by Mel Valentin
In 1966, an out-of-nowhere basketball from Texas Western College (later renamed the University of Texas at El Paso or UTEP for short) led by a little-known coach, Don Haskins, won twenty-seven games, losing its final game, but still entered the NCAA Division I postseason (otherwise known as "March Madness") as a heavy underdog. Teams from Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky were favored to win the national championship, with the team from Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, considered the likely winner. Ultimately, the teams from Texas Western College and Kentucky squared off for the national championship (a quick perusal of any online source can tell you the winner of the game). What made Texas Western's success even more remarkable than its underdog status was the makeup of the team: most of the players were African-American and, in the last game, Haskins decided to make history, fielding an all-African American starting team, effectively marking the end of segregation in college athletics.Texas Western's uplifting story set during a tumultuous period in American history (e.g., the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution), the subject of a book by Don Haskins, was quickly optioned by uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who hoped to duplicate the financial success of the similarly themed Remember the Titans (except there, the sport was football, not basketball). With Bruckheimer's name attached to Glory Road, it's not surprising that the final product is the kind of formulaic, mainstream crowd pleaser Bruckheimer has delivered time and again to box-office success. With appealing actors in the lead roles, period detail, including well-known Motown hits, and a firm grasp on the admittedly simple material by first-time director James Gartner, Glory Road is likely to bring in audiences hungry for escapist, simplistic entertainment.
"Historical complexities take a back seat to crowd-pleasing b-balling."
Glory Road follows Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) from coaching a high-school girl's basketball team in the opening scenes to Texas Western College in the spring or summer of 1965. In an era where few college coaches were paid high-end salaries, Haskins is forced to move into a small apartment located in the men's dorm with his wife, Mary (Emily Deschanel), and his two sons. Given a handful of full scholarships and finding little success at a summer basketball camp, Haskins boldly goes on a recruiting mission, finding unsigned African-American basketball players as far a field as the South Bronx, New York. Given the racial barriers in place at the time (one character mentions an informal rule about playing African-American basketball players, one at home, two on the road, and three when losing).
Haskins obviously has a great deal to overcome in the span of one college basketball season, both on and off the court. On the court, Haskins has to mold his talented, if raw, players into a cohesive team based around defense first, offense second, something which rankles the more free-spirited members of the team. Off the court, Haskins has to deal with unrepentant racists, including a college administrator and a wealthy booster, who objects to the makeup of the basketball team (he changes his tune, of course, when the team begins to win consistently), plus racist fans who use insults and physical confrontation to intimidate the team into losing. Haskins also has to keep his team focused and hungry as winning leads to complacency. For their part, the players have to learn to work as a team, leaving selfishness behind, as well as contend with the inevitable off-court distractions (besides racism, the young players want to enjoy themselves of course).
As the college basketball season progresses and the wins against good to great opponents pile up, Glory Road leads inevitably to the NCAA college tournament, the semi-finals against Kansas and their star player, the sole African American on the team, and to the final game for the national championship between Texas Western College and the all-white Kentucky team led by the legendary Rupp (Jon Voight, wearing ear and nose prosthetics that make him all but unrecognizable). Director James Gartner and his screenwriters, Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, build tension by personalizing the final game, using a meeting between Haskins and Rupp at an airport (and later at a joint press conference) to clearly demarcate old school, personified by Rupp and his all-white basketball team, and new school, represented by the upstart Haskins and his willingness to look beyond race and to talent and personality.
Glory Road's historical accuracy is, at best, questionable (as expected, liberties have been taken with the facts for dramatic effect). For example, Texas Western College began the integration of its sports program almost a decade before Haskin became the basketball coach. In fact, one of the African-American players Haskins inherited, Nolan Richardson, went on to coach the men's basketball team at the University of Arkansas, winning a national championship in the process. Haskin, however, went further than Texas Western had gone before, actively recruiting and, more importantly, playing the best players, regardless of race. In short, Haskins believed in and implemented a meritocratic system. Was the Texas Western-Kentucky game a watershed sporting event? In hindsight, the answer is yes, but at the time, apparently not. Basketball enthusiasts may have pointed to Haskins' decision to start five African-American players as laudatory and even symbolic, it was really one among hundreds, if not thousands, of cultural and social events remaking America at the time.With basketball front and center (and Gartner deserves credit for dramatically recreating key games or key events from the basketball season), character development is at a premium, leaving the African-American characters minimally defined, with one character learning toughness, one character grappling with a health problem, another with poor grades, and the team leader, the point guard, learning to put the team first and himself second. Despite a credible, committed performance from Josh Lucas, as a character Haskins is treated too reverently (as college coaches often are in popular culture). In "Glory Road," Haskins is more saint than human being, a benevolent, always-right (white) patriarch. His flaws, whatever they are, are underplayed, minimizing his doubts or anxieties, ultimately giving him a flat, unsatisfying character arc. And in a film with an admirable, if safe, message of racial tolerance and racial equality (safe because of the time period, when racism was practiced openly), the female characters are limited to supportive, nurturing roles.
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originally posted: 01/13/06 14:36:16