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Posts Tagged ‘UCLA’

Note: On this re-post Saturday I’m going to post one of my favorite screenwriting quotes by one of my favorite teachers of screenwriting—Richard Walter. The original post back in 2011 (which had a different title) was the end of seven days of posts revolving around an interview I did with Walter. (The informative links to the interviews can be found at the end of the post.)

Also, yesterday I mentioned I was going to post some quotes from screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) next week. Black went to UCLA where Walter is now the Chairman of the MFA Program in screenwriting.

Here’s the original post called “Don’t bore the audience!”:

“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting 

The above quote was how I ended yesterday’s post after seven straight days of posts taken from an interview I did with UCLA’s Richard Walter. And as a perfect segue for today’s post I picked up the book The Paris Review’s Playwrights at Work and stumbled upon this quote under the heading ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHT:

“What shouldn’t you do if you’re a playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing onstage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going anyway you can.”
Tennessee Williams

I’ll always regret not meeting Williams when he visited a small theater in the Orlando area shortly before he died. A few years after he died in 1983 I remember doing an actor’s workshop in LA where I spent six weeks just working on the opening monologue of Tom’s in The Glass Menagerie. (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”) It was in that workshop taught by Arthur Mendoza that I really began to appreciate the power of words. Names like Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg were revealed to me.

And as I mentioned yesterday, the best way not to bore the audience is through conflict. There’s always talk about writing from theme and plot, and having interesting characters in the stories you tell, but somewhere above your writing desk (or taped to your computer) you won’t go wrong if you—Write from Conflict. (Ideally, meaningful conflict.)

“Airplanes that land safely do not make the news. And nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.
Richard Walter

P.S. If you’d like a free copy of Walter’s book Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com and tell me a couple ways I could spin this blog in a new direction that would make it a better blog. (Podcast, videos, interviews. Anybody with info on publishing ebooks or gumroad would be a bonus.) I’ll pick the three most helpful ones and send the book to those three for no charge. Thanks for your help.

Related posts:
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
The Enemy of Creativity
Screenwriting’s Great Divider
Keeping Solvant and Sane
The Death of Originality
The Advantage of Being from ________
Filmmaker as Artist/Entrepreneur
Finding Your Voice

Scott W. Smith

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“In my life I’ve experienced tremendous success across diverse ventures and industries, but I’ve also had a boatload of professional tip-overs, economic mishaps, managerial disasters, and creative flops.”
Peter Guber
Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story

Peter Guber has not only produced or executive produced 50 Academy Award nominated films, was once the studio head at Columbia Pictures, and currently is CEO & Chairman at Mandalay Entertainment Group, but he’s also been a full professor at UCLA/School of Theater, Film and Television for the past 30 years. Couldn’t find any of his UCLA classes online, but here are a few short videos he did for the University of Phoenix.

Scott W. Smith

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“I never wanted to write a screenplay. To me, writing is this wonderful, indulgent activity where you just fill the page with words.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
Iconcinema.com

Three years ago today I created my first blog post ever (Life Beyond Hollywood). I started out with a little Diablo Cody inspiration and a modest goal to consolidated my writing notes gathered over the years from film school, books, magazines, seminars & workshops in hopes of it becoming a 50,000 word book—and perhaps helping a fellow writer or two.

Three years later I’ve written 832 posts and over 300,000 words. (With roughly 833 estimated typos, which I blame on posting daily without a copy editor. Like Jimmy Buffett I’m not aiming for perfection—just trying to “capture the magic.”) I’m now in the process of distilling those 832 posts into three books which will be much more refined.

Actually the idea of a book predates the blog. Since I had read quite a few film and video books by Michael Weise Books, and  had just read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat at the end of ’07 (which they published, and I thought was great)  I sent them a book proposal toward the end of 2007 and got this email back from Ken Lee:

Please email me your table of contents and a sample chapter

Thanks

Ken

Ken and I traded emails a few times and I ended up sending him three or four chapters and we spoke on the phone a couple of times and he asked me to think about what I’d like to write and blog about over the next five years. At the end of the day, while there was no deal with Michael Weise Books, this blog in part was an indirect result of my communication with Ken. (If you’re looking for a theme to write about “Success out of Failure” is a great concept because everyone can identify with losing their locker like Rocky did in that first film.)

At the same time I had written those first four chapters I started to read about Diablo Cody’s story about writing the Juno screenplay in Minneapolis, her blogging, and having gone to college at the University of Iowa. Lightning struck. A couple of people showed me the ropes on how to start a blog and four days after seeing the movie Juno I launched my first post exactly three years ago today.

I even traded a few emails in January of 2008 with Blake as his blog was one of the first screenwriting blogs I ever read. In fact, I just found this email from him that ended with: “Best to you in ‘the great 2008’ and yes, I am happy to help in any way I can.” Miss ya Blake, but long live your books & influence.

Later that year, in October of 2008, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog won a Regional Emmy (Minneapolis) in the category of advanced media. A few months later Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Fun.

“I’ve never read a screenwriting book. I’m really superstitious about it too. I don’t even want to look at them. All I did was I went and bought the shooting script of  ‘Ghost World’ at Barnes and Noble and read it just to see how it should look on the page because I like that movie.”
Diablo Cody

The day after my first post I received this email  from Scott Cawelti, an English professor and writer at the University of Northern Iowa: “Ready for a collaboration?” It took a little time, but we recently finished a spec screenplay, have done a couple re-writes, and are just now shopping it. (As a quirky sidenote, Scott was once in a band with Robert Waller who wrote The Bridges of Madison County.)

There was early support from Mystery Man on Film. For the record I think Mystery Man’s post The Raider’s Story Conference is the single best thing you’ll find on the Internet on the process of storytelling. (Make sure to follow the link to the 125 page transcript of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasden as they discuss what became Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I was also encouraged by emails from readers and fellow blogger Scott Myers at Go Into the Story.

Last year the shout out by Diablo Cody on Twitter as well as the TomCruise.com plug were bonuses and will keep me going another year. And I hope some things I write encourage you in your own quest as a writer. In the coming days I’ll have some posts based on interviews I did with UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter and screenwriter Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinney, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). This blog has brought me into contact with producers and writers in LA that would be hard for me to connect with otherwise. So if you have a blog in mind, go for it.

But for now let me say thanks for stopping by, best wishes on your own writing and if you need a little inspiration today I hope this helps:

“I can actually give you a really specific bit of advice that I give to everyone. I would not be where I am, I would not be any sort of professional writer if I had not self-published. We live in a day and age where there’s so many opportunities for writers and filmmakers with YouTube to self-publish, to make their own work available without having to go through the rejection letters and the middleman and, you know, it used to be that you were, that if you wanted to share your work with other people, I mean, you had to go through so many channels and jump through so many hoops. And now, you can just put it out there. You know, the internet is a miraculous thing, so just share as much as you can self-publish blog, you know, podcast, whatever you need to do, just make sure that you are not withholding your (unintelligible) from the world because we have so many opportunities now.”

Diablo Cody
NPR transcript Feb  2009

I never would have dreamed that I’d write 823 posts in three years, but that’s what happened. The Writers Store has an article online that talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s method for success where he marks on a calender with a red “X” over everyday he writes new material. Each “X” forms a chain and his goal is to not break that chain. You want to talk a day or two off every week from writing, that’s fine (and healthy) but do your best to have at least 20 “X’s” on your calender each month.

Writers write.

Related Posts: Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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“If you’re just some dude or dude-ette from Oklahoma with a dream of seeing your name in lights, know that you’re one of millions.”
Internet post by leinbl00

“I graduated with an MFA from UCLA. The odds I heard were that only 1 in 5 of us would have any appreciable career. I graduated 5 years ago. I’m the most successful (so far) in my class, with one script bought and made, one webseries delivered to the web and one further indie feature that I co-produced now reaching the festival circuit — but all my success only puts me on the lowest tier of the Hollywood game. I’m still struggling… I’m still broke.”
Internet post by Riter

This morning I came across an exchange on Reddit (via the blog Complications Ensue) and I’m not sure of the original source, but I found it interesting. This was the original question posted somewhere online:

Q.) I was just wondering what it’s like being a struggling writer in LA. What’s the day to day life like? How do you make ends meet, do you wait tables at night and write during the day? I’m not asking specifically for people who have sold scripts, but anyone who is really struggling to find work in the business, or has already.

Here is the abridged “realistic but not quite cynical” answer from a longer thread by  someone who goes by kleinbl00;

“I’ve optioned two scripts. I’ve made enough money at it to be ineligible for the Nicholl. I’ve seen some of my work show up on the big screen. I count among my friends some exceedingly pro screenwriters, a few struggling directors, a couple producers, and storyboard artists, makeup artists, art directors and concept designers whose work you have seen dozens of times. I’m hip-pocketed at one of the Big 5 and have, in the past, had offers of representation by managers you see prominently on the Black List.

I make ends meet by mixing sound.

If you’re a screenwriter with a hope and a dream out there in Middle America, STAY THERE. The screenwriting-as-hobby sphere of influence (lookin’ at you, Austin Film Festival) will have you believe that “if you write it, they will come.” What they don’t tell you is that USC, UCLA, Cal Arts, Loyola, AFI, Claremont and half a dozen smaller programs are turning out hundreds of grads a year, who already have the connections you need to make, who have already learned the lessons you need to learn, and are already going to the parties you wish you could attend.”

What’s it like being a struggling writer in LA? It’s like being one goose in an unwanted sea of geese. When there’s just a few of you you’re magnificent, marvelous birds… but when there’s as many of you as there are in LA, it’s like being a public health menace and knowing it.

My intent, when I made the move down to LA, was to get into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. And I got a 1530 on my GREs, and I’d written 5 screenplays, and I had a letter of recommendation from one of the biggest screenwriters in modern Hollywood, and they told me to pound sand. I was good’n’pissed about that for a while.But I came down and I started mixing and I landed on a pretty big show. And the guy who changed the coffee and made sure we had enough snacks in the breakroom and did whatever scut work the producers told him to do? MFA, Peter Stark Producer’s Program, USC.*

And with that cue Albert Hammond‘s great and timeless song It Never Rains in Southern California

Bottom line—Don’t Waste Your Life, and don’t bitch about how hard it is to sell a screenplay until you’ve invested 10,000 hours in writing, and know that every once in a while someone in the fly-over states actually separates themselves from the rest of the geese.

* Don’t bet against the USC person who spent $100,000 on his MFA and is currently working 18 hours days on a set making minimum wage. He or she is not unemployed, they are educated, and they’re making plenty of contacts—and I’m guessing he/she is hungry and has passion. (And with overtime still brings home enough a month to more than cover their part of the rent of the small apartment they share with other PAs in Koreatown.)

Scott W. Smith


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“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

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“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs

I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)

But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.

Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;

“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Diane Frolov

Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter  basically the same thing as Frolov.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.

Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like  Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.

“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
Robert McKee
Story

The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.

Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.

And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)

Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)

“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
Diane Frolov
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
Page 273

P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
John Wooden (1910-2010)

Since a major theme of “Screenwriting from Iowa” is an emphasis on showing how people come from flyover country to make an impact in larger areas—John Wooden could be exhibit one. Though not a screenwriter, he was part of a great story that impacted many lives. The great UCLA basketball coach died Friday at age 99.

But long before he won ten national championships coaching men’s basketball at UCLA. Long before his back to back undefeated seasons. And long before he was named by Sporting News as the greatest coach of all-time, Wooden was born in a small town called Hall, Indiana. When he was eight he lived on a farm in Centerton, Indiana and as a teenager moved to Martinsville, Indiana. (Three towns most people outside the area would have a little trouble pointing out on a map.)

And though far from the big spotlights, Wooden managed to carve out a little fame leading his high school team to three consecutive state championship finals and winning the state championship in 1927. He was an All-State player three times in high school. While playing at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana he was a three-time All-American player and helped the team win the national championship in 1932.

It’s safe to say that long before he moved away from Indiana that the foundation for success was firmly in place.

While he did play professionally as a basketball player, as is often the case with great coaches, his success there was limited. He spent a few years during World War II in the Navy, and 11 years coaching at the high school level and teaching English in Kentucky and Indiana. He coached a few years at Indiana State University before UCLA came calling.

Ironically, it was a storm that changed the direction of his life. UCLA and the University of Minnesota were competing for his coaching abilities. Wooden’s first choice was to stay in the Midwest  and he set a deadline for offers. When Minnesota didn’t call on the deadline he accepted the UCLA offer. The story is that a storm had knocked the phone lines down in Minneapolis and Minnesota officials were not able to contact Wooden in time. When they later did Wooden would not back down from his commitment.

Wooden and his wife realized in that first year or so that the Los Angeles lifestyle didn’t quite fit them. And an offer to coach back at Purdue seemed like a perfect fit and a dream come true. But Wooden instead honored his three-year committment to UCLA and the rest is history.

And what a history it is. And what a life “the Wizard of Westwood”  lived.

After his retirement he was a speaker and author. And as a man of faith, he often stressed that there were more important things to life than playing basketball.

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
John Wooden

You can read more quotes by Wooden, and see his “Pyramid of Success,” at the official website of Coach Wooden.

Scott W. Smith

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