‘Wooden’ as flesh and blood, not a coaching god

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The more you know legendary coaches, the less you love them.  You find that Lombardi neglected his wife and kids, as did Bill Walsh and most of the others.  Shug Jordan publicly told racist jokes well into the 1970s.  By then, Bear Bryant could barely assemble a coherent sentence, even when sober.  Hell, I once believed in Joe Paterno.

So no one should be shocked, shocked! that John Wooden under the scrutiny of his latest biographer, Seth Davis, comes off  less a paragon than we thought him to be.  In Wooden, a Coach’s Life (Henry Holt & Co.), we see the man diverge from the legend.

The author of this exhaustive – and somewhat exhausting – volume of 590 pages is the son of Lanny Davis, an attorney last seen clumsily heading the John Kerry defense of the Swiftboat attack.  The son seems a more sure-footed advocate than the father, becoming perhaps the ultimate journalistic authority on college basketball.

Unfortunately, in recent interviews Seth Davis has succumbed to the Cliché of the Day, Mount Rushmore.  He put Wooden there, shoulder to shoulder with Lombardi, Auerbach and — get this — Phil Jackson before we’re even sure his coaching career is over.

Clearly, Davis has a bias for basketball that allows him no credibility on any other topic.  But here, writing about what he knows and understands, he has produced a thorough, respectful but far from worshipful biography of the UCLA dynasty builder.  Wooden is an instant best-seller, and justifiably so.

With 10 national championships in 12 years, John Wooden in the 1960s and early ’70s dominated college hoops as no one ever has or – given the inexorable force of parity — ever will.  Anyone who’s been filling out NCAA Tournament brackets knows this, how difficult it is to project the champion.

While “The Wizard of Westwood” (a sobriquet the coach disdained) gets his full due, Davis corrects the resume.  Wooden claimed he never had a losing season.  Davis uncovered two by this high school coach who also taught English.  Not that Wooden needed to embellish his career.  But like most of us mortals, he had his insecurities.

It wasn’t that he sought fame or wealth.  He could have been happy teaching English only, and he considered himself more a teacher than a coach.  Davis is probably right that “Wooden was without peer when it comes to teaching the game of basketball.” 

Davis calls his subject “hard to please, detail-obsessed.”  How detailed?  Wooden told the players exactly how to put on their socks:  a pair of wool, then a pair of cotton – to reduce risk of blisters.  He tightened the nets so the ball took a second longer to drop through:  more time to set up his full-court press.

He focused on everything that could matter.  Compared to John Wooden, Bill Belichick has attention deficit disorder.

Wooden was an innovative strategist:  his zone press brought steals to fuel a fast-break machine.  But he was no tactician.  He never called a timeout, which may have cost him a few more wins.  He designed a perfect system and let the players operate it together.  No need for a coach to yell out plays.

Curiously, Wooden rarely spoke about winning.  He appeared happier after a well-played loss than a sloppy win.  He was all about doing things right; the winning would follow.

But while he had his unique genius, he had the same flaws as his peers:  overbearing, ref-baiting, trash-talking, cheating, lying.  What annoyed them was his piety and hypocrisy.  They sarcastically referred to him as “St. John.”

Wooden could be caring, creating space in his office for Bill Walton to meditate.   But he didn’t become emotionally close to many players until he was no longer coaching them.  Privately, they complained of the “unyielding coach” who profited immensely from an economic “system that deprived them of the chance to make extra money even as they generated mountains of revenue.” 

Mutiny might have developed if not for the arrival of the mysterious Sam Gilbert, “as generous as he was ruthless.”  Gilbert did what generous donors do for athletes at most colleges:  find them opportunities for clothes or meals or automobiles at discounted prices.  See that someone buys their game tickets for more than face value.  So a mom can come watch her son play.

Although Wooden warned his players to avoid Gilbert, he looked away when they did not obey.  The coach refused to believe rumors that Gilbert was Mafia-linked, until UCLA’s super-booster was indicted in 1973 for racketeering.

Davis examines other cracks in Wooden’s image.  While more willing than most coaches of his time to give African-Americans an opportunity to improve a team, Wooden did not speak out much when they were rebuffed by hotels and restaurants.

This was basically a quiet man who wanted no controversy.  He was at his best when away from basketball.  He refused to let fame block his accessibility. And it wasn’t just former players who received his attention.  He answered all his cards and letters.  He and wife Nell kept their phone number listed.

Wooden’s life, which lasted 99 years, was as full and remarkable as legend could have it.

Sticking firmly to the truth, Davis tells the story better than anyone has, though he’s not the most elegant or concise writer on Sports Illustrated’s fine staff.  You see the occasional lazy sentence: “Gilbert laid out a big spread.”

But this book is so well researched (200+ interviews, including Wooden) and organized  that it’s likely to stand as the last word on an iconic coach.  There’s not much left for anyone else to explore.  Which is a valid excuse for a little excess.



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