Glory Road is based on the true story of Don Haskins, one of the most famous college basketball coaches in history. We first meet him in the mid-60’s, when he’s coaching girls’ high school basketball. He’s offered a chance to coach Division I ball at Texas Western University. Haskins (Josh Lucas) jumps at the chance, but quickly learns that basketball isn’t nearly as much of a priority there as football. With few decent players and insufficient money (and prestige) to recruit better ones, Haskins realizes that he needs to be creative.
While most of the outstanding white high school students don’t want to play for the poorly-ranked Texas Western, Haskins realizes that there are many talented black players shooting hoops in smaller schools or on local playgrounds. He encourages some of them to join his team by offering scholarships as well as a chance to play Division I ball. (We are told that black players at the time were often little more than benchwarmers because white coaches felt they would “tire out” quickly or crack under pressure.)
This approach quickly lands Haskins a strong line-up, including the charismatic Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke). The problem is that these players are used to playing a flashier kind of street ball. Haskins initially wants them to play in a more straightforward, traditional style. The players rebel against this. When the coach makes history by putting more black players than white ones in the starting lineup, the team is met with racism. Haskins decides that the only way to prove his team’s worthiness is to win, so he allows the black players to introduce some of their own moves, which include slam dunking and increased teamwork in passing the ball around.
Glory Road is kind of a cross between Remember the Titans and Coach Carter and just about every other sports-underdog movie ever made. The ingredients are all the same. A firm-but-moral coach who inspires his players to be better? Check. Training montages where the athletes are pushed to the brink? Check. A player who carries on a romance that may distract him from his game? Check. Another player with a medical condition? Check. A grand finale that involves the Big Game? Check.
Although the movie is pleasant enough entertainment, I can’t quite recommend it because it is just a retread of an age old formula. Granted, the formula has worked many times over and will doubtlessly work again. The difference is that Glory Road had the potential to do something a little different with it, but didn’t take the opportunity. There is a very interesting subplot here involving prejudice that, with a little tweaking, could have elevated the movie into something special.
Early on, there is a scene in which the head of the athletic boosters association laments the fact that Haskins has put so many black players on the team. Periodically, this same guy returns to wring his hands over the issue, but the movie never goes any deeper into his objections. I would like to have seen a moment where Haskins defends his decision to the boosters. Or perhaps some scenes that depict the institutional racism of the boosters association in a more complex way. Such a thing is possible; Friday Night Lights was the rare sports film to transcend the genre clichés and explore off-the-field issues in more depth.
Texas Western’s big game comes against the top-rated Kentucky for the NCAA championship. Kentucky’s coach, Adolph Rupp (played by Jon Voight in a horribly distracting rubber nose) is short-handed to be, essentially, a bigot. He’s not so much angry that his team has strong competition; he’s upset that his players are being upstaged by black men. I have no idea if the real Rupp was a bigot or not, but for the purposes of this movie, the portrayal is all wrong. Rather than really exploring the race issue – which is what makes the story of Texas Western one of the great sports stories of all time - Glory Road uses only broad brush strokes to paint its picture of the time. That’s a real shame because this could have been a much more enlightening film than it is. (An end credit interview sequence with the real Haskins and many of the others involved is far more insightful than the film itself.)
All of this is not to say that Glory Road is a bad film. In fact, the performances are quite good, especially the one from Josh Lucas. Director James Gartner delivers fast-paced and exciting hoops sequences, and there are individual moments that prove quite effective. I just wish that the film had shown the courage to dig deeper into its compelling true-life story. Had it done so, this would have been a powerful human story rather than just an adequate sports flick.
( 1/2 out of four)
Glory Road is rated PG for racial issues including violence and epithets, and momentary language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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