Directed by:James Gartner
There’s no doubt about it; sports movies are the male equivalent of “chick flics”. From hockey (Miracle) to baseball, (The Rookie) to high school football, (Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights) the story’s the same; a world weary but hard-assed coach takes a group of self-absorbed misfits and moulds the whole into something greater than the sum of its parts. The plot’s so straight forward you can predict the uplifting ending as early as the opening credits. Glory Road isn’t all that different, but it has the sense to focus on a piece of sports history intimately bound up in the painful unfolding of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. In telling the story of the first NCAA college basketball championship game won by a team comprised solely of African Americans, it manages to rise above the clichés embedded so faithfully in the genre to remind audiences of just how pervasively cruel American racism was in that era and how dignified were many of those who heroically responded to it.
Black athletes are such a mainstay of sports today it seems hard to believe that within the lifetime of those of us over 60, rigid segregation applied on gridiron and court alike. When Don Hastings, (Josh Lucas) a girl’s high school basketball coach is given the opportunity to coach Division I basketball at Texas Western in 1966, collegiate basketball was still predominantly a white man’s game. The informal rule was simple and widespread; play one black athlete at home, two on the road, and three if your team was behind. Period. The most significant powerhouses, (Duke, Kansas, Indiana and Kentucky etc.) had not a single African American on their teams and no one had ever fielded a winning five comprised only of back players.
Hastings discovered that Texas Western’s basketball program was so under-funded he was forced to recruit in the only community that had talent aplenty but little or no opportunity. Within one year, he found and trained a team primarily composed of minority players forced to play for a home audience that was both hostile to his recruiting strategy and more interested in its football program. Hastings and his team quickly discovered a way to solve that, going undefeated during the first 21 games of that season, and then demolishing opponents in the granddaddy of all elimination tournaments, the NCAA national basketball championships. Western Texas, (now re-named the University of Texas at El Paso) mowed down its competition, ultimately beating a highly rated team from Kentucky boasting the talents of Pat Reilly. College basketball quickly became desegregated for the most logical of reasons; it proved an excellent way to win.
Lucas is a seasoned actor, with a clean, all-American look about him and Glory’s script gives him enough bromides about “being all you can be” to recruit for the military. Unfortunately, the screenplay provides his players with personalities that run the gamut from A to B. But as the victory’s pile up and the predictable sermons grow ever more impassioned, the movie’s depiction of daily racial insults and bigoted behavior -- from the school’s faculty & financial backers as well as its fans and opponents – accurately reflects an era when the word “nigger” was in common usage and the most inane, specious arguments were presented for the proposition that “they” just weren’t up to the task of excelling in sports. As is true of most of the work that comes from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “Glory Road” is long on rah-rah and short on nuance, but this tale of a coach’s recognition of color-blind talent combined with the drama of teamwork under duress still makes for an irresistible combination; even the most jaded viewers will find it hard not to cheer the final reel.
P.S. Be sure and stay all the way through the credits and catch the telling postscripts from those who were actually involved.
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