A freelance sportswriter debuts with a generous, admiring account of the life of pioneering basketball coach Forrest Clare “Phog” Allen (1885-1974).
The author, who has written for Sports Illustrated and other publications, has few negative comments about his subject, who acquired the nickname “Phog” because of his booming, foghornlike voice. Though Johnson briefly discusses Allen’s retro racial attitudes—though he relaxed them while recruiting Wilt Chamberlain near the end of his long coaching career at the University of Kansas—there is little else to distinguish the tone from a gung-ho 1950s-era sports biography. Unfortunately, cliché has a happy home in the text (clocks are ticking, emotions wash over people), and the author’s admiration is so firm that he comes near to praising Allen’s strategy in one key game of having his players fall down when they were near the star of the other team; foul calls ensued. Nonetheless, Johnson did his homework, and there is much to learn here, not just about Allen’s remarkable career (590-219 at Kansas) and enduring influence (he coached Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, among other notables), but about his family history, his wife and children, and the early days of basketball, when each team picked one person to shoot foul shots, the heavy ball was difficult to dribble, and there was no shot clock. We see Allen as a coach obsessed with the fundamentals—and with physical conditioning, his own included—a man who earned a degree in osteopathy and operated a clinic, who was instrumental in forming the NCAA and in getting basketball included in the Olympics. A national legend when he retired, he nonetheless slipped away from public consciousness, his name now known principally to residents of Kansas and basketball cognoscenti.
A biography whose dough needs less honey and more salt.