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The winningest coach you never heard of

The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever
By Tim Crothers
Sports Media Group, 352 pp., illustrated, $26.95

By Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill, in collaboration with Jackie Maravich
Sport Classic, 422 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Paddy on the Hardwood: A Journey in Irish Hoops
By Rus Bradburd
University of New Mexico, 239 pp., illustrated, $24.95

The Best American Sports Writing 2006
Edited by Michael Lewis
Houghton Mifflin, 382 pp., paperback, $14

A Coach’s Letter to His Son
By Mel Allen
Illustrations by John Thompson
Creative Editions, 32 pp., $18.95

Anson Dorrance will never be celebrated according to his deserts, because he coaches a women's team, and that team plays soccer. In December , his University of North Carolina team won its 18th national championship. There have only been 25 of them. John Wooden me no John Woodens.

"The Man Watching" is an ill-chosen title -- creepy, in fact, but the book successfully presents an exceptional man, and the story of how he has created a program and then sent his former players out to create more programs as well as to form the spine of the brilliant US women's national team makes entertaining reading. Though some of his former players and more than some of the women who played against his teams characterize Dorrance as arrogant, at his best he gives us an anecdote with which to disarm coaches inclined to take themselves too seriously. Tracked down one afternoon by a secretary and told he must return "an urgent business call," Dorrance replied, "I'm a soccer coach. How could I possibly have an urgent call?"

Pete Maravich, on the other hand, maintained that he was the recipient of the most urgent call imaginable. It came on a November night in 1982, less than two years after Maravich had ended his 10-year career in the NBA. Unable to sleep, he was counting roads not taken when he suddenly heard a voice: "Be strong," it said. "Lift thine own heart."

Maravich woke up his wife and asked, "Did you hear that?"

"Pete," she said, "you've really gone nuts, haven't you?" Then she went back to sleep.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Maravich went nuts. What's indisputable (and indisputably established in "Maravich") is that he was an absurdly prolific scorer, an inventive passer, and perhaps the most versatile and spectacular individual draw the college game has ever had.

Some of the details of Maravich's unlikely life -- a tyrannical father; a suicidal mother; a conviction that the nation's food producers, drug merchants, and doctors were all in league against us; and, of course, the aforementioned voice -- a novelist couldn't invent without blushing, but that's part of what makes this biography of one of basketball's most brilliant and ill-fated stars so compelling.

Like Pistol Pete, Rus Bradburd, the author of "Paddy on the Hardwood," heard a voice. It told him to set aside his work as a Division I assistant basketball coach so he could concentrate on writing short stories and improving his fiddle playing. Bradburd heeded the call and left for Ireland. Where else was an aspiring writer and fiddle player to go? To support himself he took a job coaching an unlikely collection of "professional basketball players" known as the Frosties Tigers, lads not much inclined to show up on time for practice, even though there were only a couple of practices a week.

At the end of his second season in Tralee , where the Frosties Tigers have become the Horan's Health Store Tigers because Kellogg's has pulled its sponsorship and demanded the return of its tiger mascot suit, Bradburd still isn't sure whether he is "an American coach interested in Irish fiddling or a fiddler interested in coaching," but his exploration of the possibilities inherent in each obsession is great fun.

Houghton Mifflin's annual collection of "The Best American Sports Writing" is terrific. In his introduction, guest editor Michael Lewis maintains that the writers who have contributed to this volume "aren't merely writing about sports . . . they're doing the important work of explaining us to ourselves." That would be a grandiose claim if the stories hadn't been so well chosen. Among them is "The Unnatural Natural," J. R. Moehringer's account of "Homeless John," a mysterious and damaged old man who is a softball savant, and who replies to Moehringer's questions about how he learned to play the game with observations such as "I say stuff that even I don't understand."

The triumph of this particular story is Moehringer's patience. He won't force the saga of Homeless John into a lesson or a sentimental celebration of charity. "I'd come to St. Louis for a simple story," he writes, "and I'd gotten a bracing and necessary reminder that there is no such thing."

The worthy sports-related book for children is a rare and happy discovery. Mel Allen's "A Coach's Letter to His Son" qualifies, though perhaps it's not really for children. Allen ( not the legendary broadcaster) discovered that at some point while mentoring his son as a baseball player, he lost sight of the reason the two of them embarked on that journey.

"I realized that I can't remember the last time you said you wanted to go hit or throw or play catch," he writes. "It has been me where once it was us. . . . You and your friends never had to want to play. We adults organized the leagues and bought the uniforms and hired the umpires and formed the tournaments and gave you trophies." The text here is no longer than a good letter should be, the tone is wistful throughout, and the message, though it is certainly doomed to be lost in the hyperbole of sportscasters, talk shows, and parents, is welcome.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's "Only a Game" each Saturday at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. from WBUR in Boston.

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