‘This is the Most Inexplicable Story in Sports of the Last 20 Years’

An interview with Erik Malinowski, author of ‘Betaball,’ which details the improbable rise of the Golden State Warriors.

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 7 minutes (1,769 words)

When Erik Malinowski was wrapping up the proposal for what would eventually become Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in Historyhe happened to spot the latest cover story for the New York Times Magazine and his heart nearly stopped. The feature, written by Bruce Schoenfeld in March 2016, detailed the rise of the Golden State Warriors through the guise of its front office and the team’s devotion to analytics and data, which sounded much like the book Malinowski was trying to pitch.

“I was gutted at first,” says Malinowski, a prolific freelance writer who also hosts one of the most insightful and interesting sports writing newsletters. “I thought [the New York Times Magazine] blew up my spot. The story’s framework was in parallel of what I was proposing with book.” But then he took a step back and realized there was so much more to the rise of the Warriors (which has won two of the last three NBA titles) than could be covered in just one magazine piece. It was proof of concept: “If the New York Times Magazine put a story on the Warriors on the cover, then this is a thing people want to read about.”

One year later, Malinowski’s book is a deep-dive into not only the fraught history of the Warriors’ franchise, a once proud team at the NBA’s founding that had been reduced to a bumbling and mismanaged group of castaways, but also a team that had essentially redefined the NBA. Sure, having a player like Steph Curry, a once-in-a-generation talent with endless range, helped fuel its rise, but Malinowski also details how the Warriors helped to drag basketball into the modern age—and, in the process, transformed into an annual title contender.

I recently spoke with Malinowski about the ordeals of writing his book, whether this type of embedded sports journalism is still possible, and why the Warriors represent not just a shift in playing style but also political and societal awareness.

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As a beat writer, there is a familiarity with a team, especially while reporting a book like this. Were you concerned about a lack of transparency because the players and coaches might not feel comfortable with your presence?

I had been around the team for the preceding three seasons, and then I also wrote about them sporadically going back to the spring of 2011, when no one was writing about the Warriors, so I wasn’t too concerned. I had a lot of reporting built up over the years, and I knew I had to round out the reporting as I covered the team last season. All of that went pretty much as I expected.

How did the Warriors’ front office react to the news of the book? I can’t imagine they were thrilled, even if it was good publicity.

The team was at a detente. They knew I was writing a book, but we didn’t talk about it out loud, so even if they didn’t officially participate in some way, they were upfront with me. ‘This is not something we will make difficult for you to accomplish.’ And they could have made it extremely difficult. They could have revoked my credentials at any time.

David Halberstam set the template for embedded sports reporting with Breaks of the Game, which is arguably one of the greatest sports books ever written. Did that concern you when you were pitching this book? To do something that had already been accomplished by one of the greats?

Right after last season, after the Warriors blew the finals in game seven, I am sitting down to get some words on the page, and I offhandedly began rereading Breaks of the Game, which was the worst thing I could have done. As a first time book writer, I immediately came away thinking ‘Why am I doing this? I made a terrible mistake!’ I am never going to get the level of access I need, and this book will never be as good as Halberstam’s. For about a month, I thought this would be a foolish endeavor, and then I snapped out of it, which allowed me time to do more reporting and research.

Did you feel that the various ins and outs of what you were reporting would be at the mercy of the beat writers who cover the team daily and would be able to land various scoops? And would that have been detrimental to your book?

There are only so many things you have control over. You need to do the best job you can in whatever ways you can do it. External factors will come into the process later on, and wreak havoc with this thing you created, but there is nothing you can do about it, so in a way, it is liberating. My strength as a reporter is not in the scoop-y stuff. I like to talk to people and find out about things people didn’t know before. I won’t drop a bomb like Woj [ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski]. My strength relies on bringing context to things, and doing the deep dive research, which comes from being a magazine fact-checker for seven years.

That’s where my strength as a reporter lies. Not doing a notebook dump and throwing everything I find in there. It’s about the proper level of context, and I think I achieved that with Betaball without losing the sense of immediacy.

Much of the Warriors’ strength is derived from the team’s use of technology and algorithms that—though now commonplace across the NBA—still give the team an edge. Did it surprise you when someone like [Golden State general manager] Bob Myers didn’t speak with you? I got the sense from reading you didn’t speak with him—is that right?

It was not unexpected. While the things we are talking about don’t have geopolitical ramifications, they are proprietary. Multiple billions of dollars have been spent to try and gain a competitive edge. And they are not going to give that away for free.

In the past few months, the Warriors, including Curry and coach Steve Kerr, have been very vocal about the state of the country’s politics, and about some of the societal inequalities that continue nationwide. Was that part of your proposal from the beginning? Or was that added only after you started reporting?

My initial proposal was definitely along the lines of embedding with the team and then following them through the course of the season. I wanted to follow through last season, and then interstitially go back and tell the tale of how the Warriors got to that spot over the last six years — jump back and forth in the chronology as necessary. And all of the book publishers I approached said no. Atria Books wanted the book sooner than that, because people want to read about the Warriors now.

Having said that, last season would have been a compelling case study of how a team on top of the sport can stay there and thrive while the players learn to harness their own voices — to understand the position that they hold, the influence that they wield, and not to shrink from that but embrace it. From Draymond [Green] to Steph and Andre [Iguodala], all of these guys understand their role in sports and society. So while it is not the kind of book I got to write, this is all reflected in the book I did write. The reader can see the seeds of all that stuff and how it was planted.

Would that have been the case if Mark Jackson, and not Kerr, was still head coach?

There would have been an upward trajectory, but it would not have resembled exactly what we see right now. That is a direct result of having learned from and associated with someone like Steve Kerr for the last four years. It would be similar, though, if Mark had remained head coach, but Kerr and the front office in place and the collection of players are really kind of perfect [for each other]. They are the perfect team for this time and period. All of their experiences and attitudes mesh perfectly, and that is why they have had such an impact on popular culture.

What was also fascinating while reading Betaball is how the proximity to Silicon Valley has become a draw for free agents. It used to be Miami, New York, or Los Angeles were the top destinations. But now, players are investing in start-ups and taking meetings with venture capitalists, and Silicon Valley’s boon has been a enticing lure for the Warriors.

Yes, and surprisingly so. Silicon Valley has been around for 20 or 30 years before Andre signed a free agent contract here [in 2013], but the idea that it could be a part of the recruiting process is new. It makes sense in hindsight. New York City and Hollywood have the media market cornered, but we live in a society where tech is now one of its pillars. But I don’t think any of this happens if Andre doesn’t sign that free agent contract. None of the other dominoes fall and this team doesn’t win two championships. His signing convinced players that something else was here, even if it wasn’t the center of the entertainment world: ‘Maybe I need to tell my agent to put Golden State on my list of prospective teams.’ And then that becomes self-fulfilling. They can now ride that reputation for years to come, and are so closely associated with being a marquee destination in the NBA.

It’s cool to be nerdy.

A lot of the framework for this book lies around the Silicon Valley mindset. All the voices in the room have the same weight. Athletes and coaches and quants and executives, everyone is walking shoulder to shoulder, obvious height disparities aside. Everyone has a stake in the outcome. That may sound obvious, and the way any functioning workplace would want to operate, but that is a foreign concept outside of the NBA and American professional sports.

This is the most inexplicable story in sports of the last 20 years. No one would have ever expected this success from a team like the Warriors. I just think we have a real attention deficit when it comes to elite teams, and how they are constructed. The machinations and decisions made—and not made—that go into this sort of thing. I wanted to write something that people would read now, or in five years time, and say, ‘That makes more sense now.’ Or ‘I remember that.’

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Matt Giles is a staff writer and chief fact-checker at Longreads.