Essay May 2009

He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet.

He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court.

Lawrence decided to attack from the east instead, coming at the city from the unprotected desert, and to do that he led his men on an audacious, six-hundred-mile loop—up from the Hejaz, north into the Syrian desert, and then back down toward Aqaba.

This was in summer, through some of the most inhospitable land in the Middle East, and Lawrence tacked on a side trip to the outskirts of Damascus, in order to mislead the Turks about his intentions.

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees.

Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good? They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants.Vivek Ranadivé is an elegant man, slender and fine-boned, with impeccable manners and a languorous walk. T., because he saw a documentary on the school and decided that it was perfect for him.His father was a pilot who was jailed by Indira Gandhi, he says, because he wouldn’t stop challenging the safety of India’s planes. This was in the nineteen-seventies, when going abroad for undergraduate study required the Indian government to authorize the release of foreign currency, and Ranadivé camped outside the office of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India until he got his way. In 1985, Ranadivé founded a software company in Silicon Valley devoted to what in the computer world is known as “real time” processing.But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening.It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley.“Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.” The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms, and Lawrence’s troops were legs.In one typical stretch, in the spring of 1917, his men dynamited sixty rails and cut a telegraph line at Buair on March 24th, sabotaged a train and twenty-five rails at Abu al-Naam on March 25th, dynamited fifteen rails and cut a telegraph line at Istabl Antar on March 27th, raided a Turkish garrison and derailed a train on March 29th, returned to Buair and sabotaged the railway line again on March 31st, dynamited eleven rails at Hediah on April 3rd, raided the train line in the area of Wadi Dhaiji on April 4th and 5th, and attacked twice on April 6th.What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6.When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “”Consider the way T. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War.Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball.The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting.

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