Leaving for the Bay Area and another basketball weekend. This blog will resume on Tuesday, March 4th.
As a means of explanation about this blog. It is not at all personal. Here are some facts: 1) I was a graduate assistant at Washington State from 1973-75, John Wooden’s last two years as coach at UCLA but I never asked him for a reference letter nor for help obtaining a job, 2) I was an assistant at USC from 1991-95 and each time we played the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, I would stop by his seat to introduce myself (to which he’d say, “No need to introduce yourself, Jack, I know who you are,”) which he did to so many people because of his brilliant memory, 3) while I’ve long been an admirer of his, I, as did a vast majority of the college coaches, knew of Sam Gilbert and the violations at UCLA and a good deal of the other “incriminating information” Seth Davis writes about in his book and 4) I have never met Davis, nor do I have “a bone to pick” with him. 12 ½ years ago I wrote a book of funny (and true) stories. In every case but one, if the story was embarrassing to the person in question, I left out their name. That, however, did not prompt me to pen this blog.
People write books for a variety of reasons. Money and fame are two. A good cause, a tribute, something to say, a cathartic experience, demand from the public, the list goes on and on. Although I admit I haven’t read Seth Davis’ tome on the late (and don’t think it would have been published until “the late” was the operative term) John Wooden, I’ve read enough excerpts and listened to multiple interviews to understand his motivation. Here’s a hint: you need not go any further than the first two reasons listed above.
Usually people with fame and money can’t have enough of either. So they look for ways to obtain more of both. For a journalist, writing a book is always an option. Davis’ book idea was born, according to the author, when Ben Howland (who had been hired at UCLA) invited him to have breakfast with Howland and the Bruins’ legend. They wound up at Wooden’s apartment following the meal, Howland eventually left and – two hours later – Seth had a new BFF. As long as the second “F” didn’t last too long.
After hearing the “Hang Time Podcast (Episode 144) Featuring SI.com’s Seth Davis – posted by Sekou Smith,” one thought became apparent – at least it did to me – and that is if ever there was someone with a hidden agenda, Seth Davis is that person. He majored in political science at Duke. He would have made a sensational politician. “A good journalist smells a better story,” he told the podcast listeners. He knew Wooden was not just “a sweet old guy reading poetry.” When asked why he wrote the book, Davis claimed Wooden had been known as a two dimensional character. “I wanted to write about that third dimension,” he told Melissa Parker of Smashing Interviews Magazine. “(This) is not to say the book is a ‘takedown’ by any stretch,” he continued. “It most certainly is not because I found him to be genuinely admirable.
“I also believe that sometimes where most likeable and sympathetic characters are flawed is when they are showing their flaws. It also revealed the flaws of the world around him, the world he lived in, the world that changed and the world that he helped to change, so I approached this as a journalist and as a historian. That’s something that really hadn’t been done with respect to John Wooden in about 40 years.” Well, wasn’t that big of Seth - to approach this as a journalist and a historian, as opposed to someone just looking to “take him down,” write a book and make some money? And become even more famous. To David Woods of the Indianapolis Star, he said, “It was a ‘deep dig.’ I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.” Of course not, under every stone is . . . dirt.
The Seth Davis political campaign slogan (“I’ll stand for whatever the people will fall for”) continued in his Hang Time Podcast with Smith. “When the flaws and rough edges become exposed, people become more likeable and sympathetic,” he said. To borrow a line from Saturday Night Live, “Really, Seth? REALLY? Could it be possible for someone to be more liked than John Wooden? Why don’t you just come out and say, “I met with John Wooden when he was close to death (our last conversation was 10 months before he died) and, from all my years in college basketball, I had heard that many coaches knew UCLA’s program wasn’t exactly what Wooden led people to believe. So, I figured, why not have several meetings with him (so as to establish credibility), then interview those who could give me something negative, so after he dies, I can come out with a book that has all the nasty stuff in there. But since most people adore the guy, it will have to contain a great deal of praise. It will sell, however, because it has what every book needs to succeed: a hook.” And my hook is the reason so many people read biographies – the aforementioned dirt.
Another quote from the author: “I wanted to tell a story that had never been told.” One such anecdote deals with UCLA players Lucius Allen and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in which Allen and Alcindor discuss transferring to Michigan State (because they weren’t getting enough money to live on and MSU was going to “take care of them.”) In subsequent years, Jabbar claims it was just “talk - teenage angst.” Davis says Allen was one of the first people he interviewed, well before he even had a contract. Gee, I wonder if all Allen had to say expedited that contract? It would certainly aid in bursting the bubble of a guy the public adored - because of the great things he’d accomplished. The “positive” information in this book has been told on several occasions; it’s the negative events that are revealed that make people want to buy it. “Shockingly enough, he was not perfect. Shockingly enough, he was not a saint,” Davis said. “Of course, people criticize all the great ones.” Yet, the public didn’t know - until Seth felt compelled to expose the coach, warts and all. Let’s face it, Davis didn’t exactly uncover another Bernie Madoff, someone his investors loved - until they found out he was nothing but a crook and a scumbag. Since Wooden was neither, was the reason, as Seth claims, to show that he was human? Didn’t we already know that?
That initial meeting with Wooden led to others. After one of them, Davis told of Wooden retreating to another room to come back with 8″x11″ cardboard with the poem “A Little Fellow Follows Me” that he personalized to Davis’ two sons. At any time during those additional interviews, do you think he ever mentioned that he planned to write a book about the coach – one which was going to expose his shortcomings - as well as improprieties with his program? Of course not. The talks would have immediately ceased, meaning the book would turn into a “takedown,” not fitting the image Seth Davis wants for himself. Although he’s never mentioned whom he does want to model his life after, it’s highly doubtful Skip Bayless is the answer.
Is it a coincidence the book wasn’t published until after the coach died? “Once Wooden passed, I think people sort of felt like they could talk a little more,” remarked the author. Wow, how fortunate for you! Davis’ defenders will point out the work was written “fairly,” that he does say “John Wooden is the best coach in the history of American sports.” If that’s the case, why is it that every excerpt that has come out has included either Sam Gilbert and breaking NCAA rules, or Wooden riding referees and opposing players, or his not being a father figure. i.e. all things scandalous? Davis’ answer to the question of whether Wooden knew what was going on with Gilbert as far as his dealings with the players was, “kind of.” If he actually was planning on “digging deep,” why not dig a little further? It’s a rhetorical question. Everyone knows that line of questioning also would have ended all further conversations.
When asked on the podcast what he planned on doing now that this gargantuan task had ended, the author exclaimed, “I’m going to walk the earth a little bit on this, and enjoy it, and try to sell a few of these things.” Although Davis claims it isn’t a takedown, was it really necessary? Sure, it might put Coach Wooden’s life in perspective, but who ever asked that his life be put in perspective? Another reference Davis made in an interview was that Coach Wooden was shy and didn’t like confrontations, yet his wife, Nell, was the complete opposite. Anybody who was critical of the coach, well, that would end the friendship. I guess that would mean, if she was still alive when Seth Davis’ book came out, her reaction might be:
“I have two words for you, Mr. Davis. One is profane, the other is pronoun.”