Finally, John Wooden has a biography that’s worthy of its subject.
The late, legendary UCLA basketball coach has been either the central character or the subject of several books over the years. In fact, he wrote many of them himself. But none was particularly complete.
Now, we have such a book. Seth Davis has written more than 500 pages of text on the life of the first man ever to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. “Wooden – A Coach’s Life” is a full, balanced look at almost 100 years of life. Davis obviously talked to as many people as possible, from stars to scrubs and from fellow coaches and administrators to friends, and the research comes through every step of the way.
For those who don’t know it, Wooden’s record seems incomprehensible. His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row. The Boston Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years in the same era, more or less, but they always had Bill Russell. UCLA had an ever-changing cast, albeit a very talented one.
Wooden was born and raised in rural Indiana. As Davis points out, most schools in that part of the country were too small to field full football teams, so basketball became the sport of choice. Wooden went to Purdue, where he was the first three-time All-American in college basketball history.
Pro basketball wasn’t much of an option as a career then, so Wooden turned to coaching – first at the high school level, and then at what became Indiana State University. In 1948, he moved on to UCLA. While Wooden had winning records in his first 15 years, his teams never advanced very far in the NCAA tournament.
That changed for good starting in 1964, when the Bruins had a perfect season and won the national title. The other championships quickly followed, thanks in part of such famous players as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then called Lew Alcindor), Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard and Sidney Wicks.
Coaching in those years wasn’t as easy as it sounds, no matter how much talent was on the roster. Davis does good work pointing out the 1960s and early ’70s were turbulent times, particularly among college students, and Wooden’s traditional methods were probably a little out of step with the times. But he did find a way to win.
Other issues come up in the book as well.
The biggest was booster Sam Gilbert, who did everything for Bruin players from hosting pool parties to arranging abortions. Gilbert’s involvement in the program was well known and deep, but Wooden – according to Davis – essentially chose to look the other way. UCLA landed on NCAA probation after Wooden retired.
Such activity from boosters wasn’t unusual, but Wooden is usually associated with higher standards.
Some may be surprised to find out that Wooden often discreetly used a sharp tongue on the bench when it came to referees and opposing players, though none of it ever featured profanity. There are also stories of how Wooden gave the best players on the team more leeway than the substitutes when it came to off-court activities.
Once Wooden retired with one last title in 1975, he became to some extent America’s favorite grandfather for the next 30-plus years. The veteran coach received a variety of honors from the Presidential Medal of Freedom on down. He did express a little regret for some of his actions, and in many cases showed the warmth and affection for his ex-players that he never displayed when he was their coach.
Wooden and his record also cast a long, long shadow at UCLA that affected the school for many years.
Davis clears up some inconsistencies in the coach’s life in the course of the book. For example, it’s been widely reported that Wooden helped bail out Walton after the player was arrested at a demonstration and that the two men had a spirited conversation in the car afterward. The catch: Wooden was in Oregon at the time.
Still, the writer for Sports Illustrated who doubles as a CBS commentator nicely captures the affection that practically everyone who encountered Wooden had and still has for him. Many of his lessons still resonate with his students, decades after they were taught.
Many of us like to think of John Wooden as something of a saint, a description he would laugh at.
“Wooden – A Coach’s Life” tells his story from a variety of angles, and the result is a top-notch biography.
Budd Bailey is a News sports copy editor.
Wooden – A Coach’s Life
By Seth Davis
592 pages, $35