Networks and Pickup Basketball

When I read about or listen to others talking about networks, I often find the examples people cite to be too narrow. They’re either Internet-mediated networks (which are interesting) or organizational networks (which are not). I wish that more people would consider things that look like the intersection of the two — networks that look similar to the Internet, but are not primarily mediated by the Internet.

One of my favorite examples of this also happens to be one of my passions: pickup basketball — casual, just-for-fun (but sometimes highly competitive) games that anyone can start or join. Not all games are open, but most of them are. You can find a pickup game pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that the rules and norms — mostly unwritten — are almost identical, with some common variations. Half court or full? Ones-and-twos or twos-and-threes? Winner takes ball? Win, you’re in?

Still, each game is made up of different people, and as such, has its own culture and practices. Some games are unapologetically meritocratic — as long as you win, you stay on the court. Other games are more inclusive — if you win two games in a row, you sit and let others play. In my game, we stop play when someone falls. There was never any up-front agreement about this. Someone started doing it in the early days, and it was highly appreciated by the older players (i.e. me).

I’ve had many regular pickup games over the years, some of which I’ve started, some of which I’ve joined. In some cases, I accidentally stumbled upon them and just kept showing up. In other cases, people would add me to their mailing lists or online forums.

One of my favorite organizing models was a game a colleague invited me to join in Menlo Park in the early 2000s. We generally played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Someone had set up a mailing list, and on the morning of, someone — it could be anyone — would send an email to the list with the number, “1.” That meant they wanted to play. If you were up for joining, you would respond to the list and increment the number. In other words, the next person would respond, “2,” the next would respond, “3,” and so forth. If you hit, “4,” you had enough to play, and the game would officially be on.

I currently play every Sunday morning at Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco, a hidden gem with views of the Bay and the Presidio. We’ve been playing every Sunday for four years. Originally, a few friends and I invited others to come play. After a few sessions, someone started a Facebook group and invited more people that way. Initially, he would set up an event every week. One weekend, he was heading out-of-town. He didn’t tell anyone, but I noticed that he hadn’t set up the event as usual, so I decided to do it. For a while, I kept doing it. Then, I needed to head out-of-town. Sure enough, someone else stepped up and set up the event without anyone asking.

We also have gotten a good number of folks who accidentally came upon the game and kept showing up. Some of them are on the Facebook group, but many are not, not because we’re trying to exclude anyone, but because it’s largely unnecessary at this point. We’re consistent enough that if you show up, we’ll likely be there.

How is pickup basketball like the Internet?

First, there’s some basic infrastructure — a hard surface, a backboard, a basket, and a ball.

Second, there are protocols. Some of them are formal and unshakeable. For example, on the Internet, there’s the Internet Protocol, the base-level protocol that everything on the Internet uses. With pickup basketball, there are the basic rules of basketball — between 1-5 people per team, dribble with one hand only, once you stop, you have to pass or shoot, whichever team scores more wins, etc.

Some of them are informal and loosely enforced, such as the aforementioned pickup basketball variations. Most of the protocols on the Internet began as RFC’s (Request for Comments) — informal technical specs and design documents. Many — such as HTTP, the basis for the World Wide Web — were widely adopted before ever becoming officially standardized.

Third, they’re both decentralized and open, which leaves a lot of room for experimentation and different kinds of leadership (both good and bad). I’ve already mentioned the different cultures and kinds of organizing you’ll find at different pickup games. Another important form of leadership worth noting is the role the NBA plays. It can’t directly dictate what happens on the thousands of basketball courts around the world. However, its athletes and teams have been very intentional in investing in infrastructure — building and maintaining courts, for example — and for acting as ambassadors. The league as a whole has created many channels via media (both old and new) and on-the-ground work to create more exposure for the game all across the world. That ultimately enables the NBA to do what it does best — inspire people all over the world to watch and play the game.

The NBA doesn’t hold meetings for “representatives” of the pickup game network to try to align around a shared vision or to discuss pickup game governance. It doesn’t do social network analysis to try to demonstrate impact. It articulates its own vision of the game by stewarding and showcasing the best players in the world, it invests in infrastructure so that more people can play, and it invests in visibility so that more people are inspired to play.

Folks who are attempting to professionalize networks could learn a whole lot from pickup basketball.

A Special Moment Between Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff

At yesterday’s U.S. Open third-round match, Naomi Osaka — the number one ranked women’s tennis player in the world — beat 15-year old prodigy, Coco Gauff, in straight sets (6-3, 6-0). It was totally expected, and most sports outlets didn’t even bother covering this early round match.

Then Osaka did something wonderful. She asked Gauff to join her for her post-match interview, which is generally reserved for the winner of the match. As Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Undefeated wrote:

“Naomi asked me to do the on-court interview with her and I said no, because I knew I was going to cry the whole time, but she encouraged me to do it,” Gauff said during the televised interview, still wiping away tears. “It was amazing. She did amazing and I’m going to learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me.”

What a moment — so raw, so genuine, so vulnerable and sweet, made even more so by the fact that Osaka, too, began to choke up as she made a point to praise Gauff’s parents, Candi and Corey.

“You guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka, 21, said. “I remember I used to see you guys — I don’t wanna cry — I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and I think, Coco, you’re amazing.”

As McDonald later wrote:

But Osaka’s actions did something else, too. Osaka took the love her hero, Serena Williams, expressed for her in an essay in the July issue of Harper’s Bazaar and paid it forward. Intentional or not, black girl magic became black girl solidarity. And it happened at the site of the ugliest championship finish in US Open history, when Osaka defeated Williams a year ago to win her first Grand Slam, only to have the event marred by boos directed toward official Carlos Ramos.

In a text message to Osaka, which Williams published in her essay, Williams wrote: “I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan!”

Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker added (hat tip to Mark Szpakowski for the link):

What Osaka did after the match has been called an example of sportsmanship, but that doesn’t do it justice. It wasn’t a nice word of encouragement as she and Gauff hugged at net, or a few gracious comments as she addressed the crowd. It was an act of compassion. It was also unusual, and a little awkward, and brave, in its way. It probably mattered that Osaka had been there herself, standing in Arthur Ashe Stadium in tears the year before, although under very different circumstances, after a controversial coaching violation was issued to her opponent, Serena Williams. It certainly mattered that Osaka was one of the few people alive who knew what it was like to be a young woman of color at this level of tennis in 2019, an outsider in a traditionally clubby sport; to be a young person surrounded by people who want to make money off of her (and wanting to make money herself); to feel the intensity of the spotlight—warmed by it one moment, burned by it the next. She knew what it was like to lose a big match. She knew the tears. She knew the lonely shower. More than once during the U.S. Open, she has said that something about Gauff reminds her of herself. There was a protective solidarity in that moment.

But it was also generous, and it included everyone: the crowd, though much of it had not been cheering for Osaka during the match, and also people hundreds or thousands of miles away watching at home. (I felt it, certainly.) In 2019, kindness feels like a political act, perhaps especially in the context of competition. I thought, as I watched, of something that Gauff had said about Osaka: “I think she shows us how to compete, and the way to be off the court, too.”

Pretty great things happening from some pretty great leaders in women’s tennis right now.

As a little bonus, The New York Times Magazine recently did a great profile on Venus Williams, in many ways the matron of this current generation of exceptional black women tennis players.

Baselines and Narratives

I haven’t read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, but I have found the reviews and their virality fascinating. Here’s what the New York Times, National Review, and Rolling Stone had to say. The Amazon.com reviews are mediocre at best.

There is something lurid and compelling about reading a retrospective about a failed campaign. It’s like looking at a train wreck — it’s hard to tear your eyes away, even if you want to. Unlike a train wreck, however, it’s hard to assess how “bad” Clinton’s campaign actually was, and what I’m reading about the book doesn’t seem to help.

In my experience working with organizations and their leaders, including some very good ones, there is a baseline of dysfunction that would surprise most people. Internal effectiveness and good strategy matter (which is what keeps me employed), but they’re not the only factors that contribute to success. You have to be very careful about attribution bias, especially when dealing with complex, systemic challenges.

So far, most of the retrospectives and commentary I’ve read have reeked of attribution bias.

The one thing that stuck out for me in reading the reviews were the points about Clinton’s lack of a clear narrative. The National Review, for example, wrote:

In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”

Again, I see this all the time working with leaders. It’s hard to identify a clear and compelling narrative and to stay on message, but it’s important. In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute this challenge to the Curse of Knowledge. Effective leaders have lots of knowledge, but that knowledge can get in the way of telling a clear story.

Crib Notes on Golden State Warrior’s Collaborative Culture

Even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, they have clearly established an extraordinary culture of performance and collaboration. Kevin Arnovitz outlined some elements of this culture in his excellent piece, “Fun and games: Warriors winning culture faces biggest test.” In particular:

An inclusive culture that values original (sometimes contrarian) thinking:

People up and down the Warriors’ org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team’s culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking — even contrarianism — agreeably.

Deliberative decisions and lots of communication. I particularly liked this story about doing their due diligence on Shaun Livingston:

“Decisions are made collaboratively,” Kerr said. “There’s a ton of discussion that goes into what we’re going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It’s healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view.”

“Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis,” Myers said. “It’s rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We’re having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We’re all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you’d call a buddy to check in.”

Joy and work-life balance as values:

Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization…. The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: “Either get s— done or go have fun.” Work is honored, and it’s vital to the development of both the team and the individual players…. But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did.

Diverse, sometimes unconventional thinkers and interests with a learning mindset. The Warriors have a 10% rule to encourage personal pursuits.

Super Bowl Collaboration Lessons: Data, Preparation, and Accountability

The New England Patriots won its fourth Super Bowl last night, beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in a thrilling contest and a crazy finish. I normally root against all Boston sports teams, but I made an exception this year, because Tom Brady is of my generation, and I can’t be mad when an old guy wins.

(If you’re not interested in football, skip ahead to my takeaways.)

For those of you who didn’t see the game, the ending was exciting and… surprising. New England was up by four points with about two minutes left, when Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, threw a long pass to unheralded receiver Jermaine Kearse. The Patriots undrafted, rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made an unbelievable play on the ball that should have effectively ended the game.

Except that miraculously, the ball hit Kearse’s leg as he was falling on the ground, and Kearse somehow managed to catch the ball on his back. The Seahawks had a first down five yards away from the end zone, and, with the best power running back in the game, Marshawn Lynch, they seemed destined to steal this game from the Patriots. Sure enough, Lynch got the ball on the next play and rumbled his way to the one-yard line with a minute to spare.

To understand what happened next, you have to understand how clock management works in the NFL. The Seahawks had one minute and three chances to move the ball one yard and win the game. The clock would run down continuously unless one of two things happened: the Seahawks threw an incomplete pass or one of the teams called a timeout. (Technically, they could also stop the clock by running out of bounds, but that was unlikely scenario given their field position.) The Seahawks only had one timeout remaining, meaning that they could stop the clock with it once. The only other way it could stop the clock was to throw an incomplete pass.

At the same time, the Patriots had a very hard decision to make. If the Seahawks scored, then the Patriots would need enough time to score as well. With a minute left, they had a chance. Any less, and they were as good as done.

To summarize, the Seahawks top priority was to score. It’s second priority was to do so with as little time as possible left on the clock, so that the Patriots didn’t have a chance to answer. The Patriots either had to try to stop the Seahawks from scoring, or — if they believed that the odds of that happening were unlikely — they needed to let the Seahawks score as quickly as possible, so that they had a chance to answer.

That was the complicated version of the situation, at least. The joy of football is that it is both wildly complex and brutally simple. The simple version of the situation was this: One yard, three chances. Give ball to big, strong man known affectionately as “Beast mode.” Watch him rumble into end zone. Celebrate victory.

That was the version that most people — myself included — saw, so when the Seahawks decided to try to pass the ball, most everybody was shocked. The reason you don’t pass in that situation is that you risk throwing an interception. That’s exactly what happened. Malcolm Butler, the unlucky victim of Kearse’s lucky catch two plays before, anticipated the play, intercepted the ball, and preserved the Patriots victory.

The media — both regular and social — predictably erupted. How could they throw the ball on that play?!

(Okay, takeaways start here.)

I took three things away from watching the game and that play in particular.

First, I had assumed — like most of America — that Pete Carroll, Seattle’s head coach, had made a bungling error. But when he explained his reasoning afterward, there seemed to be at least an ounce of good sense behind his call.

With about 30 seconds remaining, in the worst case scenario, Carroll needed to stop the clock at least twice to give his team three chances to score. They only had one timeout. So, they would try a pass play first. If they scored, then they would very likely win the game, because the Patriots would not have enough time to score. If they threw an incomplete pass, the clock would stop, and the Seahawks would have two more chances to try to score, both times likely on the ground.

Still, it seemed like a net bad decision. It still seemed like handing the ball off the Lynch was a lower risk move with a higher probability of success in that situation.

It turns out that when you look at the actual numbers, it’s not clear that this is the case. (Hat tip to Bob Blakley for the pointer to the article.) In fact, the data suggests that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichik, made the more egregious error in not calling a timeout and stopping the clock. It may have even behooved him to let the Seahawks score, a strategy he employed in the Super Bowl four years earlier. Or, maybe by not calling timeout, Belichik was demonstrating a mastery of game theory.

The bottom line is that the actual data did not support most people’s intuitions. Both coaches — two of the best in the game — had clearly done their homework, regardless of whether or not their decisions were right or wrong.

Second, regardless of whether or not the decision was good or bad, I loved how multiple people on the Seahawks — Carroll, Wilson, and offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell — insisted that they were solely responsible for the decision. There was no finger pointing, just a lot of leaders holding themselves accountable. Clearly, there is a very healthy team dynamic on the Seahawks.

Third, I loved Malcolm Butler’s post-game interview, not just for the raw emotion he displayed, but for what he actually said. He made an unbelievable play, which he attributed to his preparation. He recognized the formation from his film study, and he executed. All too often, we see remarkable plays like Butler’s, and we attribute it to incredible athleticism or talent, when in reality, practice and preparation are responsible.