HBO SPORTS ALLEY-OOPS a timely gift to college basketball fans this week with “The UCLA Dynasty,” a luminous chronicle of the school’s accomplishments under Coach John Wooden — the courtly Indiana native renowned for his 10 national championships and “Pyramid of Success.”
One of Wooden’s former players, Andy Hill, became president of CBS Prods., and later wrote a book about how he applied the coach’s wisdom in his life and career, deriving the title from a favorite Wooden maxim: “Be Quick — But Don’t Hurry: Finding Success in the Teachings of a Lifetime.”
“We had no idea what he was teaching us,” Bill Walton, a UCLA All-American in the 1970s and now impossible-to-muzzle NBA analyst, says in the documentary regarding Wooden’s homespun homilies. “We thought he was crazy.”
Wooden, of course, was crazy like a fox. Yet sifting through the 15 building blocks of his Pyramid of Success and contemplating how they might translate specifically to the TV world, a cursory glance suggests this might be one arena where the Pyramid’s foundation is a little shaky.
Could I interest you, perhaps, in a Trapezoid of Triumph, or a Rectangle of Realization?
It’s hard to quibble with several of the tenets Wooden espouses, like “competitive greatness,” “poise,” “confidence” and “skill.” There is also ample reason to endorse his characterization of “intentness” (“When thwarted try again, harder, smarter. Persevere relentlessly”).
After that, however, a lot of these noble ideals appear optional on the hardscrabble courts of Hollywood.
Take “team spirit,” which teaches, ” ‘We’ supersedes ‘me.’ ” Apparently, the coach has not been spending a lot of time hanging around the “Grey’s Anatomy” set, where success has bred plenty of utterances of “me,” usually preceded by “More money for.”
Other facets of the Pyramid, such as “loyalty” (“Be true to yourself”) and “self-control,” tend to be, frankly, a trifle fungible. Self-control is usually among the first casualties in a star-driven system, and there’s no shortage of instances where writers or performers sell out their values to secure a deal.
Ditto for the Pyramid’s focus on moral behavior as a means of getting ahead. Wooden counsels, “Ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there.”
This overlooks the occasional necessity of political acumen, self-preservation instincts and infighting. As for “cooperation” (“Have utmost concern for what’s right rather than who’s right”), let’s face it, “what’s right” is highly subjective when negotiating with a studio business affairs dept. or CAA, especially when a barrel of cash hangs in the balance.
Wooden also preaches “industriousness” (“Success travels in the company of very hard work. There is no trick, no easy way”) — ignoring the potential blessings of luck and nepotism, which, for those who win the genetic lottery, are frequently one and the same. In his plug for “initiative, moreover, it’s suggested that “Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all,” which doesn’t acknowledge how in TV, doing nothing is occasionally preferable to taking action and screwing up, holding fast while hoping a competitor shoots himself in the foot first.
Finally, the Pyramid omits a few tried-and-true observations for showbiz survival gleaned from my years on the TV beat. These include “gravitation” (“Run toward success, and quietly tiptoe away from failure”), “intimidation” (“Those who yell loudly enough and aren’t immediately challenged are, by default, right”) and “elimination” (with apologies to William Goldman, “In a knife fight, there are no rules”).
Granted, there’s scant room for cynicism in Wooden’s worldview, which describes success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”
Like many of the principles articulated by the 96-year-old coach in his exemplary life, it’s a lovely concept. In the game as it’s played around here, though, I just wouldn’t rely on it in a pinch — or a pitch meeting.