Malcolm Gladwell appeared on Bill Simmons’s podcast today to advance the claim that Nigerians would be the best possible basketball team composed of members of any one race. He began by arguing that being Nigerian depended on the player’s parents’ country of origin, and then kept building from there. Nobody ever offered a good explanation for why this conversation was happening. Here are some highlights of the exchange, which starts at 41:33.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Before I go any further, let me just say that Nigerians, I have a special place in my heart for reasons I will explain, for Nigerians. There’s two reasons. I’ll give you the first reason, which is, my, I was thinking of this actually, today actually, hilar—when I was a kid, my dad was a math professor. And he had grad students. And the grad students in our household were the revered golden children, right? They would come to our house for dinner, my father would talk about them as if they were his own children. And his first grad student that I remember, when I was six or seven, was a Nigerian. And then he had Indians, and Africans, basically for his entire career. So as a kid, you know how when you’re a kid your reality is defined by the world you live in, I thought smart people, the geniuses in the world, were all Nigerians and Indians!
BILL SIMMONS [tersely]: Yeah.
Gladwell explained why he felt he could draw from a wider pool of candidates.
GLADWELL: First wrinkle: I had my 23andMe done the other day, and ah, I am 23 percent Igbo, Igbo being the dominant tribe in Nigeria. Why? Because that’s where black people in the West Indies came from Nigeria, or west Africa probably. So I think you can legitimately claim that anyone from Caribbean belongs on the Nigerian team.
SIMMONS: So you’re just claiming, it’s like a territorial draft, like they used to have in basketball in the late ‘50s.
This allowed Gladwell to add some shooting to his team.
GLADWELL: I don’t have shooters, right? I need a shooter. Where do I, let’s just think—oh! wait a minute. One of the greatest three-point shooters of all time.......’s father is Bahamian.
SIMMONS: Oh. Klay Thompson.
GLADWELL: Klay Thompson!
He justified his method to Simmons, who was by then the voice of reason:
SIMMONS: I still don’t understand how you went from Nigerian to you’re just grabbing all these other countries that just end in -ian.
GLADWELL: It’s legit. It’s legit. By the way, talk to, I notice is, whenever I speak to Nigerians who have been to Jamaica, they always say the same thing—or Jamaicans who’ve been to Nigeria! I was talking to this Nigerian recently who had just come back from Kingston, he was like, “I got off the plane and I was like ‘This is Lagos.’”
Gladwell then made his biggest coup:
GLADWELL: But I’m not done. So now I think, the last move I wanna make is, I think it’s fair, because Nigeria is just one little country [Ed. note: population 197 million], for them to also lay claim on neighboring African states. I think that’s fair. So who can I add from neighboring African states? Well, who grew up next door to Nigeria? Joel Embiid.
SIMMONS: Mm. You have a lot of centers on this team.
GLADWELL: But now so what am I missing? So now I got—
SIMMONS: You have no point guard.
GLADWELL: I need a point guard. Right? So where am I going to find a point guard?
SIMMONS: I don’t know. Just keep adding countries ‘til you’ve got a point guard.
GLADWELL: Bill, Bill. This is a great question. This is a creaky[?] question. Where am I going to find a point guard from subequatorial Africa, close to Nigeria? [Ed. note: Lagos to Johannesburg is a 95-hour drive] One of the greatest point guards in the game.
SIMMONS: Who’s that?
GLADWELL: You don’t know?
GLADWELL: Steve Nash. Born in Johannesburg!
SIMMONS: Oh wow.
Let’s just end on this note:
SIMMONS: Why don’t you just call it African? Why is it Nigerian?
GLADWELL: Well, because the heart, its heart is Nigerian.
SIMMONS: So it’s the capital.
GLADWELL: I mean this is really, this is about Nigerians owning the fact that they could put together the greatest basketball team of all time. I don’t think you can—try, just try and come up with a team that beats that, under my categories.
SIMMONS: So, part of this theory is you feel like Nigeria in general is underrated.
GLADWELL: Completely underrated.
SIMMONS: As an athletic powerhouse.
Again, these are just a few selected highlights. The conversation went on for a very long time, and any person who spent any of the last decade gassing up Gladwell’s pseudo-intellectual yammering should be forced to listen to it. Tune in next time to hear the phrenology takes of a hopped-up thinkovator barely suppressing his self-satisfied laughter.