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Wooden: A Coach's Life

Wooden: A Coach's Life

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Wooden: A Coach's Life

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Lançado em:
Jan 14, 2014


A provocative and revelatory new biography of the legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, by one of America's top college basketball writers

No college basketball coach has ever dominated the sport like John Wooden. His UCLA teams reached unprecedented heights in the 1960s and '70s capped by a run of ten NCAA championships in twelve seasons and an eighty-eight-game winning streak, records that stand to this day. Wooden also became a renowned motivational speaker and writer, revered for his "Pyramid of Success."
Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports has written the definitive biography of Wooden, an unflinching portrait that draws on archival research and more than two hundred interviews with players, opponents, coaches, and even Wooden himself. Davis shows how hard Wooden strove for success, from his All-American playing days at Purdue through his early years as a high school and college coach to the glory days at UCLA, only to discover that reaching new heights brought new burdens and frustrations. Davis also reveals how at the pinnacle of his career Wooden found himself on questionable ground with alumni, referees, assistants, and even some of his players. His was a life not only of lessons taught, but also of lessons learned.
Woven into the story as well are the players who powered Wooden's championship teams – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, and others – many of whom speak frankly about their coach. The portrait that emerges from Davis's remarkable biography is of a man in full, whose life story still resonates today.

Lançado em:
Jan 14, 2014

Sobre o autor

Seth Davis is the author of the New York Times bestseller When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball and the memoir Equinunk, Tell Your Story: My Return to Summer Camp. In 1995, he joined the staff of Sports Illustrated, where he is currently a senior writer. He is also an on-air studio analyst for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network during coverage of college basketball and the NCAA tournament. A graduate of Duke University, he lives with his family in Los Angeles.   "When I’m looking for a smart perspective on college basketball, I look for Seth Davis."—Dan Patrick "There are only a few perfect combinations in the world. Peanut butter on toast, scotch on ice, and Seth Davis on basketball."—Rick Reilly

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Wooden - Seth Davis



The Den

The first thing you noticed were the books. Big books, little books, picture books, children’s books, art books, religious books, coaching books, sports books, fiction books, science books. Before I walked through the door, they were there to greet me in tall, neat piles in the front hallway. The books were stacked on floors, lined up on tables, piled on desks, jammed into bookcases. The apartment was barely two thousand square feet, yet it seemed that most of it was covered by something that could be read.

John Wooden was careful not to trip over the books as he made his way to his favorite easy chair in the den. Another dozen or so stood on the floor beside the chair, lined up as if on a shelf. The coffee table that sat in front of the television was likewise covered, a source of irritation for a man with a compulsive need for order. Organization was one of my strengths for a long time, but now just look at that table with all that stuff on it, he said as he invited me to sit on the couch. I asked Wooden how many of the books in that room he had read. Maybe half, he replied. But I’ve browsed them all.

It was September 2006. Wooden was not quite ninety-six years old. Even at his advanced age, he was still a student of the world, eager to collect one more crumb of wisdom that he could dispense to the next friend, interviewer, former player, or stranger who came calling. Though his eyes were not as good as they used to be, and though he tired easily, this old widower still turned to books during those rare, quiet hours when he didn’t have a visitor or the phone wasn’t ringing. Besides keeping him company in the present, they also served as a tether to his past, a dog-eared monument to the person who influenced him more than any other: his father, Joshua Hugh Wooden.

Hugh, as he was known, loved reading, both to himself and to his children. Though he did not have any formal education past high school, he was so facile with the English language that when he did crossword puzzles, he invented ways to make them more challenging. For instance, he’d do it in a spiral form until he’d end up putting the last letter right in the middle of it, said Billy Wooden, John’s younger brother. After a hard day’s work, Hugh loved nothing more than to sit down, crack open the Bible or another book, and read poetry to his four sons by the light of an oil lamp.

I can just see my dad as I see you, if I close my eyes, Wooden said, doing just that. He channeled Hugh as he recited: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / by the shining Big-Sea-Water, / stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / daughter of the moon Nokomis.… Upon completing the verse by Longfellow, Wooden opened his eyes. We had no electricity, no running water. He would read to us from the scriptures practically every night. For some reason, of all the poems he read, that’s the only one I can just picture him doing.

When he laid down his books, however, Hugh did not have a lot to say. He tried to get his ideas across, maybe not in so many words, but by action. He walked it, John said. Hugh didn’t lecture his boys so much as he sprinkled seeds along their paths. When John graduated from the eighth grade, Hugh handed his son a small card upon which he had written his Seven-Point Creed. John later carried that piece of paper in his wallet until it wore out, whereupon he rewrote Hugh’s words on a fresh card. After he retired from coaching basketball at UCLA, John had the creed printed up on slick plastic cards and handed them out so others could plant Hugh’s seeds into their wallets as well.

The first of the seven points paraphrased a line from Hamlet: Be true to yourself. Number four read, Drink deeply from good books. So John drank. As a young boy growing up in Indiana, he dove into the Leatherstocking tales and Tom Swift series. His favorite teachers at Martinsville High School were his English teachers. When he attended Purdue University, he became close with Martha Miller, an elderly librarian. Once, when he was coaching basketball at UCLA, Wooden was so taken by the enthusiasm evinced by a guest lecturer that he wandered into Powell Library to read more on the topic. He devoured Zane Grey’s westerns and Leo Buscaglia’s motivationals. Though his all-time favorite book was The Robe by Lloyd Douglas, his interest was truly piqued by books about his favorite historical figures—Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa. He lost count of how many books on those last two he had received as gifts.

Then there were the poets. Dickens, Yeats, Tennyson, Poe, Byron, Shakespeare. Especially Shakespeare. In college, Wooden spent an entire semester studying Macbeth, followed by another semester just on Hamlet. His favorite sportswriter was Grantland Rice, who penned many of his columns in verse. Besides being the coauthor of nearly two dozen books, including four children’s books, Wooden was himself a prolific amateur poet. An idea would strike him on his morning walk, and he would come home and scrawl some doggerel. He watched John Glenn orbit the Earth and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and he wrote poems about how those events made him feel. He set a goal of writing one hundred poems and assembling them in a compendium for his family. He structured the book into five tidy parts that reflected his love of balance: twenty poems each on family, faith, patriotism, nature, and fun. Even when he was well into his nineties, Wooden could still recite scores of poems from memory.

During the final years of his life, Wooden received countless visitors in that modest, book-strewn den. In between tales of championships won and players coached, as he recounted the fascinating twists and turns of his long life, Wooden would invariably bring the conversation back to the man who raised him. When he closed his eyes and recited Longfellow to me, his mind was transported back to the farm. But if it felt like a full-circle moment, it really wasn’t. You can’t circle back to a place you never left.

That, in essence, is the story of John Wooden’s life, a quintessentially American tale that spans nearly a century. More than anyone else, he could appreciate how his story neatly divides into four balanced seasons. During the spring, our protagonist takes root on his family’s spare midwestern farm. He alights as a young adult in a glamorous town by the Pacific, reaches prodigious heights of fame and glory in middle age, and derives warmth from relationships old and new that sustain him during a long, peaceful winter. Like so many great narratives, the accepted version, the one Wooden himself told, often diverged from fact, as the myth overtook the man. But when all the glorification is stripped away, the person at the center of our tale remains very much the same boy who was planted in the Indiana soil at the turn of the twentieth century. All those friends, interviewers, players, and strangers who came to that den the way I did, we all wanted to know the same thing: How did you do it? He could never make the answer clear enough, perhaps because it was too simple for a complicated time. Everyone wanted the old man’s secrets, but he had no secrets, only seeds. For all the things that John Wooden accomplished—as a player, a coach, and most of all, a teacher—he never forgot his roots, or the man who planted them.





John Robert Wooden enjoyed unparalleled success as a college basketball coach, and after he retired he built a veritable industry around his own personal definition of success. Yet the most lasting impression his father made on John was the manner in which he responded to a failure.

It happened in the summer of 1925, when John was fourteen years old. John, his parents, and his three brothers were living in the tiny town of Centerton, Indiana, on a sixty-acre farm they had inherited from the parents of John Wooden’s mother, Roxie Anna. They grew wheat, corn, alfalfa, potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, and timothy grass, which was used to feed cattle and horses. The town had few amenities—a water tower, a general store, a grade school—and the Woodens’ life was not easy. But they never wanted for anything, so long as they were willing to work for it.

If they needed bread, Roxie baked it. If they wanted butter, Hugh churned it. If they needed water, they hand-pumped it from a well. When winter came and the kids got cold, their parents would heat up bricks on the stove and wrap them in warm towels. If they wanted to relieve themselves, they used the three-hole outhouse in the backyard. The family got eggs from their chickens and milk from their cows. They started off every morning with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. The house had just two bedrooms, so the brothers slept two to a bed. We didn’t have much money, Billy Wooden said. Father worked for a dollar a day in the twenties, but ours was a happy family. We were always having company.

The setback came shortly after Hugh purchased about thirty hogs from a local farmer. Hogs were expensive, so he had to borrow money from a bank and put up his house as collateral. Hugh needed to inoculate the animals against cholera, but the vaccination serum he purchased turned out to be defective. All the hogs died. That, coupled with an untimely drought that killed off most of their crops, prompted the bank to foreclose on the farm. Just like that, Hugh Wooden’s sole means for supporting his family was gone.

One of the handwritten lessons that Hugh passed to his four sons was what he called his Two Sets of Threes: Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Here was the chance to walk what he talked. Through it all, Dad never winced. He laid no blame on the merchant who had sold him the bad serum, didn’t curse the weather, and had no hatred toward the banker, John would write decades later. As instructive as it was to hear him recite the two sets of threes, seeing him abide by them as he lost the farm had a most powerful effect on me. That’s where I came to see that what you do is more important than what you say you’ll do.

Hugh’s response was emblematic of the world in which John Wooden was raised. This was Depression-era Indiana, a time and place that valued masculine self-sufficiency. Feelings were demonstrated, not articulated. If Hugh ever embraced his sons or told them I love you, John rarely spoke or wrote of it. Likewise, Wooden’s parents were not physically affectionate with each other in front of their children. Johnny knew they were in love by the way they treated each other. They had married young—Hugh was twenty, Roxie was sixteen. John was their third child, born October 14, 1910, in Martinsville. (For most of his life, John claimed the town of Hall, Indiana, as his birthplace, but shortly before he died, a group of local researchers discovered he had been mistaken all those years.) When Johnny was born, Hugh was working as a buttermaker at a creamery in Martinsville. Three years later, the family moved to Hall, thirteen miles away, where Hugh worked on a small farm owned by a man named Cassius Ludlow. From there they moved to Monrovia, where he took a position as a rural mail carrier. Some of Johnny’s favorite childhood memories involved riding with his dad on his horse-drawn carriage and helping him wash the buggy in a stream until it sparkled. When Johnny was six years old, his maternal grandfather passed away, leaving to his daughter the farm in Centerton. After the family lost that farm, nine years later they moved back to Martinsville, where Hugh and Roxie stayed for good.

By that time, the family had endured hardship far more painful than losing the farm. Johnny’s older sister, Cordelia, died of diphtheria on January 5, 1913, at the age of three years and nine months. Little Cordelia, as she was familiarly known, was a loving, bright and obedient child, read her obituary in the Martinsville Democrat. She was greatly loved by all who knew her. Her last sickness was of short duration. She was confined to her bed with diphtheria which developed into pneumonia and paralysis of the heart. Her suffering was great, although she bore it with the patience of a lamb, always ready to take her medicine and do as she was told. She leaves a loving father, mother, two dear little brothers, four grandparents, and a host of relatives and friends to mourn their loss.

Three and a half months later, Roxie gave birth to another baby girl, who died during delivery. One can only imagine the wrenching anguish Roxie must have felt as she returned to the unremarkable cemetery in Centerton to bury her second daughter in four months. The plot would be marked with a gravestone that read, INFANT.

The death of his sisters insured that John would grow up in a male-dominated household. In his later life, he wrote and spoke often about his father, but he seldom mentioned his mother. When he did, it was often in passing. I think the person probably who had the most influence on me throughout were my mother and father, particularly my father, he said in one of his typical locutions. If Hugh was omnipresent in John’s life story, Roxie was the quiet, sad shadow in the background. She was the skilled seamstress who stitched socks to create makeshift basketballs for her sons. The diligent maid who handwashed their clothes, mopped their floors, cooked their meals. The poor gal who walked on feet that were deformed from all those years of wearing shoes that didn’t fit. She was probably depressed, said Andy Hill, who played for Wooden at UCLA from 1970 to 1972 and became extremely close to him during the final decade of his life. But in those days they didn’t call it that. You just sucked it up. Wooden’s daughter, Nan, added, Daddy said her heart was broken.

Though the family didn’t have much money, Hugh would sometimes take Roxie into Martinsville and splurge for dinner at Riley’s Café. John often cited Hugh as an exemplar of the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh’s credo that the best thing a man can do for his children is love their mother. But without any sisters around, Roxie was the only feminine presence in Johnny’s life, and she was not a strong one. That caused him to be intensely shy around girls. John did not have an active social life as a kid, his younger brother, Danny, said. He was concentrating on his school work and working and being with his family.

Hugh also embodied another of John’s favorite credos: There is nothing stronger than gentleness. Exhibit A was Hugh’s interactions with animals. The Woodens had two mules on their farm, Jack and Kate, but Hugh, who, John said, was strong enough to bend a thick iron bar with his bare hands, refused to whip them. John loved to tell the story of the day he and his father came upon a man who was trying to retrieve two horses from a gravel pit. The man was whipping them, John said. My dad said, ‘Let me take them.’ The horses were frothing at the mouth. My dad just said to them, ‘Get on your feet; let’s go.’ He gave one of the horses a light tap and then pulled them together. Somehow I never forgot that. John said his father had the same effect on other animals. Dogs that would scare me, he’d pet ’em and they would wag their tails.

There was, however, one incident where Hugh was not so gentle. Johnny and his older brother, Maurice had been fooling around in a barn when Maurice grabbed a pitchfork and flipped a pile of manure at Johnny’s face. Johnny lunged at Maurice in anger and cursed at him. Hugh had been standing nearby, but instead of reproaching Maurice for instigating the fight, he came down on Johnny for his foul language. Profanity was forbidden in the Wooden household—Hugh was a devout Christian, and John always claimed he never once heard him swear—and Hugh wanted to make sure Johnny understood the severity of his transgression. He whipped his boy with a switch.

It is odd that a man would refuse to beat an animal yet be willing to use a switch on his own son, but John didn’t see the inconsistency. It was the only time I remember him using it, he said of the switch. At any rate, Johnny learned his lesson. From then on, he, too, stayed away from profanity.

Above all else, Hugh imbued his sons with a core philosophy that would guide Johnny throughout his childhood, his marriage, and especially his playing and coaching careers. It was a gospel that would come to define John more than any other. Dad tried to get across to us never try to be better than someone else. Learn from others and never cease trying to be the best you can be at whatever you’re doing, he said. Maybe that won’t be better than someone else, but that’s no problem. It will be better than somebody else, probably, but somebody else is going to be better than that. Don’t worry about that. If you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it’s going to adversely affect the things over which you have control.

I think I had it pretty good, learning from Dad, John added. He told me to try to avoid peaks and valleys.

Later in life, when John wasn’t quoting his father or telling parables about him, he was serving up Hugh’s teachings in bite-sized portions. His own children began their mornings with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. If one of Wooden’s basketball players uttered a profanity during practice, he was through for the day. Then there was the time after he retired when one of his former players at UCLA, Swen Nater, showed Wooden his new dog. Do you hit him? Wooden asked.

Yes, Nater confessed, sometimes he did.

Don’t, Wooden replied. It never works.

*   *   *

Hugh’s decision to move the family back to Martinsville after losing the farm turned out to be a smart one. The town was prospering due to bountiful artesian wells that had been dug there in the late nineteenth century. The water, which was full of minerals, had been accidentally discovered by prospectors who were searching for natural gas and oil. The liquid was said to have curative powers, even though it smelled rancid. Nearly a dozen sanitariums were built in and around Martinsville. These facilities were part spas, part hospitals, and they attracted people from all over the Midwest. The largest and most opulent of these resorts was the Home Lawn Sanitarium, which featured a dining room appointed with lush carpet and crystal chandeliers. Hugh found a job as a masseur at the Home Lawn. I think that’s why Daddy always has been such a generous tipper, Nan Wooden said. A big part of Grandaddy’s income was based on tips.

The move to Martinsville also exposed Hugh’s sons to a growing local passion. It was a brand-new game called basket ball, and though all the Wooden boys were quite good at it, Johnny was the best of them all.

Their first goal was an old tomato basket that hung on a hayloft inside their barn in Centerton. Hugh had popped the bottom out and tacked it up so that Johnny and his brothers could blow off steam. He said there’s always time for play. That’s after the chores and the studies are done, of course, John said. Eventually, Hugh took a forge and replaced the basket with a real hoop made out of iron. Roxie made a ball by stuffing an old sock with rags and sewing it closed. Maurice was a good athlete—he later played football, baseball, and basketball for Franklin College—but even though his nickname was Cat, Maurice was no match for Johnny’s quickness and toughness.

At that time, the entire town of Centerton contained barely a hundred people, yet every Saturday and Sunday, the basketball court next to the grade school was teeming with kids. The court was not even paved; rather, it was made of sand and clay, a mixture chosen so it would dry quickly after it rained. The locals often referred to it as a basketball diamond. In the wintertime, the kids often had to shovel snow off the court if they wanted to play. The school was just a few hundred yards up the road from the Woodens’ house, and Hugh delighted in watching his boys play those weekend games. Hugh liked basketball, but his best sport was baseball, where he excelled as a pitcher. He even carved a diamond, Field of Dreams–like, amid the wheat and alfalfa on the family farm.

Centerton’s school had three rooms for eight grades. The principal, who taught in the room for seventh- and eighth-graders, was a strapping young man named Earl Warriner. When Johnny was eleven years old, his dad allowed him to play basketball under Warriner’s supervision. Johnny says what helped him the most was the desire to play, Warriner said. He wasn’t a bully and neither was he a sissy. He had the grit to stay in there and fight. Wooden needed that grit to make up for his lack of size, but what really made him effective was his speed. My trouble was trying to keep others up with him, Warriner said. John was so much faster than everybody else, and he had his heart and soul in what he did.

Centerton’s basketball team played a haphazard schedule of five or six games a year (weather permitting) against other schools in the area, including the junior high school team from Martinsville. The boys didn’t have much by way of uniforms, just a bib to be worn on top of their overalls. They were lucky if they had shoes, Warriner said. They played with a lopsided leather ball that often had to be unlaced and reinflated. Wooden later credited that ball, along with the lumpy court, with forcing him to develop into an expert dribbler.

However, it was baseball, not basketball, that was fast becoming Johnny’s favorite sport. Though his diminutive stature prevented him from having much pop as a hitter, his quickness and agility made him an effective shortstop. That little rat John, as Warriner called him, was still a teenager when he played for the town team alongside men who were in their twenties. All he could do was get the ball over the infield, but he got more hits than anybody, Warriner said.

Young Johnny also fancied himself a bit of a practical joker. One day in winter, Warriner was feeling chilly while sitting in his office, so he went to the school’s basement and asked a janitor named Hiram to turn up the heat. Hiram did as he was told, but the room was still freezing. They went back and forth several more times until Warriner checked the basement, where he discovered that the flue to his office had been shut.

Several months later, Warriner was walking around the school grounds and noticed that someone had written on the wall of an outdoor bathroom, I turned off the furnace. Guess who? Soon after, he was invited to dinner at the Woodens’ house, where he revealed to the rascal that he knew his little secret. When Johnny asked Warriner how he found out, the principal replied, John Bob, if you graded as many papers as I do, you’d know everybody’s writing, too.

On the few occasions when Wooden was foolish enough to test Warriner, he paid a heavy price. Johnny was around nine years old when he and three of his classmates decided that they did not want to sing the national anthem at the morning assembly. So they pretended to sing it. The next day, Warriner called them out of the assembly, brought them into his office, and told them that if they didn’t sing, they would get the business end of a paddle. They refused again, so Warriner brought them out and stung their behinds while all the other kids watched. One of the boys had worn two pairs of pants in anticipation of the punishment, but Warriner made him pull down the outer pair so he could properly feel his penance.

When Warriner’s discipline combined one day with Johnny’s love for basketball, the result was the ultimate life lesson. It happened when Wooden was in the eighth grade. Centerton was supposed to play a game against Hazelwood, but the game had been in doubt because of rain. The schools had called each other several times during the day to figure out whether they should play. They finally agreed to play when the skies cleared, but Wooden had not brought his game uniform to school. When Warriner asked him to go home and retrieve it during recess, Johnny refused, even though his house was right up the road. I guess John wanted me to beg him to play, Warriner said.

Warriner told another player, named Freddy Gooch, that he would substitute for Wooden. Johnny was shocked. As soon as school was over, he raced home, got his uniform, and ran back to the school. He was there in plenty of time to warm up with his teammates, but when the game began, Warriner left him on the sideline. He stayed there during the entire contest, which Centerton lost. After the game was over, Warriner put his arm around Wooden’s shoulder and said, Johnny, we could have won with you in there, but winning just isn’t that important.

It was a day the boy would never forget. Johnny Wooden learned early in life he was not a necessary article, Wooden said during one of his frequent retellings of the incident. It didn’t make any difference how good I was in sports, business, or anything else. If I don’t put out, I’m not worth a dime. He also learned that day that the bench was all the motivation a coach ever needed.

When Wooden graduated from the eighth grade, he faced the choice of going to Martinsville or Monrovia for high school. The Woodens were still a year away from losing the farm, and each town was the same distance from their home in Centerton. Martinsville, however, was a real hotbed for basketball. The school routinely drew huge crowds for games and had just won a state championship. The idea of making a living playing or teaching the sport wasn’t remotely in Johnny’s mind, but he did know that he loved playing and was very good at it. So he chose Martinsville. This was Indiana, after all. It was only natural that he would want to follow that bouncing ball.


The Artesians

On March 21, 1925, Dr. James Naismith arrived at the Indianapolis Exposition Building, where he had been invited by the Indiana High School Athletic Association to speak at the annual state championship game. There was, however, a problem at the door: the arena was full, and a security guard was not allowing anyone else inside. Naismith showed the man his ticket and his official’s badge, but the guard wouldn’t relent. Finally, a police captain approached and asked what was going on. When Naismith revealed his identity, the captain said, Good Lord, man, why didn’t you say so long ago?

Naismith got a chuckle out of the mix-up. But what really tickled him was the spectacle that greeted him after the police captain showed him to his seat: a crowd of close to twenty thousand full-throated fans who were on hand to watch the sport Naismith had invented just thirty-four years before. That sight, Naismith wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, gave me a thrill that I shall not soon forget.

Thus did Naismith discover what those twenty thousand spectators already knew: basketball may have been conceived in Massachusetts, but it was born in Indiana.

Basket ball, as it was still known, was part of an experiment that appealed to pious farm boys like Johnny Wooden. The organization that invented and proselytized the sport, the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, advertised its mission as promoting a person’s mind, body and spirit. Wooden never had Naismith as a mentor per se, but the two were kindred spirits all the same. Like Wooden, Naismith grew up on a farm (in Ontario, Canada) where he learned the value of a hard day’s work. He originally intended to become a minister, but upon graduating from the theological college at Montreal’s McGill University, Naismith decided he could have just as much impact through athletics as he could through the ministry. In 1890, he began formally studying at the YMCA’s training school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In those days, many religious scholars viewed athletics as a tool of the devil. A group of liberal Protestant ministers rebutted that way of thinking by launching a movement called muscular Christianity. In the summer of 1891, the head of the Springfield YMCA’s training school’s physical education department, Dr. Luther Gulick, assigned Naismith the task of creating a new game that students could play indoors during the winter. Naismith used a phys ed class as his laboratory, but his first few attempts proved futile. Gymnastics was too boring, football and rugby were too rough, and there wasn’t enough space in the gymnasium to play soccer or lacrosse.

Sitting in his office, Naismith tinkered with adapting a game he used to play as a boy in Canada called Duck on a Rock, where points were scored by lofting small rocks so they would land on a bigger rock. But he was still concerned things would get too rough. That’s when he experienced his eureka moment: there should be a rule against running with the ball! If the players couldn’t run, they wouldn’t be tackled. And if they weren’t tackled, they wouldn’t get hurt.

Excited by his breakthrough, Naismith sketched out thirteen rules using just 474 words. The rules did not include dribbling, so the players were stationary, and therefore safe. He then asked the building’s superintendent to fetch him a pair of eighteen-inch boxes to use as goals. The superintendent didn’t have any boxes, but he offered a couple of peach baskets instead. Naismith decided these would have to do.

The class consisted of eighteen students, and the first game featured nine men on each side. It was an instant hit. In the months that followed, Naismith continued to develop and modify his invention in the hope that other YMCAs and athletic clubs would adopt it in coming winters. He had two means of spreading the word. The first was the YMCA’s official publication, The Triangle, which was delivered to clubs across the country. The second was the army of clergymen who came to study under Naismith at the training school in Springfield.

One such missionary was a Presbyterian minister named Nicolas McKay, who was the secretary of the YMCA in Crawfordsville, Indiana, sixty miles north of Martinsville. During the winter of 1892, Reverend McKay spent several months observing the new game and engaging in long talks with its inventor. He took his notes and a copy of Naismith’s thirteen rules with him back to Crawfordsville, where he taught the game to his own students, including a pint-sized boy named Ward Lambert, who would later coach Johnny Wooden at Purdue University. Thus was a direct lineage established: Naismith to McKay to Lambert to Wooden.

The state of Indiana’s first organized basketball game was played at the Crawfordsville YMCA on March 16, 1894. The next day’s Crawfordsville Journal reported, Basket ball is a new game, but if the interest taken in the contest last night between the teams of Crawfordsville and Lafayette is any criterion, it is bound to be popular. That was an understatement. As it turned out, the state provided the ideal platform for Naismith’s game to lift off. Unlike neighboring Ohio, the Hoosier state did not have a bunch of urban manufacturing centers with schools that were big enough to field football teams. Rather, it was clustered with hundreds of small rural communities. The farming calendar was also not conducive to supporting football because autumn was harvest season. If people were going to look for entertainment, it had to be in winter—and indoors. Best of all, since basketball required only five men a side (as determined by a rule that was put in place in 1897), no school was too small to field a team. With high school teams popping up all over Indiana, the natural next step was a statewide tournament. The inaugural edition was held in 1911 at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Crawfordsville, fittingly, was crowned the first champion.

Martinsville was not going to be outdone by its neighbor. So in May 1923, the town set out on an ambitious project: to build the world’s largest high school gymnasium. Thanks to the money spent by all those outsiders who came to visit Martinsville’s gleaming spas, the town was able to complete its mission in swift fashion. On February 7, 1924, Martinsville unveiled its grandiose landmark in time for its first game against Shelbyville. On the morning of the game, the Martinsville Daily Reporter revealed that more than four thousand tickets had already been sold, and that 1,500 people from Shelbyville were planning to attend as well. Officially, the gym held 5,382 people, which was more than the entire population of the town. (That fact earned a mention in a popular, nationally syndicated column by Robert Ripley entitled Believe It or Not.) Train lines that had been specially set up for the occasion brought spectators from neighboring burgs. Writers from Indianapolis, Vincennes, Frankfort, and Lafayette were on hand, as were a dozen or so local basketball coaches.

The occasion was so intoxicating that even the hometown Artesians’ 47–41 loss couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. Under the headline Gymnasium Dedication Was a Great Event, the next day’s Reporter declared, The fact that this city now has a gymnasium that will take care of any crowd that wishes to witness a basket ball game overshadowed the feelings of regret because of the defeat. The big gym was packed to capacity, and the cheering throng, the music by the bands and the brilliant display of school colors presented a scene never to be forgotten by those who were present. Within a few years, dozens of communities across Indiana would build large high school gymnasiums of their own. From that point on, the sound of leather pounding wood would serve as the state’s steady heartbeat.

*   *   *

By today’s standards, a town of fewer than five thousand people is considered small, but back then the citizens of Martinsville justifiably thought of themselves as cosmopolitan and urbane, living as they did among the hustle and bustle of all those out-of-town visitors. Wooden was a small-town kid who seemed out of place when he arrived at Martinsville High School in the fall of 1924. We Martinsville fellows were city slickers and he was a country boy, said Floyd Burns, a high school classmate. John had on a drugstore outfit, snow white and clean, and we looked on him as a greenhorn. He was inexperienced, and he’d run faster than he could dribble and he’d lose the ball. But we all liked him and were amazed that he learned so quickly.

Since baseball was Johnny’s favorite sport, he might have focused on that if Martinsville fielded a high school team, but it didn’t. Nor did it have a football squad. Wooden lettered for two years in track—he finished sixth in the state in the 100-yard dash as a senior—but he devoted most of his energy to basketball. When that season came around, Wooden found himself under the tutelage of Glenn Curtis, known as the Old Fox, who was emerging as one of the finest high school coaches in the state.

Curtis had already won two state championships, with Lebanon in 1918 and Martinsville in 1924. Like many coaches in those days, he deployed a plodding, ball-control offense that made it virtually impossible for opponents to recapture a lead once Curtis’s teams seized it. This was aided by the rules that were in place at the time. After each made basket, the teams returned to center court for a jump ball. There was also no half-court line—that would not be added until 1932—and thus no ten-second counts or backcourt violations. And of course, the sport was decades away from implementing a shot clock. Thus, if a coach had guards who were reliable, quick dribblers, they could use the entire floor to avoid the defense and run out the clock.

Johnny did not hold the Old Fox in high esteem at first. His older brother, Cat, had been a member of Curtis’s 1924 championship team, but Cat barely got into the games. Curtis appeared to confirm Johnny’s fears early on while breaking up a fight between Wooden and one of his teammates. In Wooden’s eyes, Curtis had unfairly backed up the other fellow. You’re not going to do to me what you did to my brother! Johnny shouted. He flung off his jersey, his shorts, his shoes, and his socks, and he stormed off the floor in half-naked protest. He decided then and there to quit the team.

Curtis could have regarded Wooden as an intemperate fool and bade him good riddance. But he didn’t. Instead, he spent the next two weeks trying to coax Wooden back on to the squad. Wooden resisted at first, but eventually he relented. He also never forgot his coach’s graciousness in letting him back on the team, a lesson that Wooden would apply to his own players after he started coaching.

Wooden was fortunate to encounter early in his life a man who took his craft so seriously. Curtis systematically broke down the game into its smallest, simplest elements. His players worked for long stretches without using a basketball, and on his command they efficiently shuttled from drill to drill. A decade later, in 1936, Curtis started using a friend’s movie camera to film games and instruct his teams. He was so impressed that he convinced the high school to purchase a camera so he could use it whenever he wanted. An official from the Eastman Kodak Company told the Daily Reporter that no one has yet attempted to teach basketball through this medium.

Curtis was also renowned for delivering spine-tingling locker room speeches minutes before tip-off. That was one tactic that did not impress Wooden. Hugh had so emphatically pounded the importance of keeping an even keel that Johnny did not want his emotions to overtake him. However, once the games began, Wooden was struck by how Curtis regained his composure. On one occasion, when an opposing player took a cheap shot at Wooden, Curtis prevailed upon young Johnny not to retaliate. They’re trying to get you out of the game. Don’t lose your temper, he told Wooden. Then he joked, After the game is over, I’ll take on the coach and you can take on the players.

Unlike his brother, Johnny was a starter on Curtis’s team, and he led the Artesians to a sectional title in the 1926 Indiana state tournament. The final rounds were to be played in Indianapolis at the Exposition Center, which was called the cow barn because twice a year it hosted livestock shows. Martinsville made it to the championship game—its third contest of the day—where it faced Marion High School. Marion’s nickname was the Giants, which was appropriate because the lineup featured the tallest player Wooden had ever seen: Charles Stretch Murphy, a six-foot-eight-inch center. The center-jump rule made having that kind of player an enormous asset. Wooden failed to score as Martinsville lost, 30–23.

Despite the disappointing finish, it was a terrific first season of varsity basketball for young Johnny. In the parlance of the day, he played the position of floor guard, which made him responsible for directing the offense much as a point guard does today. (A team’s other guard at that time was typically called a back guard because he served as a de facto goalie, hanging back on defense to protect his team’s basket.) As it turned out, Wooden’s innate physical gifts were uniquely suited to this young sport. I didn’t have as much size as many, but I was quicker than most all, and that was my strength, he later recalled.

In addition, Wooden possessed a sturdy frame, thanks to all those years of physical labor on the farm. He also showed very little regard for his safety, which made him seem quicker because he was able to charge heedlessly toward the basket without slowing down to protect himself. He could dribble with either hand, and when he’d drive for the basket, he’d go flying on the floor and into the end zone, one of his Martinsville teammates, Vinnie Bisesi, said. He always had floor burns all over his legs, and he never was licked.

As a free throw shooter, Wooden was without peer. Using a two-handed, underhanded style, he could toss in shot after shot with ease. Quick as he was, he could stop on a dime and change direction, an essential skill for a game played in a confined space. He also had unusually large hands, which made him adept at dribbling quickly without losing control of the ball. John could palm a basketball. I never could. Usually it takes a big man to do that, Billy Wooden said. Most of all, Johnny was in supreme condition—and he knew it. He stayed in constant motion so his defenders would eventually get tired.

Still, in the Wooden family, a game would always take a backseat to work. Since there was very little money, Johnny had to scrounge for whatever jobs he could find. He washed dishes, served meals, and cleaned the kitchen one day a week at the local Elks club. On weekends, he’d work as a box boy at a supermarket or the Collier Bros. Creamery. He canned tomatoes and peas at the Van Camp packing plant. He installed telephone poles, worked in an ice cream factory, laid gravel, dug sewers, and collected garbage. During the summers, he and his friends hitchhiked around the state looking for jobs. Sometimes, they would be away for weeks at a time.

Johnny and his buddies also liked to hang out at Wick’s Candy Kitchen as well as a local pool hall, where he sharpened his billiard skills. Did Wooden also earn a few extra cents scamming the locals at pool? It’s conceivable. He was, after all, not above a quick hustle. For example, when a carnival rode into town, he and Cat devised a plan to fleece the man working at the basketball shot. They’d have these ‘Shoot the free throw’ contests, their brother Billy said. They’d make an awkward pass. The fellow would persuade them to invest their money, and then they’d take their coat off and sink free shot after free shot. After they got prizes for everybody, finally the guy would try to get rid of them.

Wooden’s classmate Floyd Burns recalled that Wooden developed a curious habit of keeping a toothpick in his mouth at all times—including when he played basketball. It really could have been dangerous, but he always had a toothpick. Sometimes when we’d go into a store, he’d pick up the whole pack, Burns said. He always wore his letter sweater and he’d carry the toothpicks inside the tucked-up part of the waist. And was he jealous of them. You’d have thought they were gold nuggets. John would always play [basketball] with a toothpick in his mouth, and I often heard a teacher say, ‘John Robert, take that toothpick out of your mouth.’

It was around this time that Wooden began to develop his fondness for phrases and aphorisms. When he’d get hold of an expression, he’d use it all the time. And he loved to quote expressions he picked up from the classics, though they wouldn’t always be exact, Burns said. Many times we’d be walking out of the drugstore after having a Coke, and he’d stop, put his arm as if he were on the stage, and say, ‘Varlot, insect, knave, back to the kitchen, the smell of the pots and pans is on ye.’

Another favorite saying came from a newspaper cartoon called Out at Our Place. When one character asked his friend how he was doing, the friend would reply, Pretty pert. Johnny copied it so often he answered to the nickname Pert. That nickname appeared next to his basketball photograph in the Martinsville High yearbook for all three years he was a student there. Over the decades that followed, Wooden would tell people he got that nickname because it was short for impertinent.

It was clear to his friends that Wooden had inherited his father’s even temperament. One summer day when Wooden and his teammate Sally Suddith were digging sewers, Suddith accidentally hit Wooden’s finger with a hammer as they were putting up some boards to hold the dirt. Wooden dove on top of Suddith and started pounding him. Suddith assumed Wooden was irate, but after a few moments Johnny started laughing so hard he rolled on the ground. When Suddith asked if he was mad, Wooden replied, Lord, no.

Curtis noticed this, too, and was not altogether pleased. He told Wooden that he would never win important games because he wasn’t mean enough.

*   *   *

Martinsville in 1926 was a wonderful place and time to be a basketball star. Interest in the Artesians’ games was so intense that homeroom teachers were assigned the task of finding tickets for students who couldn’t afford them. On game night, the only gas station in town would close and put out a sign that read, Be back after the game. (No need to say which game.) The only downside to all that attention was that it became difficult for the players to violate Curtis’s 10:00 p.m. curfew. If one of them was in a movie theater, he might be visited by a flashlight-wielding usher saying it was time to go home.

In his junior year, Wooden paced the team in scoring and led the Artesians back to the cow barn for the 1927 championships. Over the course of two weeks, a field of 731 teams had been whittled down to 16, and the IHSAA removed hog and cattle stalls at the Exposition Center so they could squeeze in a few thousand more spectators for the final games. Wooden was the perfect floor guard to lead Curtis’s ball-control offense. During the Saturday tripleheader, Wooden led Martinsville to a 26–14 win over Gary’s Emerson High School in the morning and then put up 13 points in a 32–21 win over Connersville High School in the afternoon.

That earned the Artesians a date in the final for the second straight year. Their opponent, Muncie Central High School, was a much larger school, but the Bearcats learned early on that stopping their opponents’ crafty little guard would not be easy. According to the Daily Reporter, Wooden took a pass off the opening tip-off in the title game and dribbled under at lightning speed and scored a two point marker.

Down 4 points with four minutes to play, Muncie tried to ignite a rally, but Curtis countered with his patented stall. The tactic made for unexciting basketball, but it worked to perfection. Wooden tallied a game-high 10 points as Martinsville eked out a 26–23 win. Even by the standards of the era, it was not a pretty offensive game. Martinsville shot 9-for-42 from the field while Muncie shot just 8-for-33. Wooden was the second-leading scorer among the sixteen teams assembled in the cow barn that weekend. The Muncie Star reported the next day that the hometown Bearcats had suffered from a case of too much Wooden. The article added, The ever-fighting, plunging Wooden was as spectacular in the final victory as he had been throughout the earlier contests.

One of the officials for that 1927 championship game was Birch Bayh, who went on to sire a son (Birch Jr.) and grandson (Evan) who would represent Indiana in the United States Senate. Bayh officiated dozens of high school games in Indiana, and four decades later he still remembered the way Martinsville’s whirling dervish dominated the games. I’ve never seen another player give everything, regardless of what might happen to him, the way he did, Bayh said. He would score by flying in from the side and use his bank shot. Many times he would slide on the floor and wind up under the bench. He spent a lot of time on the floor. I don’t mean that he was awkward. He just gave everything. He held nothing back.

The young man’s comportment made an even more lasting impression. John was a complete gentleman, Bayh said. I don’t think I ever remember John showing any resentment to an official and I refereed a lot of his games. He never lost his temper and he never used bad language.

Needless to say, the victory over Muncie was big news back home. Hundreds of fans staged a parade and celebration the following Monday afternoon. The banner leading the procession read, A team that won’t be beat can’t be beat—Martinsville High School. The mayor followed behind, as did packs of fans and students from every school in town. When the parade reached the town square, each member of the team got a chance to speak. Upon taking his turn, Wooden was asked how it felt to hit the floor so many times. Wooden replied that it was not half so bad as it looked, the Daily Reporter wrote. The shy Wooden even flashed a rare smile for the team photo that was taken that day.

Each member of the Artesians’ championship squad received a silver Hamilton pocket watch. (On the day Wooden died, that watch was still sitting in his Los Angeles condominium under a glass bell, ticking as well as it had more than eighty years before.) Several days later Wooden was selected all-state. Reporting the honor, the Daily Reporter said of Wooden: Local people swell up like prideful toads at the mere mention of his name—and the greater the friendship, the bigger the swell.

Such praise could make a guy feel pretty pert.



She was, as he often described her, the only girl I ever went with. She was also everything he wasn’t. He was of Scottish and Dutch descent, cool and composed. She was red-blooded Irish. He was shy. She was outgoing. He avoided confrontation. She sought it out. She loved to socialize and go out on dates and was the life of the party. He hated parties. If he went at all, he’d mostly stand in the corner. She was hot-tempered, effusive, affectionate, feisty, and fun. If you crossed her—worse, if you disrespected him—she would let you know and wouldn’t forget.

Also, she liked to dance. He didn’t. On the rare occasions when he indulged her happy feet, she told him he looked like he was dribbling a basketball.

Nellie Riley was a year younger than Johnny Wooden. During his sophomore year at Martinsville High School, he noticed her in the hallways, but he never did anything about it. Never met her or anything, but I saw her. I thought she was cute, he said. Nellie was best friends with a girl named Mary Schnaiter, the daughter of a well-to-do local businessman who owned a grain mill and building supply company. One day during the summer between Johnny’s sophomore and junior years, Nellie joined Mary and her brother in the Schnaiters’ family automobile, and the three of them took a drive out to Centerton. When they pulled up to the Woodens’ farm, they saw Johnny in the distance plowing corn behind a mule. He was sweaty and caked with dirt. I made a turn on this gravel road. They drove up to where I was turning. They motioned me over but I refused to go, Wooden recalled. They kept trying but I refused. So they left. I didn’t think anything about it.

Two months later, Johnny was coming out of his homeroom and was on his way to his first class. Nellie was waiting for him in the hallway. She walked right up to him and demanded to know why he had been so rude. We made all these arrangements to go see you, and you didn’t even come over to say hello, she said. He explained to her that he was dirty and didn’t feel like socializing. You all would have just made fun of me, he said.

Nellie replied, I would never make fun of you.

They started spending time together almost immediately. Johnny would carry her books to school and take her on dates on the weekends. They spent evenings in her parents’ living room playing songs like Ramona and In a Little Spanish Town on her parents’ Victrola record player. There was a clandestine thrill to the relationship, because Glenn Curtis had a strict rule against his players dating during basketball season. This was a problem because the Rileys lived next door to Curtis, but Johnny still came around. He was always polite and my parents liked him, Nell said, but he was so bashful he could hardly hold his head up to say ‘How do you do’ to them.

Nellie did what she could to draw him out. She encouraged him to take a public speaking class. He did, but he didn’t warm up to the teacher, Mabel Hinds, until she learned of Johnny’s affection for poetry. Ms. Hinds got him to read aloud by assigning him Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. ("The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r / And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave / Awaits alike th’inevitable hour / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.") It would become Johnny’s favorite poem.

Nellie was no stranger to basketball. When she was in grade school, she once made ten consecutive shots in a free throw contest. At Martinsville High, she fulfilled her fondness for music by joining the ukulele club, the dramatic club, the glee club, and operetta. Nellie’s band instrument was the cornet, though Johnny teased her that she only held it to her lips and pretended to play. Playing in the band meant she had good seats for the games.

Once basketball season started, Johnny and Nellie developed a private pregame ritual. As he emerged from Curtis’s huddle, he would find her in the stands, wink, and flash her the okay sign. They performed this ritual before every game he played and coached, right through his last at UCLA.

Johnny was a straight arrow, but Nellie had wandering eyes. This drove him to distraction. Even though Nellie professed devotion, she said she still wanted to have dates with other boys. Johnny was part sucker, part cuckold, tacitly granting Nellie permission to have her fun even though he had no interest in dating other girls himself.

On at least one occasion, she went too far. During the summer between John’s junior and senior years of high school, Nell went on a date with a boy whom John didn’t want her to see. John had been thinking about hitchhiking north to look for some fieldwork, so the day after Nellie mentioned the date, he expressed his displeasure by packing an extra pair of overalls and some belongings and hitting the road with a couple of buddies. The boys wore their letterman’s sweaters because they knew it would make motorists more likely to stop.

Eventually, they made it to Lawrence, Kansas, where John asked the University of Kansas’s forty-one-year-old basketball coach, Phog Allen, for help finding work. Allen got Wooden’s crew a job pouring concrete for the new football stadium. The coach had ulterior motives. Allen knew full well about Wooden’s basketball exploits, and he tried to convince him to move to Lawrence and eventually play for Kansas. Wooden declined and headed back to Martinsville, but he was still so angry with Nellie that he didn’t even let her know he was home. I didn’t want to see her. She had to find out I was back, he said. Asked how she won him over, Wooden reached up his index finger and stroked his cheek, limning the tracks of her tears. I’m ashamed, he said. I have a bit of stubbornness in me, that’s true. I admit that.

The couple grew even closer during Johnny’s senior year—so close, in fact, that Curtis worried that Johnny would give up the chance to play basketball in college so he could stay in Martinsville and marry Nellie. Curtis warned Nellie’s mother that she did not want her daughter to marry someone who would never make more than twenty-five dollars a week. Said Nell, Mother thought to herself, if he ever makes twenty-five dollars a week, I’ll be surprised. They were quite the item. The caption next to Wooden’s senior picture in the Artesian that spring described him as another person who lived in Centerton, but then it’s not necessary to introduce ‘John Bob,’ especially to Nellie.

Though their personalities could not have been more different, they were soul mates in all the important ways. Wooden understood, at least subconsciously, that if he ended up with someone who was just like him, he would only retreat further into his shell, not quite distrusting the world but not fully embracing it, either. He needed a life partner who would challenge him. Someone who could ignite his passions, fight his battles, prod him, protect him, maybe even get him to dance once in a while. As a coach, Wooden would often tell his players that the two most important words in the English language were love and balance. Nellie Riley was the one person who gave him both.

*   *   *

Wooden was dedicated to his studies, so there was little doubt that he was going to college somewhere. The only question was whether his senior season would end with the Artesians claiming their second consecutive state championship.

The interest in the 1928 tournament was at an all-time high. The come-one, come-all field included a record 740 teams, and the finals would be played at Butler University’s brand-new field house in Indianapolis. The arena had cost the school $1 million to build and had a capacity of fifteen thousand. The university originally planned to build a more modest venue, but the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) convinced it to erect a bigger place so it could stage the state high school finals there. That was Indiana in 1928: basketball was a bigger deal to high schools than to colleges.

Once again, Martinsville won its sectional and regional tournaments to earn a berth in the sixteen-team pool that assembled in Indianapolis. By the time the big weekend arrived, Wooden was a statewide celebrity. A writer in Indianapolis dubbed him the tumbling artist from Martinsville,

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  • (5/5)
    This is a great book for a narrow audience. Even though it is full of tips for how to live a successful life there is way too much basketball detail for a casual reader to wade their way through this thing. That said, for a coach, player or UCLA fan this book is very, very good. This is no whitewash job as there were improprieties in the UCLA program over the years and Seth Davis is very fair in presenting a balanced portrayal here. He even writes a little about something I always complained about which was that UCLA had an easier route through the NCAA tournament in the early years because brackets were based on geography and they were able to avoid playing a series of games against teams in the stronger East coast conferences in the early rounds. If you like basketball and don't mind a lot of game detail this is a great book.
  • (5/5)
    A very in-depth and balanced look at the life of the most successful college basketball coach of the 60s and 70s. The author's detailed research is obvious, if not a little over-included. He doesn't whitewash Sam Gilbert or the racial tensions surrounding the team and his coaching while, at the same time, providing a detailed look at why he was successful as a manager of players. There is not as much discussion of what made his fast-break offense tick - interestingly for a book about a basketball coach whose successes were forged on the practice court, there is very little about the basketball he taught there. But this is a minor problem, to this reviewer, in an excellent biography
  • (4/5)
    John Wooden had such a long career in basketball that a story of his life is also, by necessity, a history of the game of basketball. You can see the game change throughout the story of Wooden's life and career.Seth Davis made no effort to gloss over the negative aspects of Wooden's life, while still showcasing his innate talent and love of the game.The book is a bit wordy and could have been edited down a bit, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in either the life of John Wooden or anyone fan of college basketball.
  • (5/5)
    An outstanding, well-researched and thorough book on the man considered one of the great coaches and teachers of the last century. Warts and all, Davis is not afraid to show the reader who the real John Wooden is. Well done.
  • (5/5)
    Seth Davis thoroughly details the life events, on and off the court, that turned Johnny Wooden the boy into John Wooden the man. Davis tells Wooden's story in a delightfully readable prose that flows remarkably quickly through the decades without leaving any detail untold. We've all heard of the legend that Wooden was, Davis proves it many times over. This is not a basketball book, it's about a man more than worthy of emulating who just happened to be associated with the game.
  • (5/5)
    I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for a review.I was too young to be much aware of Coach John Wooden during his coaching career, but he is a familiar figure to me, as he must be to even the most casual fan of college basketball. He is “The Wizard of Westwood,” revered for his coaching prowess, wisdom and numerous national championships. This book is a respectful and remarkably balanced portrayal of his life from beginning to end, as well as a fascinating window into the interpersonal, institutional and social dynamics behind the great UCLA basketball dynasty. Though Wooden’s brilliance and success is well-documented, his career spanned decades of dramatic social change, and he often struggled to adapt. His relationships with players, assistants and the media were sometimes strained. Davis illustrates the coach’s strengths and weaknesses objectively throughout, reporting the facts without passing judgment. That this biography is the product of meticulous, exhaustive research is evident on every page. I found it compelling, well-written and a pleasure to read.
  • (4/5)
    Well-written and thoroughly researched, Seth Davis' biography of John Wooden - "Wooden", A Coach's Story- is an honest appraisal of the great coach's life. Davis works with dozens of players, coaches, and others who were closest to the man to paint a fully-fleshed out portrait of a complex man. Wooden, the owner of the most men's NCAA basketball titles in history was a genius on the job, a doting husband, and a polished PR man. He also built one of the greatest dynasties in sport's history, let alone college basketball history.Davis interviews former Bruin stars like Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Marques Johnson, Lucius Allen, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks, and Curtis Rowe, just to name a few to give readers a close look at every UCLA season under Wooden. Also interviewed extensively for this book are the Bruin benchwarmers who provide some of the most interesting details and honest appraisals of the Wizard of Westwood.College basketball fans and historians will find this book an absolute treat. Author Davis has done a wonderfully fair job creating a complete story of John Wooden's life. This book is a slam dunk!
  • (4/5)
    For any basketball fan who really likes to know about the history of the college game, this is a great book. It gives a very raven picture of Wooden, talking about both his good points and his bad points. It also gives a lot of background on the relationships with his players and how they changed over the years. I knew little about Wooden before reading this and found it enjoyable.
  • (4/5)
    I received "Wooden: A Coach's Life" as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

    As someone whose sports interest tends towards pro hockey and baseball, I didn't know a lot about John Wooden coming into this book. However, Davis' biography of the legendary UCLA basketball coach is through while remaining eminently readable. I got a sense of Wooden not only as a legendary coach, but also as a person--a devout Christian Midwesterner transplanted to the West Coast, followed by towering success and a bittersweet end to his career.

    One of the aspects of the book that I most respected was Davis' balanced portrayal of Wooden. After researching and working on the book for years, including three separate interviews with Wooden himself, in addition to being an accomplished college basketball writer, it would be understandable if Davis fell prey to hero worship, but that's not the case here. He takes plenty of times to highlight Wooden's mistakes, blind spots, and faults. Wooden, while on the whole a very good man, was human, and the book reflects that.

    One of the challenges of writing about sports in general, and college sports in particular, is the revolving door nature of teams. I'll admit that, over Wooden's more than two decades at UCLA, including his string of championship runs in the 1960s and early 1970s, names and personalities did tend to run together a bit, but I don't necessarily lay that at Davis' door; it's just sort of the nature of the subject.

    Even as a novice of college basketball, "A Coach's Life" was a fascinating read. Recommended.

  • (5/5)
    A moving and detailed book about John Wooden's life. I enjoyed the reality behind the myth. No one's perfect and it was nice to have a balanced book that discussed Wooden's faults and achievements. His life and rise in the coaching world is even more amazing when you see where he came from. Even beyond Wooden, this is a great story of the evolution of basketball and how they game has become what it is.
  • (5/5)
    Like most sports-crazed teenagers in 60's LA, I was a huge fan of John Wooden and his spectacular Bruins teams. But the Coach Wooden I knew was far more complex than the nice older gentleman I saw on TV and read about in the newspaper. For example, I knew he was inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach - but I didn't know he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1960 - as a player. I didn't know he viciously baited referees and other teams' players. I do now, thanks to "Wooden: A Coach's Life" by Seth Davis.Davis gives the reader an in-depth, well-researched look into the life of America's most successful college basketball coach: 10 national championships, including 7 in a row, in a span of 12 seasons is a record that likely will never be broken. He brings Wooden to vivid life, warts and all. If you're interested in basketball history, or are just a fan, I think you'll find this a worthwhile book.
  • (4/5)
    Seth Davis provides a thorough look at a somewhat contradictory man. Wooden could be forceful and quiet, determined to win and happier when the team lost. I liked that Davis did not pull any punches while dealing with his revered subject, showing both a willingness to listen to others and a stubbornness that often worked to his detriment.
  • (4/5)
    First off, this is a very big book, however, it takes a big book to cover 100 years of basketball history, 100 years of social issues in the US, and the almost 100 year life span of John Wooden. I enjoyed reading about his early years in Indiana when basketball was still a new game. I enjoyed reading about how he adapted or not to the changing times. I enjoyed reading about how his players could leave UCLA frustrated with him only to realize later what an impact he had on their lives. I did find some repetition by the author to be tiring, we were told over and over again that John was not a drinker and avoided the cocktail party events and we were told over and over again that John was raised by a father that didn’t hug and coddle him and that was how he treated his players. The author seemed determined to show the good and bad of John Wooden but frankly it seemed like he had to try too hard to show the bad.