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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Seth Davis Writes the Definitive John Wooden Biography

Seth Davis nailed it. In Wooden: A Coach's Life, Davis finds an excellent balance between praising John Wooden for his NCAA championships (10, six more than anyone else--a record that will likely never be approached) and for the sage advice that Wooden gave to the young men who he mentored, while also acknowledging the darker side of Wooden's story: Wooden was a brilliant coach, but behind his first-rate tactics lurked the shadowy figure of Sam Gilbert luring the most talented athletes to UCLA--and, as former UCLA player Lucius Allen put it, "UCLA wouldn't have won any championships without athletes. And without Sam Gilbert, they wouldn't have had the athletes." As the hagiography around Wooden grew, Gilbert's name receded into the footnotes of history, but Davis claims that the NCAA did not name its basketball championship trophy after Wooden because the organization did not want to "dredge up too many stories about Gilbert. Better to leave that carcass buried" (p. 472).

Davis' book was published in hardcover in 2014, the same year that I entered law school and that my daughter Rachel was born, and during the subsequent years I never found the time to write a review that would do full justice to Davis' extensive research and excellent writing. Perhaps one of the few positives of the ongoing global pandemic is that now I have the opportunity to finish projects such as this one.

Davis tells Wooden's life story in four parts, each named for one of the calendar seasons. Wooden was born 110 years ago, so even long-time and/or knowledgeable basketball fans may not be very familiar with Wooden's "Spring" years, during which Wooden grew up in modest circumstances in Indiana and became an excellent basketball player. Wooden is so famous as a coach that many fans may not be aware that he was the first person to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and as a coach (Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, and Tommy Heinsohn subsequently accomplished this). Wooden led Martinsville High School to three consecutive Indiana High School championship game appearances (1926-28), and one title (1927).

During his high school years, Wooden met Nell Riley, who he claimed to be the only girl he ever dated. Wooden was very shy, while Nell was outgoing, but they soon became an item, and they married after Wooden finished college.

Even though Wooden was a star basketball player, he chose his college based on academics, not athletics, selecting Purdue because of its outstanding civil engineering program. However, after Wooden enrolled at Purdue he discovered that the civil engineering program required attendance at a special camp during the summers, something that Wooden could not do because his family needed the money that he earned from summer jobs. Wooden switched his major from civil engineering to English.

During Wooden's playing career at Purdue, the NCAA Tournament did not exist, and no official national champion was selected, but four years after he graduated the Helms Athletic Foundation retroactively named national champions dating back to 1901. Purdue went 17-1 in 1931-32 (Wooden's senior season) as Wooden set the Big Ten single season scoring record with 154 points, and the Helms Athletic Foundation determined that the Boilermakers were the national champions for that season. Wooden was chosen as one of the five top players in the country for the 1931-32 season, and in 1943 the Helms Athletic Foundation honored Wooden by selecting him to its all-time All-Star team for the first 50 years of basketball, calling him "probably the greatest all-around guard of them all."

After graduating from Purdue, Wooden became the athletic director/basketball coach at a high school in Dayton, Kentucky. He spent a couple years there before accepting the athletic director position at South Bend's Central High School in Indiana. Wooden filled many roles in both of his early jobs, but at Central he was not initially the head basketball coach; that position was already filled, so he served as the assistant coach, but it did not take long before he became the head coach.

The attention to detail, the focus on fundamentals, and the firm belief in the value of the running game--principles that Wooden internalized during his high school and college playing career--characterized Wooden's coaching even during his early years toiling in relative obscurity.

During the first few years that Wooden coached high school basketball, he also played professional basketball. Pro basketball was in its early days. The NBA had not been formed, and the professional ranks consisted of barnstorming teams, plus a few loosely organized leagues. Wooden was the leading scorer in one of those leagues--the Midwest Basketball Conference--during the 1934-35 season. He also made 134 consecutive free throws during that season. The Midwest Basketball Conference became the National Basketball League, which later merged with the Basketball Association of America to become the National Basketball Association, but Wooden retired as a player many years before the NBA existed.

After serving in the Navy for two and a half years without leaving the country during World War II, Wooden returned to Indiana and resumed coaching at Central High School. Soon, though, he accepted an offer to be the head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.

Even fans who know a lot about Wooden's NCAA Tournament success at UCLA may not realize that he coached NCAA basketball for 17 years before winning his first championship at that level. Wooden's Indiana State teams posted a 44-15 record during his two seasons there, including a second place finish in the 1948 National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB, the forerunner of the NAIA) Championship.

The "Spring" section of the book concludes with Indiana State's 82-70 loss to Louisville in the 1948 NAIB Championship, and Wooden accepting an offer to become UCLA's head coach. Davis retells the story of how Wooden ended up at UCLA: on the fateful evening when Wooden would decide whether to coach at the University of Minnesota or UCLA, a storm temporarily took down phone service in Minnesota. UCLA called Wooden at the appointed time, Wooden accepted their offer--having not heard anything from the University of Minnesota--and Wooden did not change his mind after the representative from the University of Minnesota called late. The University of Minnesota would have been Wooden's first choice, but after he agreed to go to UCLA he did not look back. What Davis classifies as Wooden's "Summer" begins in sunny California in 1948.

When Wooden arrived at UCLA, the school's only basketball tradition was losing. UCLA had posted just two winning seasons in the previous 17 years, and at one point the Bruins had lost 39 consecutive games to crosstown rival USC. UCLA finished with a 22-7 record in 1948-49, Wooden's first season at the school. During Wooden's first 15 years at UCLA, the Bruins never had a losing season, and only twice did they finish lower than second in their conference--but Wooden's UCLA squads did not post a single official win in the NCAA Tournament (not including victories in consolation round games) until 1962.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wooden was not even the most successful college coach on the West Coast, let alone a candidate to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Pete Newell led the University of California, Berkley to the 1959 NCAA Championship and an appearance in the 1960 NCAA Championship Game. Newell had previously won an NIT title with the University of San Francisco, and then in 1960 he coached the gold-medal winning Team USA squad in the Olympics, becoming the first coach to win an NIT title, an NCAA title, and an Olympic gold medal; to this day, only Bobby Knight and Dean Smith have matched that coaching triple crown. Newell's Cal Berkley teams regularly beat Wooden's UCLA teams during the 1950s.

Although Wooden was a very successful coach by many measures during the first portion of his college coaching career, there was little indication that during the 12 season period spanning 1964-75 he would lead the Bruins to an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships. The dramatic change to Wooden's career arc can be attributed to many factors, including his adoption of the 2-2-1 full court press as a defensive strategy for the entire game as opposed to being a special tactic utilized only when the Bruins were trailing. Wooden gladly took (and received) most of the credit for developing the 2-2-1 full court press, but Davis writes that Jerry Norman--a player under Wooden at UCLA, who then became a UCLA assistant coach--is the one who worked out the details, and who convinced Wooden to implement the plan. Davis states that it bothered Norman that Wooden did not publicly acknowledge the important role that Norman played in UCLA's success.

As is often the case in sports, perhaps the most important factor was talent: Wooden's 1964 squad that went 30-0 and won the NCAA title featured a pair of future NBA guards: Walt Hazzard (a 10 year pro who made the NBA All-Star team in 1968) and Gail Goodrich (a five-time All-Star, an NBA champion in 1972, and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 1996).

The "Autumn" section of Davis' book begins with the Bruins defending their NCAA crown. UCLA's 1965 squad went 28-2 and became the fifth school to win back to back NCAA titles, joining Cincinnati (1961-62), San Francisco (1955-56), Kentucky (1948-49), and Oklahoma A&M (1945-46). The Bruins fell short in 1966, but then won an unprecedented seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1967-73. Wooden retired after leading the Bruins to the 1975 championship. Since then, only three Division I teams have won back to back NCAA titles: Duke (1991-92), Florida (2006-07), and Villanova (2018-19).

The start of that run of seven straight championships coincided with, not coincidentally, the sophomore season of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. During that era, freshmen were not eligible to play for the varsity. Alcindor (I will retain Davis' practice of referring to him during his UCLA years by the name he used at that time) made his UCLA debut on November 27, 1965, when he led the UCLA freshman team versus the UCLA varsity team, an annually held contest that was different on this occasion for two reasons: it was broadcast on local television for the first time, and it was the opening night for UCLA's new, 13,000 seat arena named Pauley Pavilion. Alcindor's team beat the varsity--the two-time defending national champions, and the consensus number one ranked team in the country--75-60.

Alcindor averaged 33.1 ppg and 21.5 rpg while leading the 1965-66 UCLA freshman team to a 21-0 record. During his three varsity seasons, Alcindor averaged 26.4 ppg and 15.5 rpg while shooting .639 from the field. UCLA won three straight NCAA titles and lost just two games during those years. A strong argument can be made that he is the greatest college basketball player of all-time; a strong argument could be made that he is the greatest basketball player of all-time, period, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

Despite all of the team success and personal accolades that Alcindor achieved during his time at UCLA, he was often not happy at the school. He was born and raised in New York City, so living in California was a bit of a culture shock. Alcindor also faced a lot of racism and scrutiny, plus he did not always enjoy playing under Wooden, and he was aware that other schools would provide illegal benefits that UCLA did not provide at that time. Davis notes that after UCLA went 30-0 and won the 1967 NCAA championship, Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen seriously considered transferring to another school. The players confided in former UCLA star Willie Naulls, who was sympathetic but who also did not want them to leave UCLA. Naulls introduced Alcindor and Allen to Sam Gilbert, and thus opened the most sordid chapter in Wooden's career.

Gilbert was a hard-driving real estate developer who had made millions of dollars in California's post-World War II building boom. He knew that many of UCLA's players felt undervalued and underappreciated. Wooden was a great coach, but he was often distant from his players, and he rarely took a personal interest in them (after he retired, a softer side of Wooden emerged, and that is the image of Wooden that the general public has). Gilbert showered the players with attention--and he also showered them with money, either directly or indirectly, such as taking them to a store owned by a friend who would let the players pick out whatever merchandise they wanted free of charge. Gilbert's actions violated NCAA rules, but for many years the NCAA was not interested in closely examining the inner workings of college basketball's most successful team; why kill the goose that hatches the golden egg, even if that egg is a bit tarnished upon closer examination?

Jerry Tarkanian, who eventually received a $2.5 million settlement from the NCAA after battling the organization in court for decades regarding the due process violations inherent in its selective enforcement practices, once said, "Recently, the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky, they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years." You could replace UCLA for Kentucky in that sentence to get an accurate depiction of the NCAA's enforcement practices at the height of Wooden's career.

There is no doubt that Wooden was a well organized and well disciplined coach. He enjoyed success at the highest level before Gilbert arrived on the scene, winning three NCAA titles, a mark equaled at that time by only Adolph Rupp--but if Gilbert had not intervened to keep Alcindor and Allen in the UCLA fold, it is doubtful that Wooden would have finished his career with 10 NCAA titles. Davis quotes this telling passage from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography (Alcindor had changed his name by the time he wrote the book): "Sam steered clear of John Wooden, and Mr. Wooden gave him the same wide berth. Both helped the school greatly. Once the money thing got worked out, I never gave another thought to leaving UCLA."

Davis extensively covers both of the famous 1968 UCLA-Houston showdowns. Houston won 71-69 in the "Game of the Century" at the Houston Astrodome when Elvin Hayes dominated Alcindor, who was limited by an eye injury that he suffered not long before that contest. UCLA gained revenge in the NCAA Tournament, winning 101-69 en route to the second of Alcindor's three consecutive NCAA titles.

After Alcindor graduated and joined the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, the Bruins still had a stacked lineup featuring several future pros, including Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and Henry Bibby. UCLA went 28-2 in 1969-70, and 29-1 in 1970-71 en route to two more NCAA titles.

Wooden's next Hall of Fame center joined the freshman team for the 1970-71 season before leading UCLA's varsity to NCAA titles in 1972 and 1973. Bill Walton was an injury-prone player dating back to high school, but when he was healthy he performed at an elite level. By nature and by skill set, Walton was not as dominant of a scorer as Alcindor, but Walton matched Alcindor as a rebounder and defender while being a superior passer. Walton grew up in California, and since an early age he had dreamed of playing for UCLA. Walton reached his peak as a college player in the 1973 NCAA Championship game versus Memphis State, when he scored 44 points on 21-22 field goal shooting in UCLA's 87-66 win.

Davis documents Gilbert's increasing influence on UCLA's basketball program during the dynasty years, and Davis notes that there is no doubt that Gilbert provided illegal benefits. Davis writes, "To call all of this an open secret would not do it justice. It wasn't even a secret. Gilbert's relationships with UCLA basketball players made him one of the most well-known people in Los Angeles" (p. 369). It is true that other schools also provided illegal benefits and/or had boosters who provided illegal benefits, but--as Tarkanian noted--even if it could be argued that (almost) everyone was doing it, it could also be argued that the NCAA selectively enforced its rules, which created an uneven playing field that carved out a distinct advantage for the schools whose violations the NCAA ignored.

UCLA "slumped" to 26-4 in 1973-74, losing more games that season than the team had lost in the previous four seasons combined. North Carolina State, led by the fantastic future Hall of Famer David Thompson, defeated UCLA 80-77 in double overtime in the Final Four. North Carolina State then beat Marquette 76-64 to win the championship.

Wooden had been considering retirement for several years, but he did not relish the notion of leaving the game for good on a down note after so many championship seasons. He decided to return for one last campaign, but he only revealed his intentions to a few people, each of whom he swore to secrecy. Even after the departure of Hall of Famers Walton and Keith Wilkes (later known as Jamaal Wilkes), UCLA still had a strong roster, led by AP All-America selection Dave Meyers and Marques Johnson, who became a five-time NBA All-Star. The Bruins went 28-3, closing out the Wooden era with a 92-85 win versus Kentucky in the 1975 NCAA Championship game.

"Winter" begins with Gene Bartow succeeding Wooden as UCLA's coach. Asked about UCLA's chances in 1976, Wooden replied, "I don't think I left the cupboard bare." Davis writes, "Wooden did Bartow no favors with that remark. With one turn of a phrase, Wooden solidified the perception that if UCLA won another championship, it would be because he stocked the program with great talent. If if it didn't, well, it must be because the Bruins were not well coached" (p. 447). Wooden did not stop there. During the 1976 season, Wooden said, "I'm going to answer honestly and I don't want this to seem in any way critical. I think the program was slowed by the coaching change. It took the new coach time to get acquainted with his players and it took the players time to get acquainted with him" (p. 449). Wooden concluded that before he retired he thought "this year's team would be the strongest I ever had, and that next year's would be even stronger" (p. 449). Wooden did not just throw Bartow under the bus: he trampled him. One might wonder (1) How Wooden could say with a straight face that the 1976 team was stronger than the teams led by Alcindor or Walton and (2) why Wooden retired if he thought that the best was yet to come for the program.

Wooden left behind more than talented players, and high expectations. He also left behind booster Sam Gilbert--the main reason the proverbial cupboard had not been bare for quite some time. Davis repeats assertions by several different people that they believed that Gilbert had connections to the mafia. Davis wavers between suggesting that UCLA's administration and the coaching staff tolerated Gilbert because he was integral to the basketball program's success, and suggesting that UCLA personnel were too afraid to demand that Gilbert stop providing illegal benefits. It is evident that, regardless of UCLA's position about Gilbert, the NCAA did not have nearly as much interest in investigating the Bruins as it did in pursuing a vendetta against Tarkanian.

However, Gilbert's conduct became increasingly brazen, and players who believed or hoped that he was providing benefits to them out of the kindness of his heart often learned the hard way that this was not the case when the bill landed in their mailboxes. Davis reports that after they became NBA players, several former UCLA players received letters from Gilbert demanding that they pay him back for the help that he had provided during their college years. Davis writes that at least one player just wrote a check to Gilbert to be done with the matter. Bill Walton took a different approach, authorizing Jack Scott to include a letter from Gilbert in a book titled Bill Walton: On the Road With the Portland Trail Blazers. Scott quoted Walton in the book as well: "It's hard for me to have a proper perspective on financial matters, since I've always had whatever I wanted since I enrolled at UCLA. I hate to say anything that might hurt UCLA, but I can't be quiet when I see what the NCAA is doing to Jerry Tarkanian only because he has a reputation for giving a second chance to many black athletes other coaches have branded as troublemakers. The NCAA is working day and night trying to get Jerry, but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA" (this quote appears on p. 468 of Davis' book without a direct page citation to Scott's book).

The NCAA could no longer ignore Gilbert's illegal connections with UCLA. Ultimately, the NCAA did not look as far back as Wooden's tenure, but the NCAA identified a variety of improper actions that took place in the post-Wooden era. The NCAA also found other violations involving UCLA that led to the dreaded conclusion that there had been a "loss of institutional control." UCLA was forced to vacate its 1980 NCAA Tournament appearance (which had included a loss in the championship game), forbidden to participate in postseason play in 1982, and placed on probation for two years. Gilbert was not directly named in the report, but everyone understood which person was meant when the NCAA ordered UCLA to "disassociate one representative of its athletic interests from participating in any recruiting activities on behalf of the university in the future."

Wooden's public take on the matter was to express relief, but not surprise, that no violations had been found dating back to his tenure as coach. It is hard to believe that anyone as smart as Wooden could really be that clueless about had happened during his program's glory years. The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation, and shattered any illusions about the Wooden era when it published a two part story on January 31, 1982 and February 1, 1982. Davis summarizes the newspaper's findings: "Headlined 'Sam Gilbert and UCLA,' the stories laid out in devastating detail a wide range of violations and suspicious activity that dated back to the 1960s. After interviewing more than forty-five people, many of whom were Wooden's former players, the Times concluded that 'the nine infractions the NCAA listed were insignificant when compared with many others dating back to the Lew Alcindor-led-championship teams of the mid-1960s" (pp. 470-471).

In 1987, Gilbert was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering and money laundering charges related to a marijuana smuggling operation that dated back to the 1970s, but Gilbert was terminally ill by that time and he passed away before he could be put on trial. Gilbert's son Michael was convicted, and he served over five years in federal prison.

Davis writes that the 1994 film "Blue Chips" was a not so subtle shot at UCLA's cheating, inspired in part by Wooden's old rival Pete Newell, a consultant for the movie. In "Blue Chips," the fictional "Western University"--sporting UCLA's blue and gold colors--had a coach whose integrity was being threatened by the actions of a rogue booster. Unlike in real life, though, the coach (played by Nick Nolte) lost his job after confronting the booster at a press conference.

Davis gives the last word on the subject to Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg, the Times' writers whose reporting uncovered violations by Gilbert and UCLA that the NCAA could not--or did not want to--find: "Wooden knew about Gilbert. He knew the players were close to Gilbert. He knew they looked to Gilbert for advice. Maybe he knew more. He should have known much more. If he didn't, it was only because he apparently chose not to look" (p. 474).

As time passed, Gilbert's name receded into the mists of history, while Wooden became more popular and respected than he had been even at the height of his coaching career. He gave well-received speeches during which he talked about his now-legendary Pyramid of Success. Wooden delivered a good and necessary message about hard work, focus, and dedication; there is no doubt that those values played a crucial role in his success, and that they helped his players not only at UCLA, but also later in life as well.

Wooden's legacy is complex and layered. He was without doubt both a great player and a great coach. He had already won several championships before Sam Gilbert appeared on the scene--but Wooden did not become the "Wizard of Westwood," elevated above all other college basketball coaches, until his program was able to recruit and retain an incredibly talented group of players, including two of the greatest and most dominant centers of all-time.

It is fascinating to compare and contrast John Wooden with Bobby Knight, who won three NCAA titles during his Hall of Fame coaching career. Although Wooden was not quite so kind and gentle as his reputation suggests--as Davis documents--even at his most aggressive moments Wooden's demeanor was not much like Knight's. Knight displayed what can best be described as sociopathic, bullying, and narcissistic behaviors toward friend and foe alike, and those negative traits brought an end to his coaching career at Indiana. Yet, there is no evidence that Knight ever cheated to recruit a player, or to keep a player academically eligible. Knight ran a clean--if dictatorial--ship, and he steered that ship to great success in an era when most of his competitors, including the sainted Wooden, benefited greatly from bending, if not breaking, NCAA rules. Both Wooden and Knight have a host of former players who praise them for the positive influence they exerted. In the end, if we are honest then we are forced to see both legendary coaches not as superhuman icons but as people who achieved greatness yet also displayed flaws and weaknesses.

Davis ends the book on a personal note, describing the three times that he interviewed Wooden. The reader can tell that Davis feels a clear-eyed affection and admiration for Wooden; Davis did enough research to know about both Wooden's greatness and Wooden's flaws, and Davis appreciated Wooden as, in the words of Marques Johnson, "a great coach, a great person, but not a god."

Regardless of how you feel about Wooden, the NCAA, or college basketball, Davis' book provides a detailed and balanced narrative spanning nearly the entire breadth of the 20th century.


1) On page 240, the 1965 UCLA team is referred to as the "fourth repeat champion in the twenty-six year history of the NCAA Tournament." As noted above, the Bruins were the fifth repeat champion at that time.

2) On page 396, Davis refers to Memphis State's Larry Kenon as "Dr. K." That nickname never really stuck--for the obvious reason that Julius Erving was already widely known as "Dr. J." Kenon later told Sports Illustrated, "Call me Mr. K or Special K or any kind of K, but not Dr. K. There's not but one Doctor." Erving and Kenon won the 1974 ABA championship as teammates with the New York Nets before Kenon was traded to the San Antonio Spurs.

3) On page 437, Davis refers to Kentucky player Rick Robey as "Rick Roby."

4) On page 438, Davis states that UCLA defeated Kentucky 82-75, but the correct score is 92-85.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:17 PM



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