David, Goliath, and the Basketball Court

This is a pretty interesting article from the New Yorker. It looks at a mediocre basketball team with a coach who’d never played basketball that had phenomenal success by playing to their advantages and fundamentally changing the way basketball is changed. It then compares the tactics used by the team to David against Goliath, and Lawrence of Arabia’s men against the Turks to paint a pretty interesting pictures of how and why underdogs come out on top.

It sheds some light, from the perspective of tactical warfare, on what made David’s course of attack so brilliant. The article leads to three major conclusions:

  1. Traditional warfare would have been heavy armor and swords, both of which favor bigger, stronger warriors. Fighting in this way concedes the battle to Goliath at the outset, since it fights it on his terms. David rejects this form of combat (1 Samuel 17:38-39).
  2. David’s style instead plays to his strengths (speed, agility, accuracy with a sling from his days as a shepherd). He’s even carrying his a pouch for the stones, since he’s used to chasing away beasts in this way (1 Sam. 17:40), and he’s used to fighting off animals in this way (1 Sam. 17:34-36). And, of course, since Goliath is a giant, he’s a giant target. The size that would be a strength in hand-to-hand combat is a weakness in avoiding deadly-fast rocks flying at one’s head.
  3. Additionally, David throws the rhythm of the battle by running at Goliath while Goliath slowly advanced (1 Sam. 17:48). This is classic for successful underdogs: the basketball team did it through forty-eight straight minutes of full-court press, and by contesting every single on-sides pass; T.E. Lawrence did it by traveling hundreds of miles a week, attacking all over the place, and forcing the Turks to constantly shift their over-sized forces towards defense.
  4. David’s success, like T.E. Lawrence’s and Coach Ranadiv√©’s, is that he was an outsider. It’s one of the reasons he was so easily able to adopt a style that suited him — he hadn’t be trained in the style he was “supposed” to be doing — that is, the traditional form of warfare that was getting all of the other Israelites killed. He’s such an outsider, having essentially wandered onto the battlefield by mistake while bringing food to his brothers (1 Sam. 17:20); after the battle, the King and his General still have no idea who he is (1 Sam. 17:55-58).


  1. Very interesting.

    As a follow up, and I don’t know if you can find it on-line, but there’s a show called “ultimate warrior” – I won’t go into details now – were they have mythical warriors fight each other through a combination of computer simulations and real-life re-enactments. Anyway, they found the world sling shot champion, (I didn’t even know there was a competition) a guy from Spain, and had him re-create the shot. The point is that the shot is nothing short of miraculous, because while you definitely generate enough force to kill with a shot like that, the expose area left by Goliath’s helmet was calculated to be of about 10 square inches, and as the world champion proved, hitting such a small target with deadly speed was extremely difficult. It took him several shots to adjust his aim and finally hit the target with the force needed. They demonstrated through the use of sensors, a pig’s skull (I think that’s what it was) and the opinion of a trauma specialist, that hitting the helmet would have stunned Goliath, at best, if not only annoyed him.

    So actually, Goliath wasn’t a huge target, but a rather small one of 10 sq. inches, which makes David’s accomplishment all the more amazing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *