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.

Relentlessly Doing Your Job

As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.

Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:

Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.

and added (emphasis mine):

If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.

Lowe remarks:

This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:

That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.

I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.

Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.

On communication:

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”

Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.

That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.

On accountability:

After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”

Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.

On culture:

There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.

Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”

“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”

Chucky and my Vision Board

I was in my late 30s at the end of 2012 when I decided to leave the company I had co-founded. I was predictably existential, both about my work and my life. I was also completely burned out, and I was more than happy to set aside any anxiety I might have about the future, and simply take a break.

After the weariness went away, I had a brief surge of energy and excitement, which slowly gave way to anxiety. I was scared of starting over. I believed in myself, but I was afraid that others didn’t. On top of all that, I had brazenly decided to put myself through an intellectually rigorous process of challenging every assumption I had about how to do my work well, not realizing that this would slowly, but surely chip away at all that hard-earned self-belief.

One of my coping mechanisms was to collect articles about people whose stories resonated and inspired me. I placed these articles in a folder entitled, “Vision Board.”

One of the articles I clipped was about Jon Gruden (also known as Chucky, because his intense grimace resembled the murderous doll’s expression). I briefly mentioned why I did this in a blog post later that year, but the longer explanation is:

  • The Raiders hired him as their head coach when he was 34
  • After leading the Raiders back to contention, owner Al Davis famously “traded” him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year, at 39, Chucky and the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
  • He was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009 at 45

Everyone expected him to get right back into coaching, but he didn’t. Instead, he rented an office in Tampa Bay and proclaimed it headquarters for FFCA (Fired Football Coaches of America). It was a place where he could continue to study the game, and where people who loved football as much as he did could hang out and pick his brain. The space was pure, devoid of selfish interests tarnishing his viewpoints. And coaches and quarterbacks at all levels came in droves to hang out with Gruden.

(Another frequent guest, as it turns out, was Mark Davis, son of Al, who took over the Raiders when the elder Davis passed away.)

Over the years, his role evolved to include chief analyst of Monday Night Football and host of Gruden’s QB Camp, which quickly became legendary. Every year, people expected him to jump back into coaching, but year after year, he turned down all comers. He was happy doing his thing, which included both football and spending time with his family, something that wouldn’t be possible as a coach.

Gruden’s story resonated with me — his intense passion, his devotion to the game, his age when he stopped coaching, and his creativity in balancing his passion with his other interests while resisting the pull to coach purely out of habit.

Today, the prodigal son came home. Gruden decided it was time to coach again, and in a twist of all twists, he’ll be coaching the Raiders. Mark Davis apparently had been trying to re-hire Gruden for the past six years, and it finally happened.

I’m happy for Gruden and for Raiders fans. I “came out of retirement” myself a little over two years ago, so his ongoing story and the different parallels continue to inspire me.

Photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods. Public domain and found in Wikimedia Commons.

Why Are We Afraid of Data?

My friend, Gbenga Ajilore, is an economics professor. Last month, he gave a great talk at AlterConf in Chicago entitled, “How can open data help facilitate police reform?” It concisely explains how data helps us overcome anecdotal bias.

I was particularly struck by his point about how we need police buy-in for this data to be truly useful, and I was left with a bit of despair. Why is buy-in about the importance of data so hard? This should be common sense, right?

Clearly, it’s not. Earlier this year, I expressed some disbelief about how, in professional sports, where there are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on outcomes, there is still strong resistance to data and analytics.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

The first time I started to understand the many social forces that cause us to resist data was right after college, when I worked as an editor at a technology magazine. One of my most memorable meetings was with a vendor that made a tool that analyzed source code to surface bugs. All software developers know that debugging is incredibly hard and time-consuming. Their tool easily and automatically identified tons and tons of bugs, just by feeding it your source code.

“This is one of the best demos I’ve ever seen!” I exclaimed to the vendor reps. “Why isn’t everyone knocking on your door to buy this?”

The two glanced at each other, then shrugged their shoulders. “Actually,” one explained, “we are having a lot of trouble selling this. When people see this demo, they are horrified, because they realize how buggy their code is, and they don’t have the time or resources to fix it. They would rather that nobody know.”