The Big Man Can't Shoot with Malcolm Gladwell | E3/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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The Big Man Can't Shoot with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 3 | Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 35 min | Released: June 30, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell: The greatest game of basketball anyone has ever played was in Hershey, Pennsylvania, March 2, 1962.

Sports announcer: Here's the big fourth quarter and everybody's thinking out on his [inaudible 00:00:46]. He's got 69 going in. Here's the pass to him. He's got another one!

MG: Cold, rainy night, just over 4000 people in the stands. Philadelphia Warriors versus the New York Knicks.

Sports announcer: Meschery airs it, that's a good shot, they're taking it, but mostly, they're setting up the big man.

MG: The star of the warriors was a man named Wilt Chamberlain; no doubt you've heard of him. 7 foot 1, 275 pounds. For sheer physical presence, there has probably never been anyone like Wilt. There are lots of 7 footers who play basketball who are basically on the court purely because they're 7 feet tall. They're clumsy and ungainly. Chamberlain was not like that. He was as big as an oak tree and as graceful as a ballet dancer. That season, 1961 to 1962, he ended up averaging more than 50 points a game. That record will never be broken.

Sports announcer: Taps it in! Chamberlain taps it in!

MG: So, March 2. Wilt was hung over; he'd been out all night with a woman he picked up at a bar. That's classic Wilt, too. He would later claim to have slept with 20,000 women in his life and when he said that, lots of people did the math and said there was no way that was possible given the fact they're only 24 hours in a day and Wilt only lived to the age of 63, but even the skeptics were like,  "Well, maybe it's 10,000 or 8000." It was an argument over whether it was an unbelievably high number or merely an incredibly high number.

Sports announcer: The big man of the Warriors and the big man of the league has 92 pointsÔøΩ

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, where every week we re-examine the forgotten and the misunderstood.

This week's episode is about Wilt Chamberlain's most famous game.

Sports announcer: Wilt's got the ball, he's got up, he shoots, it's good!

MG: So back to the game in question. Chamberlain makes his first 5 shots and his 23 points at the end of the first quarter. At half time, he has 41 points. No one's thinking history just yet, but then, by the end of the third quarter, he has 69 points and he keeps going and going and going.

Sports announcer: He shoots up! No good! Hit it out. The rebound [inaudible 00:03:18]. He made it! He made it! He made it! The fans are all over the floor.

MG: 100 points! The most anyone has ever scored in a professional basketball game. And here is the most incredible thing about it; he shot brilliantly from the foul line.

MG: What did he, what did heÔøΩ

Rick Barry: 28, he made 28 out of 30. 30 or or 32, yeah.

MG: That's Rick Barry speaking. He was a contemporary of Chamberlain's, also a Hall of Famer, an absolutely unstoppable scorer. I met him at his condo in South Carolina, where he lives part of the year so he can follow his son Canyon, who plays basketball for the College of Charleston. Barry is 72, 6 foot 8 inches tall, barrel chest, legs that look like he had special extensions put on them. And that thing the great athletes have, and never seem to lose, which is that they kind of glide across the floor like they have wheels on.

A big part of this episode is about Barry, but other people too because, although this sounds like it's going to be a show about basketball, the truth is it's not. It's a show about good ideas and why they have such difficulty spreading. But for the moment, back to Wilt Chamberlain.

Sports announcer: ChamberlainÔøΩ Makes it!

MG: He's made 28 out of his 32 shots from the free throw line, 87.5%. The reason that's incredible is that when Chamberlain came into the NBA, he was a horrendous free throw shooter, the worst. He was a man who could excel at virtually every physical feet under the sun, who could score at will with 2 and sometimes 3 defenders draped all over his body. But put him all alone 15 feet from the basket and he was hopeless. He was shooting 40% from the free throw line, that's terrible!

But this season, Chamberlain changes tactics. He starts to shoot his foul shots underhanded, he doesn't release the ball up by his forehead, he holds the ball between his knees, and flicks it towards the basket from a slight crouch. And all of a sudden, he's a pretty good free throw shooter. He gets up to more than 60%. And that special night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he's an incredible free throw shooter.

Sports announcer: Chamberlain on the lineÔøΩ Foul shot up in the air, he has 84!

MG: He makes 28 free throws. The most anyone has ever made in NBA history. What Rick Barry will tell you is that shooting underhanded is simply a better way to make foul shots. And he knows that because he was one of the greatest foul shooters of all time, maybe the greatest.

RB: I missed 9 in, 10 in 1 season and 9 in another, in the whole season.

MG: To put that in perspective, LeBron James, the greatest player the current basketball generation, typically misses about 150 free throws a season. Rick Barry would miss 9 or 10.

RB: I think I shot 935 or something and 947, something like that.

MG: And Rick Barry only shot underhanded.

RB: From a physics standpoint, it's, it's a much better way to shoot. There's less things that can go wrong, less things that you have to worry about repeating properly in order for it to be successful, but the other thing is, is that who walks around like this?

MG: Yeah, with their hands in the air.

RB: This is not a natural position.

MG: Yeah.

RB: When I shoot underhanded free throws, where are my arms? Hanging straight down, the way they are normally. And so, I'm totally and completely relaxed, it's not in a situation where I have to worry about my muscles getting tense or tight. And then the shot itself, it's a much softer shot. So many of my shots, even if they're a little off, they hit so nice and soft and they'll still fall in the basket.

MG: The soft bounce.

RB: Much softer touch.

MG: Yeah.

RB: And so you, you, you have a little bit more margin for error. Some of those shots that are a little bit off line have a much better opportunity of going into the basket than when you shoot overhanded.

MG: So Wilt Chamberlain switches to a better shooting technique. It pays off in the greatest basketball game ever played. He's playing the way that Rick Barry proved basketball players ought to play. Then, something incredible happens. Wilt Chamberlain stops shooting underhanded, and he goes back to being a terrible foul shooter.

Let's think about what he did for a moment. Chamberlain had a problem. He tested out a possible solution. The solution worked and all of a sudden, he's fixed his biggest weakness as a player. This is not a trivial matter. If you're a basketball player, and you can't hit your free throws, you're an incredible liability to your team, particularly at the end of close games. The other side simply fouls you every time you touch the ball because they know you'll miss your free throw and they'll get the ball back. If you can't hit your foul shots, it means you can't be used in a tight game. You know what Chamberlain's coach said to him?  "If you were a 90% shooter, we might never lose."

MG: YouÔøΩ You got to know him quite well?

RB: I got to know him, you know, I just joked with him just, you know, said,  "Your technique was terrible. I mean, but, I mean, had you stuck with it," I mean, there's no telling what he would've done. I mean, the numbers he would've put up would have been insane because the only way they defended him was to foul him.

MG: Chamberlain had every incentive in the world to keep shooting free throws underhanded and he didn't. I think we understand cases where people don't do what they ought to do because of ignorance. This is not that, this is doing something dumb, even though you are fully aware that you're doing something dumb. By the way, there have been countless players like Chamberlain, players who could have been transcendent, devastating, if only they had been open to taking foul shots a different way. Take Shaquille O'Neal, up there with Wilt Chamberlain, is one of the greatest NBA centers of all time, but an absolutely horrendous free throw shooter. Barry tried to reason with him once.

MG: You, youÔøΩ Oh, you actually talked to Shaquille?

RB: Oh, I tried to get Shaq to change.

MG: Shaquille O'Neal was the same?

RB: Shaquille O'Neal and I tried to get him do it he said,  "Forget it, I'd rather shoot zero than shoot underhanded."

MG: I'm just fascinated by that.

RB: I don't understand it.

MG: Yeah.

RB: No, the difference is if Shaq was an 80% free throw shooter, he becomes the go-to guy on the court as opposed to go-to-the-bench guy. I mean, you, you change the dynamic of the game.

MG: No one shoots underhanded, not even Barry's teammates followed his lead — people who saw him shoot that way every day and never miss.

RB: There was one guyÔøΩ

MG: One guy only?

RB: Only. George Johnson, my teammate with the Warriors. He was, he, I think he was like 48, 50%, something like that and I worked with him for one season, I didn't get to stay with him. He didn't get the technique down just like, as much as I'd like it, but I think, eventually, a season or two later, I think George actually shot 80%. I can actually look it up; it would be interesting to see what he did. I'll get George Johnson's stats here, let me see,  "George Johnson's stats."  "Sorry, I didn't get that." Okay,  "Stats for George Johnson, NBA."  "Here are George Johnson's stats from the 2015 NFL season." NFL, yeah wrong guy, wrong season. Let me get that. But anyway, we'll look it up. It's, it's interesting I think.

MG: But what about on your, on your high school team? Did anyone follow you?

RB: Oh, no, nobody, no. I've only had one guy ever come to me, an NBA guy came to me, I won't tell you his name, but he came to me, he asked me to work with him, I did it, I worked with him. I had him shoot really well and he never had the nerve to go back and do it when he went back.

MG: Can you tell his name?

RB: No, I don't want to say his name. It's not fair to him.

MG:  "I don't want to say is name, It's not fair to him," like it's some kind of dark, shameful secret. College basketball is no different. Out of the thousands of college basketball players today, there are just two who shoot underhanded. One is a Nigerian-American who plays for Louisville, called Chinanu Onuaku; the other, is Canyon Barry, who plays for the College of Charleston and who, in case you missed this earlier, happens to be Rick Barry's son. In other words, there are only two conditions under which people will try the underhanded free throw. One, if their family is from another continent, and two, if they're an offspring of Rick Barry.

Jacob Smith: Anyway, do you want us to just quickly describe, like, what we are and what we're doing?

MG: That's my producer, Jacob Smith. He hung out with some players on the Columbia University women's basketball team and tried to get them to shoot underhanded. Our theory was, maybe this is just a dumb man's thing; maybe women are more rational when they're on the court.

Ara Talkov: So, we are in Colombia's basketball gym and we are going to compare overhand shooting to underhand shooting. Okay, here it goes.

MG: That's Ara Talkov, a junior on the team. She missed her first try.

JS: I want, I feel like you could bend the knee a little more than that, thatÔøΩ

MG: Then she makes the next two shots, her first two ever shooting underhanded. But Jacob couldn't get any of the Columbia players interested in switching over. Here's Sara Mead, senior point guard.

Sarah Mead: Ever since we were young, we were taught to shoot it overhand and, you know, as kids, you kinda play around with the idea of a granny shot or underhand but, yeah, I'm not sure we've ever taken it seriously.

MG: She calls it a  "granny shot." A shot used by one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Women are as bad as men!

We like to think that good ideas will spread because they're good, because their advantages are obvious. But that's not true. So why don't they? Or to put it another way, what is it about Rick Barry that allowed him to shoot this way and what is it about Wilt Chamberlain and all the others that stands in their way?

More in a moment, after this break.

Now back to our story. Let me try out a theory on you. It's from a sociologist named Mark Granovetter. Granovetter is one of the greatest social theorists of his generation. If you're an academic groupie like I am, Granovetter is like James Dean. So Granovetter came up with something called  "The Threshold Model of Collective Behavior." He was trying to answer the question of why people do things out of character. He used riots as his big example. Why do otherwise law abiding citizens suddenly throw rocks through windows?

Before Granovetter came along, sociologists tried to explain that kind of puzzling behavior in terms of beliefs. So the thinking went,  "You and I have a set of beliefs, but when you throw the rock through the window, something powerful must've happened in the moment to change your beliefs. Something about the crowd transforms the way you think." Here's Granovetter explaining that idea.

Mark Granovetter: There was a lot of intellectual tradition that said that when people got into a crowd, uh, their independent judgment went out the window and that they somehow became creatures of the crowd, uh, and that there was some kind of, I don't know, miasma of irrationality would settle over people and they would act in ways that they would never act if they were by themselves or if they weren't influenced by the mob mentality.

MG: But Granovetter doesn't buy it. He doesn't think that being part of the mob casts some kind of spell that makes everyone irrational. To his mind, it's much more subtle and complicated than that.

MG: People are pretty much who they are, but if the situation develops in a certain way, then there's a domino effect. People, some people are activated, and that activates other people, and that activates other people and it all happens so fast.

MG: Granovetter says that the issue isn't about people having beliefs about what's right and then suddenly losing those beliefs because they're in a mob. The issue is about thresholds.

Now, what does Granovetter mean by that word  "threshold"? A belief is an internal thing, it's a position we've taken in our head or in our heart. But unlike beliefs, thresholds are external, they're about peer pressure. Your threshold is the number of people who have to do something before you join in. Granovetter makes two crucial arguments. The first is that thresholds and beliefs sometimes overlap, but a lot of the time, they don't. When your teenage son is driving 100 miles an hour at midnight with three of his friends, it's not because he believes that driving 100 miles an hour is a good idea. In that moment, his beliefs are irrelevant. His behavior is guided by his threshold. An 18 year old, maybe drunk, at midnight, in a car with three of his friends, that person has a really low threshold. It doesn't take a lot of encouragement to get him to do something stupid.

Granovetter's second point is just as important. Everyone's threshold is different. There are plenty of radicals and troublemakers who might need only slight encouragement to throw that rock. Their threshold is really low. But think about your grandmother. She might well need her sister, her grandchildren, her neighbors, her friends from church, all of them to be throwing rocks before she would even dream of joining in. She's got a high threshold. The riot has to be going on for a very long time and has to involve a whole lot of people before grandma will join in.

Granovetter's argument goes on in much more detail, all of it fascinating, and I encourage you, if you're interested, to look it up online and read it because it's beautifully clear. But for the moment, I just want to focus on the one big implication of Granovetter's argument. What people believe isn't going to help you much if you want to understand why they try or don't try difficult or problematic or strange things. You have to understand the social context in which they're operating. Your grandmother's belief is that rioting is wrong but there are times when even grandmothers might throw rocks through windows.

Granovetter's theory explained a lot of things that had been puzzling to me. So, here's a good example. It's from an interview I did at the 92nd Street Y, in New York, with the economist Richard Thaler, who's one of the leading lights in what's called  "Behavioral Economics." He had a book coming out, called Misbehaving, and I really liked it, and we thought it'd be fun if we did an event together.

MG: You and I have met before, but the first time we met was at a hotel bar in Rochester.

Richard Thaler: Yes.

MG: The only time I've ever talkedÔøΩ

MG: Thaler's the kind of guy who's interested in everything, including sports, and there was a point in our conversation when he started to talk about the fact that the owners of professional football teams do things, on occasion, that are really stupid and inexplicable. Take the professional football draft.

For those of you who are not football fans, let me explain. Every year, all the draft eligible college football players are thrown into a big pool, and the 32 professional football teams pick the players they want, one by one. The first player taken is the one that people think will be the best professional player; that person gets the biggest salary. The second player taken is the one predicted to be the second best professional player and so on. And after every team has picked one player each, they all start again and do another round. Because the players selected in the first round are considered the most valuable, all the teams fight over them. They pay enormous sums of money and construct elaborate deals to try and acquire those high draft picks.

RT: The interesting thing about that is there's a market for picks. So you can trade the first pick for, say, half a dozen second round picks. That's what the market says. Now, that implies that the first pick is five times more valuable than an early pick in the second round.

MG: Thaler and a colleague named Cade Massey decide to analyze this assumption. Was it really true that a first round pick was worth half a dozen second round picks?

RT: If you compute the surplus a player provides to his team, meaning how good his performance is minus how much you have to pay him, what we found is the second round picks are actually more valuable than that first pick. But you can get five of those for that pick; it's the biggest anomaly I've ever found.

MG: The implication of Thaler and Massey's work is the teams should trade away their first round picks. They should stockpile players in the second and third rounds, who can be paid a lot less and are nearly as good. This is how you build a winning football team. So, what was the reaction of NFL teams to Thaler's idea? Well, not long after he and Cade Massey did their research, they got a call from the Washington Redskins.

RT: It was early in Dan Snyder's tenure as owner, and I met him and he said,  "Oh, we wanna know about this." And he introduced me, he said,  "I'm gonna send my people to see you." And they flew out to Chicago and met with Cade and me and we told them what our findings were and we basically have two pieces of advice: Trade down and lend picks this year for picks next year.

MG: With that last sentence, Thaler is referring to the second thing he and Massey discovered. Owners sometimes trade a pick in this year's draft for a pick in some future draft. They use a rule of thumb to figure out how to value the difference between a player you can use this year versus a draft pick you can't use until some future year. And Thaler and Massey discover that the rule of thumb makes no sense. It's completely irrational; it massively over values current picks and undervalues future picks. Like a good economist, Thaler talks about the value of that rule of thumb as an interest rate. It's like borrowing money.

RT: If you compute the real interest rate, it's 137% per year.

MG: In other words, for the privilege of having a player now as opposed to waiting a year, the owners pay a huge premium. They borrow money at 137% interest!

RT: These guys did not get to be billionaires borrowing at 137% per year, but that's the rule of thumb they use. So, anyway, we taught his guys, Dan's guys, what to do, and then we watched the draft eagerly that year and they traded up and borrowed a pick this year for one next year, so, okay.

MG: In other words, the Redskins did the exact opposite of what they should have done if they were rational. And they weren't the only ones. Thaler and Massey have consulted for three NFL franchises now and no one has ever followed their advice. It gets worse. There is a very respected economist, named David Romer, who famously proved that football teams would win more games if they didn't punt, if they simply use all 4 downs to try and gain 10 yards as opposed to giving the ball away to their opponents. So, since Romer published his work, are NFL teams less likely to punt on fourth down? You guessed it. No.

RT: To tell you how big this is, if you did this right, what we, we think you would win one game a year more. If you also learned to go for it more often on fourth down, another game and a half. So just being smart, you'd win at least two games a year on average.

MG: Two extra wins, in a 16 game season, just by acting a little bit differently. Who wouldn't do that? But nobody would! Now, is that because they're stupid? Because they have irrational beliefs? That was my first thought when I was listening to Thaler talk about his football research,  "Those dumb football owners." But that can't be right. You don't get to their level by being dumb. Surely, this is about thresholds. Football owners and coaches are a small group of people, they all know each other, they've all done things a certain way for a long time and doing things that way has made them a lot of money. They have a high threshold; these are a bunch of grandmothers. The only way any of them is going to change their behavior is if some radical goes first. And there are no radical owners in the NFL. There's just Richard Thaler, a geeky, middle-aged economist from the University of Chicago, with a bunch of equations that you need a PhD to understand.

RT: There's some geek at every team who's read our paper. You know, think of the Jonah Hill character in the movie Moneyball, right? And nobody pays attention to that guy.

MG: Apparently, there aren't a lot of radicals in basketball either, just the Barrys and Chinanu Onuaku, the Nigerian American who plays for Louisville, And, as it turns out, Mark Granovetter.

Mark Granovetter: When I was a teenager, and this would've been mostly in summer camp because I never really played basketball outside of summer camp, but I got to be very good at, at underhand free throwing.

MG: Oh, really?

MR: Yeah, yeah. I used, I used, I could make almost every shot.

MG: I was wrong. There are three conditions under which someone will try this shot. One, if you're an offspring of Rick Barry, two, if your family is from another continent, and three, if you're a world famous sociologist. This, I think, gets us a little closer to the puzzle of Wilt Chamberlain. In his autobiography, he has this throwaway comment on the subject of shooting underhanded. Chamberlain wrote,  "I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn't do it."

Two key things here: first he writes,  "I know I was wrong." Just as Granovetter would say, it's not Chamberlain's beliefs that are getting in the way, he knows it's wrong. Then,  "I felt silly, like a sissy." Remember the player for Columbia who described shooting underhanded as a  "granny shot"? That's what Chamberlain's talking about. He doesn't want to look foolish. He's a high threshold guy; he needs everyone to be doing something new before he's willing to join in. But Rick Barry, he's different.

Rick Barry's dad comes to him when he's a junior in high school and says,  "You really ought to shoot underhanded." Rick's a pretty good free throw shooter at that point, maybe 70% or so, but his dad tells him, he can do better.

MG: And your initial reaction is,  "I don't want to do it," right? Because it seemed to you like aÔøΩ

RB: Well, I can't do it. I mean, it's for the girls. I said,  "Dad," I always remember it and I tell people,  "Dad, they're gonna make fun of me. That's the way the girls shoot, I can't do that." He said,  "Son," and I remember this so clearly like it was yesterday,  "Son, they can't make fun of you if you're making them." And the first game I remember where I did it was on the road in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. I shot the free throw, a guy in the stands yells out,  "Hey Barry, you big sissy shooting like that." And the guy next to him, and I heard him very clearly, he said,  "What are you making fun of him for? He doesn't miss!" So my dad's prophecy came true and I was cool from that point forward, so I didn't care anymore what they said. If I'm making them that's all that really matters.

MG: What's interesting is that Barry actually has the same initial reaction as Wilt Chamberlain,  "I'm going to look like a sissy." But he thinks about it and he decides it doesn't bother him, or rather, his drive to be a better shooter is stronger than his worry about what others think of him. That's exactly what it means to have a low threshold. The same mindset that can lead someone to do something bad, like a teenager driving drunk with very little encouragement, can also lead to brave or innovative behavior. If you have a threshold of zero, you're someone who doesn't need the support or the approval or the company of others to do what you think is right.

Now here's the catch, the person who thinks this way is not always easy to be around. Barry was never embraced by his fellow players. There were a couple of notorious articles about him in the 1980s full of quotes like this from a former teammate,  "If you'd got to know Rick, you'd realize what a good guy he was. But around the league, they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. Half the players disliked Rick, the other half hated him." Here's another quote,  "He lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the UN, he'd end up starting World War 3."

RB: Yeah, well, I was, I was about winning and I was about giving my best effort and I had a very difficult time, uh, accepting the fact, I wouldn't accept the fact, that a teammate is not gonna play his hardest.

MG: Barry's been out of the game for more than 30 years, but just talking about basketball made him tense. There was a right way to play the game and when people didn't play it the right way, it drove him crazy.

RB: Watch

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