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Seth Davis Interview: "Wooden: A Coach's Life," an Unflinching Look at the Wizard of Westwood

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Image attributed to Times Books

Seth Davis - Wooden: A Coach's Life

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. He is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated as well as a college basketball studio analyst for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network.

On the 50th anniversary of John Wooden’s first NCAA Championship at UCLA in 1963-1964, Davis has presented the unflinching and definitive biography of one of the giants of the game in Wooden: A Coach’s Life (January 14, 2014). Davis’ research is exhaustive and exemplary, and his prose is artful and entertaining as he offers perspective on this quintessentially American tale.

“John Wooden was a very personally religious man, but he was certainly very pluralistic in his views. He encouraged his players to have some type of faith, but he didn’t care if they were Jewish or Christian or Muslim. He was extremely welcoming and really intellectually curious. The one thing he knew about with Alcindor was if there was anybody who was ever too smart for his own good, it was Lew. Wooden certainly knew that it wasn’t something he’d do on a whim and that he would do it in a thoughtful matter for the right reasons.”

A graduate of Duke University, Davis lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Seth, why write a book on Coach John Wooden?

Seth Davis: As someone who covers college basketball, as you might imagine, I’ve had an interest in Wooden for quite some time and that includes interviewing him several times in his very modest two bedroom condominium in Encino, California. I sensed very early on in my experiences with him that there was a lot more to the guy than had been written.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What makes your book different than the other biographies published on Wooden?

Seth Davis: I read all those books, and they’re beautiful books, but all those books are “by John Wooden” or “with John Wooden” or “for John Wooden.” This is a book about John Wooden. I approached it as a journalist and a historian, and I always felt like he had been presented as this two dimensional character that never lost his temper, never had a bad day, never had an unkind word said about him. Of course, that’s not real life. So I wanted to write about that third dimension, which is not to say the book is a takedown by any stretch. It most certainly is not because I found him to be genuinely admirable.

I also believe that sometimes where most likable 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.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): During the interview process for the book, did you learn anything that was unusual or that really surprised you about Wooden?

Seth Davis: I interviewed upwards of about 200 people for this book and also spent 4 years researching the historical record and the primary source material, the day to day newspaper coverage, magazine coverage and the like in real time as opposed to “the older we get, the better we were.” Stories tend to improve over time (laughs). I had to go back and peel back the onion on that.

For example, a lot of people did not know and would be surprised to learn that John Wooden actually had a pretty bad reputation when it came to his treatment of referees. He was pretty tough on them and sat on the sidelines legs crossed with his rolled up program and would bark unkind things. But never profanity. Not one person told me they’d ever heard him cuss. But he could be tough on refs.

The players that I spoke with told me of what it was like to actually play for him, and while they certainly had a lot of respect and reverence, sometimes even in awe of his coaching abilities, they didn’t necessarily like him. There wasn’t any personal connection with him, emotional connection with him at that time. That was something that evolved over time.

You never know as you go into a project. You make a commitment, and you get a deal with the publisher, but you can never be totally certain whether, as you keep learning more about this person, if they will become more interesting or less interesting. In this case, the more I learned about him, the more he became not just interesting but truly fascinating. For me to be able to really delve into this extraordinary man’s extraordinary life was really a great privilege.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And he is the greatest basketball coach of all time?

Seth Davis: I would argue that John Wooden was the best coach in the history of American sports. I’m not alone in that assessment. Several years ago, the Sporting News did a mass survey of not only writers but former athletes and former coaches to determine the best coach of all time, and John Wooden came in #1 ahead of Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach.

The reason why I believe that to be true is because unlike those other three, Wooden did it in the college game where you have a lot more turnover in your personnel. He won championships with seven foot centers like Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, probably the two best college players of all time, but then on his very first team in 1964, he didn’t have a single player over six foot five. His last team in 1975 was probably his least talented championship team. If he didn’t feel so overwhelmed with the pressure of being John Wooden, he was very much on top of his game in terms of his coaching abilities. I think I could make a pretty good convincing argument that he was the best coach in any sport in American history.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the 1960s and 1970s, businessman Sam Gilbert became involved in UCLA basketball and was accused of some very shady dealings including co-signing a player’s promissory note and just generally making it possible for players and their families to receive goods and services at big discounts or for free. Was John Wooden aware of everything that was going on at that time?

Seth Davis: Well, he certainly knew the broad outline. He certainly knew who Sam Gilbert was. He certainly knew Sam was spending time around his players, except that he did not know certain details. I think that was in large measure because he had to make an active decision not to know. If he wanted to learn more, he could’ve learned more. But there would’ve been some very serious consequences to that knowledge both in terms of his desire or lack of desire to look for it, and the NCAA’s clear lack of desire to look for it.

The answer is “kind of.” He knew what was going on, and at some point, he had to make a decision like, “Do I keep digging or do I lay down my shovel?” He clearly decided to lay down his shovel. There’s no question that this is the most mixed part of John Wooden’s legacy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand John Wooden was a devout Christian, so how did he feel about Lew Alcindor becoming a Muslim at the age of 24?

Seth Davis: It’s an interesting question, and I would direct you to last week’s issue of Sports Illustrated because we excerpted the Kareem chapter in Sports Illustrated magazine where there is a very poignant story of Kareem informing his teammates of his conversion to Islam which occurred before the start of his senior year. He hadn’t told anybody, but he was getting into this debate with a Christian over the meaning of life and religion and all sorts of things, and he revealed this.

John Wooden was a very personally religious man, but he was certainly very pluralistic in his views. He encouraged his players to have some type of faith, but he didn’t care if they were Jewish or Christian or Muslim. He was extremely welcoming and really intellectually curious. The one thing he knew about with Alcindor was if there was anybody who was ever too smart for his own good, it was Lew. Wooden certainly knew that it wasn’t something he’d do on a whim and that he would do it in a thoughtful matter for the right reasons.

I think he really respected the journey that Lew Alcindor was on. So for a guy who grew up in a strict religious household with no profanity in essential Indiana in the 1920s and 1930s coming out of the Great Depression, heyday in the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan and being as open and welcoming and progressive as he was on the issues of race and religion, it was really one of his better features.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand Wooden rescued Bill Walton several times after he landed in jail for protesting the Vietnam War. Where did Wooden stand politically?

Seth Davis: I think I’m the only person who ever asked him about his political views. I’m kind of a political junkie myself. But in my last conversation with him, I asked, “Can I ask you about your politics?” Wooden said, “Go right ahead.” I asked, “Well, what are you?” No one ever knew. Everyone assumed he was a conservative republican. He was a registered democrat because his family was democratic. He voted for both democratic and republican presidential candidates. He voted for Reagan. He voted for Obama.

Wooden was kind of a classic, swing voter. He was apolitical and certainly non ideological. He was more conservative in terms of the application of his beliefs. His beliefs themselves were very progressive especially on the subject of race. Wooden’s personal views of race were very progressive given where he came from. But he did not believe it was his place to try to impose or to convince other people who felt differently to change their behavior. There were certain times where he did not go perhaps far enough in terms of standing up for black players who played for him at Indiana State.

When it came to the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War … he was opposed to all wars. So on the one hand he was kind of a leftist hippie. He thought it was appropriate to express how you feel if that’s how you felt, but his argument to Bill Walton was, “If you occupy the administrative building, and you prevent somebody from going to work that day, you’re infringing on their rights.” He didn’t think that was right. If you occupy the intersection of Westwood Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard, and there was an ambulance that needed to get through, and that ambulance cannot get through, you are infringing on somebody else’s rights. That’s where the distance got greater between him and the players he coached in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who is the modern day John Wooden, so to speak?

Seth Davis: I think it’s fair to say we’ll never see another John Wooden. I mean, no one is ever going to win 10 national championships in college basketball. Players don’t stay in school anymore. They go to the NBA. That didn’t happen when John Wooden was the coach. He was a different kind of individual. Again, he was born in 1910 on an Indiana farm with no electricity and no running water. That’s not going to happen again.

In his final year at UCLA, Wooden’s salary was $32,500. Rick Pitino makes that in about half an hour. So a lot has changed. I think many people would, if they had to pick one guy in college basketball that would be the modern day John Wooden, choose Mike Krzyzewski. Obviously, I have my own perspective on that being a Duke alum, but I think even non Duke alums would have to concede that to a guy with 4 national championships and 11 Final Fours as well as the two Gold Medals he won for USA basketball (more than likely a third on the way).

There will never be another John Wooden. I think we’re all pretty safe in saying that. To me, that was all the more reason I wanted to write this book to really take this guy on and tell the most comprehensive and definitive story of his life. It was an awesome responsibility, but it was also a great privilege and great joy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I assume, since your dad is Lanny Davis (advisor for former President Bill Clinton), that you were raised in a household full of democrats.

Seth Davis: Very much so. There’s a picture somewhere of me being held up by Jimmy Carter at a rally in 1976 when he was Gov. Carter. Somehow we were on the stage, and Carter came and picked me up. I guess he saw a cute kid there and a great photo opportunity (laughs). When I was 10 years old, we held a fundraiser at our house for Teddy Kennedy who was running against Carter in the Democratic Primary. So, yeah, this is just what I’ve always known. I’m very much my father’s son in a lot of ways.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a degree in political science, so why did you become a sports writer?

Seth Davis: It’s what I always wanted to do. In fact, I did a lot of it at Duke. Duke does not have journalism as a major or communications as a major, but they do have a student newspaper and a TV and radio station. I majored in political science because I was interested in it, but it was one of the easier majors (laughs).

I remember seeing these articles about some of the Duke basketball players taking sociology as a major and what a joke that was, and I remember thinking that I’d try some sociology courses, but they were always way too hard for me. I downshifted to political science because that other stuff was really what I was interested in. That was just the way it worked out.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also entered the world of standup comedy?

Seth Davis: (laughs) You’ve done your homework. I’m impressed! Most of the people I’ve been talking to didn’t do this kind of homework. Ah, it was a hobby that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of in interviews like this because it’s a bit of a difference than what you normally see from sportswriters (laughs).

I moved to New York, and I’ve always been a fan of comedy. I love George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. I took a couple of classes and workshops in Manhattan and spent a little over a year kind of working the low rung circuit. Anybody can get up on stage for five minutes, but the catch is you have to bring three audience members, and they all have to pay a $20 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Fortunately, I had enough people I knew around New York who I could spread out across those shows, so I could get my little five minutes on stage.

It was a lot of fun, just not something I could make a career out of which is why I stopped, but I was doing it at a time when I was just starting to get into television. As you can imagine, there are many similarities between presenting yourself in a comedy club and presenting yourself on a TV set. So it was never what I set out to do, but as a side benefit, I think it really made me a lot better on television.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is The Seth Davis Show a podcast?

Seth Davis: That is basically a digitally distributed TV show on a place called campusinsiders.com. We’ve had all kind of terrific guests including another guy who would be compared to John Wooden, which is Phil Jackson. I interviewed him for an hour. This was a new venture for me, and it has allowed me to get out of the college basketball space. I’ve interviewed college football coaches and college football players, and it’s kind of in my wheelhouse because it’s a long form magazine type interview. I appreciate your bringing it up because we’re trying to get the word out about it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any Super Bowl predictions, Seth?

Seth Davis: It’s kind of tough to predict, but I think we’re all rooting for Peyton Manning for just the way he carries himself and represents his family and represents the game. He and Tom Brady are as good as it gets in terms of a combination of their athletic achievements and the class with which they carry themselves. I’ll go with the sentimental favorite, the Broncos, only because I know my Washington Redskins won’t get within sniffing distance of the Super Bowl for another 40 years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy when you’re not working?

Seth Davis: As I like to say, I have four jobs, three kids and no life. We actually moved to LA because we’ve spent so much time out here working on the book. We decided this is where we wanted to live, so we moved over the summer, and it has been wonderful.

I have three boys, ages nine, seven and four, and believe you me, they are not lacking in energy or activities. When I’m not watching sports or writing or going on television, you can probably find me at a soccer game somewhere being the soccer dad. That’s really my main job.

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