Playing Telephone with Malcolm Gladwell

by Lang Whitaker

I was zipping around the internet yesterday afternoon when I saw this post by Malcolm Gladwell, linked to from The Big Lead. Gladwell’s post is a long rambling thing connecting disparate ideas (surprise!) that is designed to say, in short: people who criticize others shouldn’t criticize because they don’t understand how hard it can be to do what that person does. I think.

Anyway, the thing that got me was the first paragraph. Gladwell writes…

I remember once having a discussion with a guy who knew a lot about professional basketball. He said he had asked a big sample of NBA players who they felt would be the most formidable one-on-one opponent in the league. The answer was fairly unanimous: Vince Carter. Now that’s surprising. Why Carter and not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or any number of other, far more accomplished, offensive players? The answer, this guy told me, was the same in nearly every case: “you have no idea how hard it is to do the things that Carter does.”

Why was this interesting?

In March of last year, I went (with Russ and Ben) to the Kings/Nets game out in New Jersey. After the game I got into a discussion with several Kings players. I wrote the following on March 7, 2006, on the old The Links…

In another corner of the locker room, a bunch of Kings players are deep in discussion. (I’m going to keep them anonymous so no beef arises.) I get called over and the following question is asked to me: If you were playing pick-up basketball and had to pick one of these guys to be on your team, which would you take: Vince, Richard Jefferson or LeBron?

I didn’t understand it at first — “Wait,” I asked, “Are you playing two-on-two?” — but after it was eventually explained to me — “Just pick the guy you’d want” — I picked LeBron. No question.

And all the players went nuts. “LeBron?” they asked.

“Who would you guys pick?” I said.

Unanimously and loudly, their answer was clear: “Vince.”

I couldn’t figure this out. I know Vince used to be an amazing player, but now he’s just a guy who mainly stands around outside and takes fadeaway threes.

“Would you want Vince because he’d be calling fouls throughout the game?” I wondered.

“No, we’d play with refs,” one player said.

Eventually, I got their ringleader to admit that he’d take LeBron if he was starting a franchise, but for one game, he’d want Vince.

Now, fast forward to SLAM editor-in-chief Ryan Jones’s post in the comments section here, where he wrote…

It’s through Chuck that I also (briefly) met Malcolm Gladwell, another well-known, populist-appealing culture critic who also happens to be a huge and knowledgable hoop fan.

So where does all this lead us?

Well, I know I told Ryan the previous story, and I’m betting he passed it on to Gladwell, because I know Ryan told me about meeting Gladwell at a party once at Chuck Klosterman’s.

Which means somehow we went from four Kings players (only one a starter, by the way) telling me they’d want Vince Carter on their team in a pickup game to Malcolm Gladwell saying a “big sample” of NBA players say Vince is the most formidable one-on-one opponent in the NBA. It’s like a game of “telephone,” where a phrase gets whispered in one ear and and by the time it makes its way around the room it has morphed into something completely different. Only here the wrong phrase is used as the basis for a long, heartfelt post.

Should we tell him he’s way off? Ah, isn’t the internet great?