The Pyramid of Success

The Pyramid of Success

John Wooden was a basketball coaching legend. I was the player with the attitude.

My wife, Dolores, flipped on the TV one night back in 2000 and I sat down on the couch next to her. An awards show was on. Not the usual Hollywood stuff, for a change. Important people like former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gen. Wesley K. Clark and humanitarian Simon Wiesenthal were the honorees. The award was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

Dolores turned to me. "Has Coach ever won one of those?"

"I don't think so," I said. But as far as I was concerned, he should have. John Wooden was the most influential man in my life. I first met the legendary UCLA basketball coach in 1971 when I was a raw freshman out of Philadelphia's Overbrook High School. There, I'd been a star player. But college was where I grew up, where I learned to be a man. A lot of that was Coach's doing, though I didn't make it easy for him. Not at all.

"Goodness gracious, sakes alive, André!" I remember Coach barking at me my first day at practice, after I made a nifty bounce pass behind my back. "We use the basic chest pass here at UCLA."

Oh, yeah? I thought. Well, you haven't seen Andre McCarter then. Back in Philly I was my own one-man show. Not to brag, but there wasn't a player in the city who could stop me. I was the kind of razzle-dazzle player who brings a crowd to its feet. "People will pay to see you play," a scout once told me, mapping my path through college to the pros and NBA stardom. Colleges from across the country recruited me. Basic chest pass? I wanted more freedom than that. Even if it was UCLA.

Inevitably Coach and I knocked heads. Coach was no-nonsense. He began his career as a schoolteacher in a small, God-fearing Indiana town. He preached efficiency, precision and hard work—all of it rooted in a strong, straightforward faith. He didn't have patience for frills. Coach Wooden seldom raised his voice and never swore, but man, he could be tough. One day I was five minutes late to a pregame meal. The next four games I lost my place in the starting lineup.

Things came to a head the first day of practice my sophomore year. Back then UCLA was a college basketball dynasty. Coach Wooden was revered and much imitated. He had led the school to seven national championships in the previous eight years. The stands were filled with college coaches from all over who had come to campus hoping to see how Coach did it. Some of them had tried to recruit me back in high school. I felt like I was onstage too.

Coach blew his whistle and play began. Greg Lee, the starting point guard whose job I wanted, had the ball. I was playing on the second team. Greg came at me, and with a quick swipe I stole the ball and raced downcourt. My teammates were open. But instead of passing the ball, I dribbled the length of the court, faked a behind-the-back pass toward one of my teammates and put it in the basket myself, leaving star center Bill Walton staring at air. The visiting coaches came to their feet. My adrenaline surged.

Coach Wooden jumped to his feet too. "Goodness gracious, sakes alive, Andre," he screamed. "You do that again, you won't play on our team!"

I'd expected a slap on the back, not a reprimand. Coach and I had a rocky road after that. My style against his, showmanship against fundamental play. And Coach Wooden wasn't about to change his style. I thought about transferring to another school. "We'll give you the freedom to play the way you want," one rival coach said. They enticed me with all sorts of promises. I didn't know what to do.

So I called my mom. "Coach and I aren't getting along. I'm thinking of leaving."

"It sounds to me like you're not thinking, period," Mom shot back. "Coach Wooden won a whole bunch of championships before you got there. The man must know something about the game, something you probably have not figured out yet."

A few days later I stayed after practice, shooting baskets alone in the gym. Set shots and jump shots. Swish went the ball. Nothing but net. I wasn't really working on my game, just trying to relax. But Mom's words kept coming back to me. So did Coach Wooden's. "Our team," he always said. Swish. Why hadn't it occurred to me before? Coach and I were after the same thing: We wanted UCLA to be the best team in the country. Coach was a spiritual man. So was I. Swish. What I needed to ask God was hard for me. I held the ball and closed my eyes. Lord, I prayed, give me the strength to put my ego aside. Help me change my attitude.

I decided to learn everything I could about Coach Wooden. I read everything he wrote, every article that was written about him. I studied his coaching technique, his basketball philosophy, why he believed what he believed, everything.

Most of all, I focused on a framed diagram that hung above his desk. It was called the Pyramid of Success. Its cornerstones were industriousness, cooperation and enthusiasm.

"Winning basketball has nothing to do with the highlight plays you see on TV," Coach said one day at practice. "Teams win because they play unselfishly, and their players have solid fundamentals." A good basketball lesson, yes. But I—and my teammates—knew he was preparing us for something more important. I realized the skills he taught on the court had as much to do with life as basketball. And that's why he was so passionate about teaching.

Basketball was just something to prepare us to be good students of life.

I didn't just change my attitude; I changed my game. Where once I would have driven to the basket one-on-one against the other team's biggest star, now I looked to make a crisp chest pass to a teammate waiting under the basket. My junior year, Coach made me the starting point guard. He encouraged me to take a leadership role on the court and in the locker room. That spring of 1975, we beat Kentucky 92-85 to win the national championship—Coach's tenth. "Andre," he told me in the locker room, "you were my coach on the floor." I lowered my head, smiled, tried not to cry. There couldn't have been a better compliment. That title, as it turned out, was his last. He retired after that season.

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