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Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Playing the Hollywood game, chapter 2

By Rob Ryder
Special to Page 2

So, face-to-face with Pookey Wigington in his no-frills Hollywood office. Pookey's black, 5-foot-3. A former baller at Seton Hall, he's turned himself into a showbiz entrepreneur with great connections to black entertainers. I'm here to recruit him to my cause.

"I've got two things," I say. "First, a screenplay. It's a sex comedy, ensemble -- four black actors, three white. A young black woman gets dragged along by her friends on a river rafting trip. Paramount optioned it, but then passed and I got it back and it deserves to get made."

Jamie Foxx
On any given Sunday, Willie Beaman could start for Steve Spurrier's Redskins.
"What do you want me to do?" asks Pookey.

"Look, here's a list of potential actors."

I hand him a couple dozen names -- Jamie Foxx, Gabrielle Union, LL Cool J, Jada Pinkett Smith, Marlon Wayans, Beyonce. Like that.

Pookey peruses.

"I personally know more than half the people on this list."

"Cool," I say. "Help me put together a cast and you'll get a producer credit."

Rasha, Pookey's exotic Egyptian-American assistant, sits listening to my pitch, taking notes. Maya, Pookey's exotic Indonesian-American assistant, keeps working the phones in a hushed voice.

"Anyway, here's the script. First, you've got to read it and like it. Then, if you're interested, we'll do a handshake agreement. You attract some meaningful actors, you're in as a producer."

"I'll read it this weekend," says Pookey, and a little bell in my head goes off . How many times have I heard that?

Rasha speaks up. "You said you have something else?"

"Yeah," I say. "And this one's more immediate. Think the Harlem Globetrotters married to the street feel of the And 1 Mix Tape tour. Throw in 'Drumline' and 'Bring It On' and it's gold, man. Plus I've got a mystery element that's gonna blow everyone's minds."

Pookey looks puzzled.

"I don't get it. What is it?"

"It's a basketball, music variety show. I'm callin' it 'Hoop De Ville.' It's a live show. You stage it in arenas or bring it right into a theater. Plus, we might create some reality TV out of it."

Pookey considers.

"Yeah, but, the Globetrotters ... Rob, man, that's like one of the strongest brand names in the world. And And 1? They created that street cred. It didn't just happen. They worked it."

"Yeah, right."

"So what makes you think anyone's gonna give a %$&* about another basketball show?"

"Because I'm introducing new elements. Stuff the Globetrotters and And 1 don't have. Look, I started working this idea way back on 'Blue Chips.' You saw that, right? Shaq, Nick Nolte, Penny -- college hoops."

Blue Chips
This was only the beginning of Shaq's successful movie career.
"Yeah, yeah ... "

I feel myself suddenly sliding off balance. "Blue Chips," "Blue Chips" ... bad memories come swirling back like giant nasty locusts. What a nightmare job. First off, the director, Billy Friedkin, was the guy who directed "The Exorcist," and it was like he hadn't gotten it out of his system. Plus, my buddy, Ron Shelton (who directed "White Men Can't Jump") wrote the "Blue Chips" screenplay and was producing, and he and Friedkin didn't see eye to eye and I knew I'd get caught in the middle. Ron was going with Friedkin as director because it was the most expedient way to get it made (and it didn't hurt that Friedkin was married to Paramount chief Sherry Lansing).

"Blue Chips." The job from hell.

Example. In the middle of the movie, Nolte suspects that one of his players may have shaved points, so he goes back to the videotape to review the game. Which means it's a game we've got to shoot. Piece of cake, right? I do a couple of casting calls at the Hollywood Y, hire 20 players -- a great mix, most of them are black, most of them played college ball, even some D1 in there. Nice size, they're in great shape, they look like college guys, and I figure they're just what's required for the 10 seconds of videotape we need for the scene.

I tell Friedkin we're good to go. But no, he wants to see them. Not only that, he wants Red Auerbach and Pete Newell to check them out as well. It turns out that Friedkin's brought on the two octogenarian Hall-of-Famers to guarantee the verisimilitude of the basketball. So we rent a gym. We bring in the players, plus Red and Pete (Red as crusty as Pete is gentlemanly). And I run a 10-minute scrimmage. After which, Friedkin turns to Red Auerbach. "So Red, whaddaya think?"

"These guys can't f---ing play," says Red. "They stink, the whole bunch of 'em."

Oh, man. From behind, I see Friedkin's neck flush with anger. His head swivels. His eyes lock on me and I'm thinking here comes the projectile vomit.

"Can you handle this job?" he asks in a steady voice.

"Yes," I answer.

"Then get the f--- out of here and bring me some real ball players."

I stagger out of the bleachers, thinking "Thanks a lot, Auerbach. This ain't the NBA, man."

We're re-creating one mediocre college basketball team here, for God's sake. Ten seconds of videotape.

Two weeks later, we get the word: Red Auerbach has suffered a heart attack and won't be able to stay with us for the duration of the movie. Was I relieved? Yes. Did I feel guilty about that? No. Because Red, who tormented many a soul during his lifetime, wasn't done yet. He recovered nicely, but -- thank God -- slowly. A couple weeks later, we shot the scene using the exact same players (Friedkin never knew the difference), and it all played great.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, pitching Pookey "Hoop de Ville."

I jabber on. "So anyway, in 'Blue Chips,' we created several college games -- pep bands, mascots, cheerleaders, Shaq, Penny, plus 14 first round draft picks. And I realized, this isn't just sports, this is theater. This is an incredible show."

"Yeah, college basketball," says a skeptical Pookey.

"But this is showball. And we're bringing it to the next level," I say. "Look, the financials are very promising. It's cheap to produce. You can travel it; you can find a permanent home. Like Branson, Missouri -- you know, the mecca of country music. It's where ... "

Yakov Smirnoff
Funny man, Yakov Smirnoff.
I see Pookey's eyes begin to glaze over.

"I'm thinking of calling Yakov Smirnoff," I plow on. "You know, the Russian comedian. He's got his own theater in Branson. It's the Midwest, man. They love their hoops out there and ... "

Pookey's two-way buzzes and he checks it, and I'm thinking, "TMI (too much information) ... keep it simple, man, and get out the door. Or better yet, lie."

I say, "Look, I'm raising some money."

That immediately reclaims Pookey's attention, and I haven't actually lied.

"I want to workshop it here in L.A. I'm gonna need a choreographer, a musical director, an M.C."

"That, I can get you."

"That's all I'm asking. So, here's a three-page description of the show. And here's my screenplay."

"I'll read it this weekend," says Pookey.

We say our goodbyes and I flush back out onto the Melrose Avenue sidewalk, where the hipster parade marches on -- all sorts of sweet young things, showing skin and thong bait -- but all I'm thinking is, "Man, I gotta refine that pitch."

Monday morning, I call Pookey. He doesn't return. I send him an email. No response.

Same thing Tuesday. And Wednesday.

I think, "Hey, the guy's a producer, right? Don't take it personally."

Thursday morning, I get a call. It's Nigel Miguel. He played at UCLA, got his 15 minutes in the NBA then bounced around the CBA and Europe before hanging it up. Nigel's from Belize -- cool and quiet. He's been supervising Nike commercials for the last several years. Always working on something, shuttling between L.A. and Belize, where he's developing a resort. He was a player in "White Men," teaming up with Duane Martin in the scene where Woody finally dunked. (Exactly how high was that rim??? ... ah, another time.)

"Nigel, man, how are ya?"

"I'm good, man. Listen, I'm sitting here with LeBron James's agent; and you know, they're looking for a project for LeBron, and I thought of that basketball movie you were talking about."

"Yeah, right," I say. He means "94 Feet of Hell." It's the story of one college basketball game, start to finish, from every conceivable point of view. The movie never leaves the arena.

"Anyway," says Nigel in his deep, quiet voice. "I'm doing a commercial tomorrow with Gary and you oughta come down and meet Aaron."

I'm thinking, Gary? Aaron??? Oh, yeah, Aaron Goodwin, that's LeBron's agent. He and his brother work out of Seattle and Oakland. That means they handle Gary Payton, who's just joined the Lakers.

"Yeah, sure," I say.

"Bring the script," says Nigel. "These guys are serious."

"Sure, Nigel, sounds good. Email me the directions, will ya?"

And I hang up, thinking, "Pookey? Pookey who?"

NEXT: Payton, Rambis and LeBron.

Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works as a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at robryder@sbcglobal.net.