This year’s NCAA men’s basketball Tournament was the most watched in 21 years, while the last two NBA Finals have been among the highest rated in the league’s history. But veteran basketball fans can recall a time when college basketball received minimal regional coverage, and the NBA’s championship series wasn’t even shown in prime time.
Two exhaustive new books chronicle the rise of college and pro basketball through times of major transition. Sports Illustrated senior writer and CBS contributor Seth Davis’ “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” (Times Books) covers the career of UCLA coach John Wooden from boyhood days in Indiana to his final years as a beloved icon.
Former Tennessean sportswriter Jeff Pearlman’s “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” (Gotham) takes readers inside the NBA’s glory team, one that simultaneously captivated millions while alienating others who didn’t live on the West Coast or embrace the “showtime” mode of basketball.
Both are invaluable not only for what they reveal about various personalities and players, but also their documentation of these teams’ impact on America’s sporting landscape.
UCLA and the Los Angeles Lakers helped make college and pro basketball part of the 24/7 entertainment machine. In addition, their exploits occurred in a changing era. The sport was increasingly dominated by black players, and the society was in flux, as young people challenged conventional ideas regarding racial and sexual politics, identity and morals.
“Wooden: A Coach’s Life” reveals its subject as a meticulous type who preferred conformity to rebellion, and viewed himself more a teacher than anything else. A topflight player, Wooden made the transition to coaching because he deemed pro ball little more than being part of a paid circus. He considered basketball a means to an end, preferring to be an English or history teacher, but finding he could make more money in athletics than the classroom.
It takes nearly 15 years to become a big winner at UCLA, but then he presides over a dynasty. UCLA won seven straight championships and 10 under his reign, thanks to a procession of fabulous players. The championships began with Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, continued on through Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and Bill Walton, and also encompassed Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Lucius Allen, Mike Warren, Steve Patterson, Henry Bibby, Richard Washington, Swen Nater, Dave Meyers and numerous others.
Davis spotlights a man who values loyalty and honesty above everything else, and has a rigid moral code. But he also was an intense competitor who saw nothing wrong with riding players and referees from the bench. Wooden often clashed with players who disliked his rules about hairstyles and clothing, but was willing to at least discuss them, though seldom willing to compromise.
While largely complimentary of Wooden’s tactics and coaching skill, Davis doesn’t overlook or skim over his flaws. He considers the Wooden record on race in particular to be a complex one with some problem areas.
Early in his career he doesn’t go to bat for a black player refused accommodations or service, and later there are skirmishes with various UCLA Bruins over a host of things from interracial dating to the length of Afros. None of his players ever deem anything he said or did racist, but the book makes it clear there were times when he was on shaky ground with much of his squad.
He also doesn’t let Wooden off the hook in regards to the Sam Gilbert situation. Gilbert was a big booster, and it’s made clear he gave illegal gifts to lots of players during Wooden’s tenure. Both he and longtime athletic director J.D. Morgan looked the other way and grimaced through much of this, which eventually blew up in the faces of Wooden’s supporters.
But Wooden’s virtues far outnumber his faults, and many players who were critical during their time with him later become confidants and friends. He was a dedicated family man who stayed loyal to his high school sweetheart for decades, then wrote letters to her constantly after she died.
It’s not unanimous, but many observers consider John Wooden the finest college coach in history. “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” is the most thorough and multi-faceted portrait of his career that’s been done to date.
“Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Dynasty of the 1980s” begins in 1979 with an unheralded coach named Jack McKinney and his ideas about making fast-break basketball the cornerstone of a championship team. It ends with the “retirement” of Magic Johnson due to his contracting the HIV virus and the departure of previously beloved head coach Pat Riley after his squad finally tunes out his messages.
In between the Lakers win five titles and become the NBA’s glamour team. Pearlman spotlights many dashing, colorful characters, among them Johnson, his running mates Norm Nixon and later Byron Scott, defensive ace Michael Cooper, and enigmatic superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Other key figures include the late Dr. Jerry Buss, a real estate tycoon who buys the Lakers and makes them LA’s most popular team through a shrewd combination of marketing, sexual appeal and flashy ballplayers. There’s also Riley, a great college but average pro player who becomes a motivational guru while being behind the bench for all but one of their championships.
As with Pearlman’s other books on such teams as the 1986 Mets and ’90s Dallas Cowboys, there are many unforgettable, wild and weird types populating this volume. The tales of sexual conquests, drug misadventures and on-court exploits make “Showtime” impossible to put down. He’s interviewed not only numerous players but coaches, beat writers and executives to get the full scoop on how zany the Lakers were, even as they continued to win championships.
Everything from the three epic playoff battles with the Celtics to the real deal on the Magic vs. Paul Westhead controversy is featured in “Showtime.” Pearlman highlights an NBA shedding its image as a backwater, drug-infested product. The Lakers’ success and that of the Celtics, coupled with the arrival of Michael Jordan, propels the league into mainstream status as a television vehicle, further adding to the sense of spectacle and combat on the court.
While the Lakers will never be among my favorite sports teams, “Showtime” is definitely one of the funniest and best books ever done on pro basketball.