WOODEN: A COACH'S LIFE. By Seth Davis. Times Books. 591 pages. $35.
Rarefied subjects bring high standards. So when a title aims at the definitive profile of perhaps the most successful coach in major American sports history, who is already the subject of dozens of bio takes over the past five decades, the author is beyond the 3-point line with the last few seconds ticking down, his favored team behind by two points. This better be good.
Swish! Like David Maraniss with Vince Lombardi ("When Pride Still Mattered") and Peter Ames Carlin with Bruce Springsteen ("Bruce"), Davis gets to a fresh essence of Wooden through dogged pursuit of details woven into a masterpiece. He does not simply rehash the glory of the beloved Wizard of Westwood, the sainted Wooden who won 10 NCAA basketball titles at UCLA in 12 years from 1964 to 1975 while dispensing "Pyramid of Success" wisdom without ever cussing. There's plenty of that, but Davis does Wooden a favor by addressing or revealing flaws in the legendary man who died at 99 in 2010.
The first credibility test you look for in a Wooden book is the Sam Gilbert stuff. Davis takes on the stain of Wooden's career with a thorough chapter on the renegade booster ("Sam") and beyond. Yes, Gilbert's manipulative largess put UCLA on NCAA probation after the Wooden years but, clearly, he was even more active during the UCLA glory run. Davis agrees with former Los Angeles Times reporters Mike Littwin and the late Alan Greenberg, who concluded an investigative series with "(Wooden) should have known much more (about Gilbert). If he didn't, it was only because he apparently chose not to look."
Did you know Wooden often ran up scores by playing his starters deep into blowouts? That he was well known for discretely yelling at referees and opposing players during games? That he was a master of revisionist history, often embellishing? That Wooden "whitewashed" Jerry Norman from UCLA history by refusing to give his former assistant coach proper credit for coming up with the Bruins' famed zone press defense? Yes to all that. Such journalistic balance makes this comprehensive analysis score consistently.
Davis shows that Wooden's Midwestern work ethic holds from a humble Indiana boyhood to the dazzling run in L.A., the championships, the recruiting of Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton and in all the famous quotes ("Be quick, but never hurry"). Early in his UCLA years, Wooden had to supplement his income with a morning shift as a dispatcher for a dairy. That first NCAA title didn't come until Wooden's 17th season at UCLA.
Davis, best known for his CBS television work during the NCAA Tournament, is a veteran Sports Illustrated senior writer and author. Some of his most poignant work here is in the prologue and over the last few pages, reflections on three meetings in Wooden's book-filled Encino, Calif., apartment from 2003 to 2009. The greatness of Wooden, the mystery reporters and lesser coaches have sought to crack for years, comes down to paying forward. Former players and others inspired by Wooden's words are the pied pipers. "Everyone wanted the old man's secrets, but he had no secrets," Davis concludes, "only seeds."
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a sports columnist for The Post and Courier. Follow him on Twitter @sapakoff.