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On the verge of publishing her biography of Picasso, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington called David McCullough, who had scrapped his own similar project. Why? she asked. "We need monsters in our mythic life," he told her, "but I didn't want one in mine. . . . In the end, I didn't want Picasso for my room-mate for five years."
-The Time of their Lives (Robert Taylor, 6/12/88, Boston Globe)

There is an old admonition that every biographer comes to hate his subject. If generally true, John Wooden is one of the most obvious exceptions to the rule. The more one finds out about him the more decent a man and remarkable a basketball legend he becomes.

when we were kids UCLA used to win the NCAA Championship every year. Indeed, they were so dominant that it was easy to assume that their coach had little to do with their success. They were so machine-like that it was possible to lose sight of the operator. But then Coach Wooden retired and the Bird/Magic game made the NCAA tourney a big deal and you couldn't help noticing that despite intermittent success over the ensuing years, UCLA just wasn't the same 800-lb gorilla anymore. Mr. Wooden had to have been doing something right.

Then, 25 years after the Coach had retired, when he'd been almost forgotten by many, Rick Reilly wrote a profile for Sports Illustrated that reminded us of not just the qualities that had made him a historically great coach but made his romance with his deceased wife, Nellie, one for the ages. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few years later and President George W,. Bush remarked: "[A]ll his players will tell you, the most important man on their team was not on the court."

Steve Bisheff has spent 40+ years covering sports in Los Angeles and may have covered Coach Wooden for as long as any journalist ever did. He also produced this fine biography of the Coach. But anyone turning to its pages and expecting to find that inevitable disillusionment with his subject that is all too often the biographer's lot will be disappointed. If anything, familiarity has made the author even more admiring and will have an identical effect on the reader. The revelations here are not of personal scandal but of just how great a player John Wooden was in his own right, first as an Indiana high school star and then as a Purdue All-American under Hall of Fame coach Ward "Piggie" Lambert. Lambert's influence on Wooden was felt in particular in the area of conditioning, where both mens' teams enjoyed an advantage late in games because their fierce training regimens had their squads in better shape than adversaries. And nothing could be more appropriate than that such a revelation -- about where he learned the value of good, hard work -- tie back into the Wooden ethos.

This is a book about a man who makes us feel hopeful about the species. And if he sometimes seems too good to be true, well, maybe we need stories of such men to remind us of what we should aspire to be ourselves.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Sports (General)
Steve Bisheff Links:

    -BisheffBlog (ESPN 710)
-ESSAY: Labor of love has been great: A lot has changed in his nearly 42 years covering sports, but Steve Bisheff's final Register column is as heartfelt as his first. (Steve Bisheff, 11/30/06, The Orange County Register)
    -ARCHIVES: john wooden (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: In the News: John Wooden (LA Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Leadership Lessons from UCLA's John Wooden: Patience, faith, and empathy put the great coach at basketball's apex. Here are Wooden's life lessons for today's business professionals (Business Week, 5/20/09)
    -ARTICLE: Coach Wooden guides Special Olympians: Legendary UCLA coach holds clinic with O.C. athletes, emphasizing team work and urging them to 'make the most' of life. (ERIC CARPENTER, 12/13/08, The Orange County Register)
    -PROFILE: One coach still knows more than all the others combined. And he's been retired for three decades (Rick Reilly, 10/29/08, ESPN the Magazine)
    -ESSAY: COACH TO COACH: What does John Wooden pass to another coach? (Steve Lavin (as told to Chris Sprow), 10/29/08, ESPN the Magazine)

Book-related and General Links: