(Business Week) – When Malcolm Gladwell wrote a story for the New Yorker five years ago about how underdogs can triumph through unorthodox tactics, he focused on a basketball team of 12-year-old girls in Silicon Valley. Their coach, a software entrepreneur originally from Mumbai, viewed the game as an outsider—and what he saw was rampant inefficiency. Teams routinely retreated to the half court on defense, conceding territory to their opponents. His girls instead defended the full court on every possession. The strategy helped take a team lacking talent and size to the championships of National Junior Basketball.
To Gladwell, the story illustrated how traditions become blind spots. “Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath,” he wrote. “And yet somehow that lesson has escaped the basketball establishment.” The anecdote became the opening passage of the book David and Goliath, another fixture on bestseller lists.
Yet the basketball establishment was unmoved. Underdog teams at every level of the game, and especially at the top, do not embrace nonstop full-court defense. Apologists for the status quo noted that defensive strategy is more complicated than Gladwell had allowed. College basketball players are “not 12 years old” and don’t struggle with basic ball handling.
But that outsider coach, Vivek Ranadive, didn’t stop with preteen basketball. Last year he became the controlling owner of the Sacramento Kings, putting him inside the NBA. He talked about creating the “NBA 3.0,” a league built in the mold of Silicon Valley. He crowdsourced the Kings’ draft preparation. He built apps to anticipate every whim of fans in the arena. He gave Google Glass to the team mascot. He accepted Bitcoins.