Wooden: A Coach’s Life, by Seth Davis (Times Books, 608 pp., $35)
In 1950, two seasons into his legendary 27-year run as head basketball coach at UCLA, John Wooden got an offer he thought he couldn’t refuse. He’d already worked wonders at UCLA, leading a school with losing records in all but two of its previous 17 seasons to a combined 46 wins and 14 losses, including a first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. He would go on to become the most successful college basketball coach in history. But Wooden remained in key respects a small-town Indiana boy—he disliked Los Angeles. Moreover, the offer came from his alma mater, Purdue, where he’d made his name as an All-American guard, running the team’s dazzlingly efficient up-tempo offense, before going on to star briefly in the nascent professional game. He then settled into what he thought would be a lifelong career teaching English in Indiana high schools while doubling as basketball coach. Desperate to keep him, his bosses in Westwood pulled the kind of thing at which Hollywood types excel: they told Wooden, who’d signed a three-year deal, that they’d thought he was an honorable man. That was enough. Foregoing his dream job, he stayed another quarter-century.
It’s an inspiring anecdote, and it would be nice to report that there’s much more of the same in Seth Davis’s Wooden: A Coach’s Life. This, after all, is what’s turned books about mythic sports figures like Wooden or Vince Lombardi (or even Seabiscuit) into a booming subgenre: they speak to a yearning for a time when, in fundamental respects, we seemed better than we are today—tougher, worthier, more principled. Even as we understand that there’s plenty of hokum in this notion—that even icons come with flaws—we still respond, because these values seem so conspicuously lacking today.
But Davis’s book turns out not to be one of those. Indeed, one wonders why he bothered to write it, especially since Wooden is already the subject of many other books, including—count ’em—no fewer than a dozen he co-wrote himself, mostly in the decades between his retirement and his death in 2010 at 99. Feeding into the Wooden legend, most are heavy on the Life Lessons he lived by and endlessly preached, embodied in his famous Pyramid of Success, which counts among the building blocks of a worthwhile life such traits as hard work, preparation, confidence, poise, loyalty, and self-control. Evidently, Davis was going for a fuller, pull-no-punches take on Wooden’s life and career. In fact, what he’s produced is less exhaustive than exhausting; a laborious (563 pages, including notes) treatment that cites every game Wooden ever played in or coached but never gets at the essence of the man. Not too far in, I found myself wondering: Was John Wooden really this dull, or is it the narrative?
True enough, we learn that while he seemed from afar to be a grandfatherly figure, Wooden was one tough SOB, who regularly gave referees a brutal working over; that the emotional distance he put between himself and his players was often taken by them as cold indifference; that for all his genius as an innovator and tactician, he was stingy in crediting colleagues for their contributions. But there is little life even at what should be the book’s heart, Wooden’s relationships with his most notable players: Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks, and the rest. As we plod from one championship season to the next, each player arrives on schedule, has his modest conflict with Coach Wooden (or not), and goes on his way.
While Davis touches only fleetingly on vital elements of Wooden’s story—notably, his deeply held religious views—he is exquisitely attuned to race and returns to the subject repeatedly. On the one hand, he allows that in his treatment of his players, Wooden did not appear to see color; on the other, he judges that, being a man of his time and place—rural Indiana in the 1920s—Wooden was often far less sensitive to the feelings and life circumstances of his black players than he should have been. “I don’t think he’d be ecstatic if his daughter married a black man,” he quotes Hazzard as saying. Davis later cites Wooden himself on the topic: “I would discourage anybody from interracial dating. I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society, too. It’s asking for trouble, but I’ve never told a player who he could or couldn’t date.”
Davis is especially critical of Wooden’s stance on the Vietnam War, especially his refusal to back up activist players like Walton by coming out against the war himself. “This was one area where the teacher could have learned more from his students,” Davis editorializes. In this regard and others, the coach comes off as woefully out of sync with the changing times. “In my experience they’re not as coachable now,” Davis has him complaining of the era’s free-spirited players. “There’s a rebellion against supervision of any sort. To accept discipline for many of them now is almost a badge of dishonor.”
It may shock some to learn that Wooden was a registered Democrat, presumably of the Trumanesque variety. Over the years, however, he also supported Republicans. Indeed, perhaps the most damning indictment of all might be the revelation that hanging prominently in Wooden’s office was a letter from . . . Richard Nixon.
That this book will not dent John Wooden’s lofty reputation is all to the good. Ultimately the man was the core principles he trumpeted in the Pyramid of Success, corny as some of them may sound today.