Thursday, March 2, 2006

I've said it before, it's about effort

Especially for a team like the Bulls. But check out this clip from an interview (from with Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point:

Gladwell: This is one of my favorite topics. Let's do Erick Dampier. In his contract year at Golden State, he essentially doubles his rebounds and increases his scoring by 50 percent. Then, after he signs with Dallas, he goes back to the player he was before. What can we conclude from this? The obvious answer is that effort plays a much larger role in athletic performance than we care to admit. When he tries, Dampier is one of the top centers in the league. When he doesn't try, he's mediocre. So a big part of talent is effort. The second obvious answer is that performance (at least in centers) is incredibly variable. The same person can be a mediocre center one year and a top 10 center the next just based on how motivated he is. So is Dampier a top 10 player or a mediocre player? There is no way to answer that. It depends. He's not inherently good or bad. He's both. The third obvious answer is that coaching matters. If you are a coach who can get Dampier to try, you can turn a mediocre center into a top 10 center. And you, the coach, will be enormously valuable. (This is why Phil Jackson is worth millions of dollars a year.) If you are a coach who can't get Dampier to try, then you're not that useful. (You may want to insert the name Doc Rivers at this point.)

In the context of sports, none of us have any problem with any of these conclusions. But now let's think about it in the context of education. An inner city high school student fails his classes and does abysmally on his SATs. No college will take him, and he's basically locked out of the best part of the job market. Why? Because we think that grades and SATs tell us something fundamental about that kid's talent and ability -- or, in this case, lack of it.

But wait: what are the lessons of the contract year? A big part of talent is effort. Maybe this kid is plenty smart enough, and he's just not trying. More to the point, how can we say he isn't smart. If talent doesn't really mean that much in the case of Dampier -- if basketball ability is incredibly variable -- why don't we think of ability in the case of this kid as being incredibly variable? And finally, what does the kid need? In the NBA, we'd say he needed Phil Jackson or Hubie Brown or maybe just a short-term contract. We'd think that we could play a really important role in getting Dampier to play harder. So why don't we think that in the case of the kid? I realize I'm being a bit of a sloppy liberal here. But one of the fascinating things about sports, it seems to me, is that when it comes the way we think about professional athletes, we're all liberals (without meaning to be, of course). We give people lots of chances. (Think Jeff George). We go to extraordinary lengths to help players reach their potential. We're forgiving of mistakes. When the big man needs help with his footwork, we ship him off to Pete Newell for the summer. We hold players accountable for their actions. But we also believe, as a matter of principle, that players need supportive environments in order to flourish. It would be nice if we were as generous and as patient with the rest of society's underachievers.

Well said and it goes to show how some of these players just don't care after a certain point. Coach Skiles only wants players that care, hence the cutting of Tim Thomas.


Post a Comment

<< Home