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More Gladwell on Teaching, Coaching, and GM’ing

Because you can’t read enough Malcolm Gladwell, even if you don’t agree with what he says:

Part II of Bill Simmons’s interview with MG is here.

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?

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.

Part I is here.