Before he went on to direct and produce movies and TV series such as Varsity Blues, Coach Carter, Smallville and One Tree Hill, sports-fanatic filmmaker Michael Tollin made Hardwood Dreams, a documentary that chronicled one season of the Morningside High basketball team in Inglewood, Calif. The defending state champion team had all five of its starters returning for their senior year, and the expectation was that they’d win again and the starters would all go off to become college and NBA greats.
The season didn’t go as planned, as viewers of that award-winning documentary learned when in was released in 1993. Ten years later, Tollin and his crew caught up with the players for a follow-up, and on Aug. 8, the third installment of this groundbreaking documentary series, Morningside 5, will air on ESPN, giving viewers a glimpse of the players’ lives 25 years later.
Entrepreneur met with Tollin in his New York City apartment to discuss the life and leadership lessons he learned following these men, and what the process of working on a quarter century-long project taught him about creativity, focus and the pursuit of one’s true passion.
What is more important to success: hard work or pure talent?
“There are so many intangibles and unknowns. The guys on this team were all special players. Stais Boseman, who most thought had the most pro potential, worked his ass off. His goal was to become the best defensive player anyone had ever seen. He was recruited by USC and went on to play professionally. Dwight Curry says very openly that he never really chose between being a basketball player and being a gangbanger. He was basically doing both, so that got in the way. He started getting involved with drugs, both using and selling, and ultimately went to jail. So his career was curtailed.”
To have a plan B, you need a plan A
“There’s a very prominent role in the film played by Digger Phelps, who was a basketball coach-turned-broadcaster for ESPN. He went to Morningside to read the guys the riot act about their futures when they were kids. He said there are 5,000 kids playing Division I basketball who all have the same dream. How many of them get drafted? Sixty. How many of them make it? Thirty? Do the odds. You need a plan B. Looking back, all of the guys agree that he was right, but Stais said something interesting, ‘Plan B? Shit, most of the people in our class didn’t even have a plan A! We were already ahead of the game.’ So that’s the twist on conventional wisdom I hope the film provides. Did they fulfill their high school dreams? No. Did their high school dreams propel them to a better life? Absolutely.”
Your definition of success will change over time
“Staying with these guys and reconnecting over the past 25 years -- a quarter of a century -- you see how the definition of success changes. For the guys now, it's not fame or fortune, it's personal contentment. Success means having hopes and dreams, contributing to society, and having family and friends surround you. When Stais’s mother passed away, he left the clang and clatter of L.A. and moved to a small town in Minnesota. He got married, has three children, is a counselor and is a coach. As he says in the film, 'I got a house, I got a dog, nice plot of land, a washing machine -- I'm content.'"
Build a team you can trust
“When my producing partner Peter Guber and I got started together, he said, ‘I know you’re the kind of guy that likes to get in the kitchen, get dirty and make every donut. Well, you can’t make every donut!’ And he’s right! We have 75 projects in and out of my consciousness, so you're juggling all day long and just trying to push those boulders up to where they need to be. We’ve built an incredible team, including Jon Weinbach, who is our creative director. He’s in Israel to shoot a documentary, then going to Cuba to shoot another documentary, and then will go to Prague to shoot another documentary. I'm not making all those donuts! But then the opportunity to get back into this Morningside series comes and it's like total creative immersion, total personal and emotional attachment. I love it and I thrive on it and I need it.”
Give yourself the “Wednesday Test”
“I was talking to my daughter Georgia about work and how to figure out if you’re doing something that you like vs. doing something that you love. One barometer for me is when you get to Wednesday afternoon. You either say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it is onlyWednesday,’ or you say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it is alreadyWednesday!’ And if you’re doing the latter, you’re probably doing OK.”
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