Taking Down the Goliaths of Basketball


PrinsenDavid vs. Goliath match-ups are one of my favorite experiences in coaching!  Now, to be the David typically means you’re a decided underdog and  you’re playing with a perceived disadvantage, but competing well, and even winning one of those games, is a memory that lasts a lifetime.  Best-selling author and deep thinker, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants arrived in my house this week just after our team suffered defeat at the hands of the 2012 Division III National Champ and pre-season #13 nationally ranked University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  It was a humbling loss, especially because we felt prepared, despite our inexperience.  As I think back to being the underdog, I’m asking the same question that Gladwell asks – “How can you win when the odds seem stacked against you?”  It’s important in basketball, but more importantly, in life!

LIFE –  The Advantages of Disadvantages (and vice versa!)

I’m anxious to read Gladwell’s research and more of his examples from a variety of social settings, but you can read some of his thoughts in his article for The New Yorker, in which he has some great references from the world of basketball.  Davids win more often than we think, but many of us rule out the possibility when it involves us.   We often overvalue what we perceive to be an advantage for the giant and over-emphasize what we think are our own disadvantages.  That’s when we make mistakes.  We think a task is too difficult and we think we’re not ready to handle it.  We often run from those confrontations or simply suffer through because we feel that we have no chance.  More often than we think, though, there are Davids every day facing up to giants and overcoming the odds.  Every one of us will have those moments, so why not prepare for them?

BASKETBALL – Take it to them!

I’ve had the opportunity to coach in some true David vs. Goliath situations, mostly as David!  I can remember getting crushed in many of them, but have also felt the exhilaration of pulling the upset or putting a major scare into the opponent.  Gladwell’s idea that underdogs who choose a plan that fits them and takes it right to the giant is completely accurate.



I coached women’s basketball at Baylor University long before Kim Mulkey, Brittany Griner, and National Championships.  In 1990, we had a great year in winning nine, yes nine, games!  In those days of the Southwest Conference we routinely lost to Arkansas by thirty or forty points, but on one given night we had a plan, stuck to it, and went straight at the  #8 team in the country and SWC Goliath.  In fact, they had a dominant center who seemed like a giant, but we had a plan to attack her with two smaller, athletic post players who used her penchant for blocking shots to get her on the bench in a hurry.  On the other side of the ball, we took advantage of their “glue” player, the one who sets all the screens and moves the ball.  We barely guarded her and dared her to shoot.  With the game on the line, she tentatively took and missed shots on two critical possessions.  She did everything else for her team, but she wasn’t comfortable with taking big shots and that’s what we forced her to do.

When you’re the underdog, you can’t walk in the gym with a “let’s see what happens” mentality.  You can’t allow a Goliath team to play the way they want to play.  You have to change the game.  And like David rushing out to face Goliath, you have to establish your intentions immediately.  It may be pressuring full-court against a dominant half-court team or playing a zone against a quicker team.  Davids can win when they search for and believe in their approach and more importantly, in their team.



As outlined by Malcolm Gladwell, Rick Pitino learned that as a freshman guard sitting on the bench at UMass in 1971 when Digger Phelps brought in his underdog Fordham team to play the Julius Erving-led team that hadn’t lost at home in two years.  With no player taller than 6’5, the Rams besieged UMass with an unrelenting full-court press.  They forced the Minutemen to play a style with which they weren’t familiar and turned the tables.  If you need a little inspiration, check out Top 25 NCAA Tournament Upsets, and as you realize how many of these you’ve forgotten, you’ll see that David comes out on top a lot more than we think!

FAITH –  There will always be giants to face!

Most people, believers or not, know the story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17), but too many of us push it into fairy tale land and think it’s just a nice story of believing in yourself or maybe, in a higher power.  And, while it shows us to face our problems, attack them, and turn disadvantages into advantages,  it really is a story of faith.  Not faith for the moment, but faith throughout life in this world.  David didn’t just face Goliath.  He faced giants his entire life, whether it was hatred from King Saul or the shame of his adultery, David chased after God’s heart by facing one giant after another.  Nobody explains that better than Max Lucado in his book, Facing Your Giants, when he outlines five principles (David picked up five stones) that can help:

1.  Remember past victories.

2.  Face God first before you face the giant (Prayer).

3.  The priority is God’s glory.

4.  Run toward your giant.

5.  Be persistent.

And as Max sums it up in this video, “Face your God and your giants will fall, but focus on your giants and you will.”

Post Script: Malcom Gladwell has written other fascinating books about society, including Outliers and The Tipping Point, but this recent book affected him on a personal and spiritual level.  Read more in this article on His Return to Faith.