only Ali had raised the bar so high that nobody really cared. Over the next six years of an aborted prime, Holmes beat everyone he had to beat — including Gerry Cooney, who was much better than anyone remembers now — and nearly topped Rocky Marciano’s undefeated stretch. Unfortunately for him, the public had written him off as “The guy who followed Ali,” and that was that. Now he’s forgotten. Name me a better celebrity inlier. With the possible exception of Thompson, Andre the Giant and Kelly Preston, you can’t. Your move, Gladwell.
I love the idea of inliers. My goal in life is to get to the place that I can take the same idea and just repackage it over and over again, like Bruce Willis did with “Die Hard,” or Bill O’Reilly does with the whole thing about being rich, white, male and entitled — and be really pissed off about how he’s treated by the world.
I’m not buying Holmes, though. One of the big reasons boxing was in such a slump during Larry Holmes’ peak was the fact that the dominant boxer during Larry Holmes’ peak was Larry Holmes. I’m sure he was a nice guy and all. But this is a man who spent almost all of his boxing winnings acquiring real estate in Easton, Pa. Think about this. You have just made gazillions of dollars. You can buy houses anywhere in the world. And you chose Easton? This is a sport entirely dependent upon the charisma of its champions, and Holmes didn’t have any. (This reminds me of the police corruption scandal in the NYPD in the early 1990s, when this police officer in Brooklyn was found to be stealing millions of dollars in cash from the drug dealers he was busting. When he got caught, it was discovered he owned a fleet of cars and boats and multiple homes in Long Island.) You skim a million in cash off some crack dealer, and you splurge by buying a split-level in Hicksville to go with the bungalow you already own in Smithtown. Is there anything more depressing than people with money but no imagination?
Wait, you can’t smear Holmes because you didn’t appreciate his real estate savvy! Yes, there was something inherently unlikable about him. He was always whining about not getting respect (totally warranted). He wasn’t funny or charismatic like Ali. He wasn’t mysterious like Foreman. He wasn’t a home-run puncher like Shavers. He wasn’t handsome like Norton. His lisp made it uncomfortable to listen to him talk. He wasn’t sleeping with models or dating superstars. There was nothing to work with. Then Michael Spinks stole the title from him (horrible decision), Holmes couldn’t win it back, he lost a little hand speed, and everything ended when a young Mike Tyson obliterated him. Holmes became the bridge between the most popular heavyweight champ ever (Ali) and the most frightening one (Tyson). Can anyone stand out as the bridge between those two? A few years later, he copied George Foreman’s over-40 comeback and basically filmed the sequel to “We Can’t Get Away From You, Larry II.” That was that. You will never read a Larry Holmes book. You will never flip channels and come across a Larry Holmes documentary. You would never think about Larry Holmes for any reason. Why would you? But if you went on YouTube and watched this clip or this clip or this one, I guarantee you would be impressed by Larry Holmes.
OK, so imagine we throw 1973 Larry Holmes in a time machine and transport him forward 15 years. He wins a few fights, knocks out “Quick” Tillis and replaces Buster Douglas in the token no-name spot in the Japan fight against Tyson, becoming an instant mega-celebrity after his “shocking” knockout of Iron Mike. From there, he beats Tommy Morrison and Evander Holyfield, loses a tough decision to Riddick Bowe and knocks him out in the rematch. He gets another huge payday by beating Foreman decisively in 12. He knocks out Andrew Golota and Razor Ruddock, then Bowe a third time. Tyson gets released from prison and Holmes whups him again. In the rematch of the rematch, Tyson bites Holmes’ ear and not Holyfield’s — now Holmes has been part of two of the most famous moments in boxing history and made nearly $500 million from fighting. With his career winding down, the heavyweight division swoons to the point that Holmes gets to feast on stiffs like Johnny Ruiz and Hasim Rahman for the rest of the decade. Yeah, maybe Lennox Lewis beats him in the 2000-01 range, and he probably gets knocked out by one of the Klitschkos during an ill-fated comeback in 2004. But imagine that career: 10 quality years instead of six, three iconic fights instead of none, three famous rivals instead of none, 20 times as much money, enough credit and respect to choke on, and over everything else you would have been HAPPY that Larry Holmes was around. Especially if you were a realtor in Easton, Pa. But if you don’t agree, give me a more underrated inlier.
Nick Faldo. Think about it. He wins six majors. He’s the dominant golfer of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But we don’t mention him in the same breath as, say, Arnold Palmer, even though Palmer only won one more major than Faldo. And why? Because Palmer had Nicklaus and Faldo had, well, Scott Hoch, Mark McNulty and John Cook. Now imagine he comes along in the late ’90s and goes toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods from the beginning. All of a sudden Faldo gets immeasurably magnified by the comparison. I’m not saying he’d beat Tiger. (Are you kidding?) But he’s the perfect foil. I got a tape recently of the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman had his epic collapse on the back nine. That tournament is always explained in terms of how Norman choked, as if there were something inside him that inevitably caused him to surrender a six-stroke lead. Nonsense. Surely the key to that whole collapse is that he’s paired with Faldo, and Faldo in his prime was terrifying. He was surly and tough and charismatic and emotionally and psychologically bulletproof, and I feel like he’d do a better job of getting under Tiger’s skin than anyone out there right now. What’s the defining fact about Faldo? His ex-girlfriend once destroyed his Porsche with a 9-iron. The corresponding fact for Woods is that his favorite band is Hootie and the Blowfish. Hootie and the Blowfish? What’s Faldo’s favorite band? Joy Division? Or some kind of obscure Welsh thrash band too hard core for American radio?
We disagree on Woods. He has worthy rivals but he has destroyed them faster than Michael Corleone wiped out Don Barzini, Philip Tattaglia and Moe Greene. Your case for Faldo holds more water, but here’s the difference between golf and any other sport: Ultimately, you’re competing against yourself. Let’s say you’ve won all four majors does that mean you get bored with golf? Of course not! You shot a 61 at Augusta in 2009; maybe you can shoot a 59 in 2010. There is no way to hit the ceiling. In tennis, you peak by killing yourself day after day after day, beating all your rivals, winning a few Grand Slam events and keeping the No. 1 ranking, but after a while you burn out because nobody can maintain that pace. With golf, nobody has ever said, “Man, I can’t believe I have to play a beautiful golf course this weekend.” The experience will never get old. I always thought Faldo’s personal life screwed him up professionally and that’s why his career fell apart. Or it happened because he’s English, and English people are prone to sudden career swoons, bad dental hygiene and inappropriate reactions to soccer defeats. You can’t change someone’s DNA.
If you’re riding the whole “never had a peer to challenge him” angle, then there’s a better example: Michael Jordan. He climbed the mountain in 1991, then Bird retired, Magic retired and the Bad Boy Pistons got old. The media force-fed him Clyde Drexler as a “rival;” he destroyed Drexler with such manic fury during the ’92 Finals and ’92 Dream Team practices that Clyde’s career went into a tailspin. Barkley challenged Jordan next; he cut Chuck’s heart out in the ’93 Finals. (Barkley even says now that, after losing Game 2 of that series, he realized he would never beat Jordan.) With three straight titles in the bank, he looked around the landscape and said with complete confidence, “I own everybody.” Barkley, Malone, Robinson, Ewing, Shaq, Hakeem and Reggie didn’t interest him as competitors even a little. So if you’re MJ, what do you do? You have nobody to measure yourself against, nobody pushing you, nobody inspiring you basically, you’re competing against yourself and it’s a no-win situation. The media was overbearing. The league was allowing teams such as the Knicks to clobber him every time he drove to the basket without any real repercussions. Hell, Barkley won the ’92-93 MVP over him and nobody really said, “Wait a second, this is totally wrong. We can’t give out an MVP to anyone who doesn’t have the initials ‘M.J.’ It’s an outright travesty of the highest order!” (By the way, I would have written that column if the Internet existed in 1993. I swear.) For someone as competitive as Jordan to walk away from a sport he had mastered at his absolute peak I mean, it’s actually kind of amazing. Well, unless he was suspended for gambling. Then it’s not so amazing.
Here’s the point: Let’s send 2006 Kobe or 2009 LeBron back to 1993 in a time machine. Suddenly, Jordan can’t walk away, because he would look scared. More importantly, he wouldn’t want to walk away because, deep down, he’d know that those guys would bring the best out of him. In my book, I make the point that we spent so many years searching for an archrival for Jordan — the Frazier to his Ali, someone who’d bring the best out of him — when really, that player was Lenny Bias, and one cocaine binge ruined what should have been a fierce rivalry. Of the incoming NBA stars from 1984-90, only Bias possessed the talent and swagger to stand up to MJ in his prime. (Hold on, I’m going to punch the wall behind me. Give me a second. OWWWWWWWW! OK, I’m back.) By contrast, remember what happened to LeBron last summer during the Redeem Team practices? He watched Kobe getting up at 6 a.m. every day to train for three grueling hours, then said to himself, “All right, this guy works harder than me. I need to step it up.” And he did. And that exposure had a profound effect on his career, just like every splendid Michael Lewis story probably keeps you on your toes. If Kobe dropped dead of a cocaine overdose eight years ago, does LeBron have that epiphany? Maybe not. You can become great without the help of someone else, but you can’t stay great without someone pushing you. Golf excepted, of course.
Now, in Part 2, let’s tackle the truly important stuff I promised you we’d tackle: watershed topics like “Who would win a tournament between the greatest black, white, foreign and biracial NBA players ever?” and “Does the fact that you once resisted Jennifer Aniston’s advances prove that she gives off such a desperate vibe that even dorky writers like us will get scared off, or did you simply make a catastrophically dumb decision along the lines of Isiah’s Eddy Curry trade?” Or even, “Why doesn’t an NBA team that’s going nowhere just run a full-court press for 48 minutes a game?” That’s a good one. We’re going to start there.
(Note: I just set you up like Magic tossing an alley-oop to Worthy.)
PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.