Remember Remember the Titans? If you liked that inspirational, fact-based account of a college football team triumphing against all odds while grappling with race issues during the tumultuous civil-rights era, you’ll love this one about a college basketball team doing, well, pretty much the same thing, and produced by pretty much the same people.
The setting is Texas. The year is 1966. The country is a mess with regard to race relations, and nowhere are things messed up more than in the South. The world of college basketball is segregated, with white athletes playing in a white league and black players mostly confined to a black league. Enter fledgling, small-town coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who took a job at Texas Western College early in the decade and, in time, had a revelation: The best way to win is to have the best players.
Impelled by that revolutionary insight, he traveled to places such as the inner cities of Detroit and New York to scout and recruit the best raw talent he could find on the country’s public courts. As it happened, most of the young men he found were black, poor and incredulous to find themselves offered both a full college scholarship and the chance to play big-time basketball.
Suddenly the black-to-white ratio on Haskins’ squad was reversed and team members of both races faced two daunting challenges: learning to see beyond color, and surviving the coach’s grueling, no-nonsense training regimen. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, Haskins was legendary for his uncompromising passion for discipline, dedication and personal sacrifice.
Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) does a credible job of portraying someone so focused on winning that he doesn’t seem to notice the consternation he’s causing both his superiors and the institution’s boosters. Lucas reportedly studied hundreds of hours of footage of the real Haskins and, according to some who know him, the characterization is dead-on. I always think it’s fun to watch Lucas work. Not only because he’s a fine actor, but because it’s so freaky the way he looks like Matthew McConaughey from one angle and Kevin Costner from another.
Glory Road is a good time for the very same reasons movies such as Miracle, The Replacements, Coach Carter, Friday Night Lights, Hoosiers and countless other sports movies are a good time: Characters with little or nothing in common learn that they can all just get along. It’s touching to watch Texas Western’s white players get behind their new teammates when less enlightened types periodically commit bigotry and even violence in the course of road trips. It’s equally affecting to see black players cut their never-been-off-the-farm counterparts much-needed slack.
Then, of course, there is the patented rise from obscurity to domination. A classic among underdog classics, the story of the team’s unlikely run to the NCAA championship is considered one of the great sports stories of modern times. The games are as masterfully choreographed and down-to-the-wire exciting as any I’ve seen on screen. The look on haughty rival coach Adolph Rupp’s face when Haskins beats him — and makes history — with a lineup of five black players is worth the price of admission. Jon Voight has become a specialist in the portrayal of historical figures. He’s only on screen for a few moments but, just as he did as FDR in Pearl Harbor and the subject of CBS’ “Pope John Paul II,” Voight vanishes behind a mask of makeup and prostheses to deliver a quietly magnetic performance.
Certain scenes in Glory Road are clearly fictionalized movie moments. Screenwriters Chris Cleveland and Gregory Allen Howard freely admit they took license with the facts. Lucas, for example, gives a stirring pep talk to his players the night before the pivotal NCAA matchup. The theme: His decision to start five black players is based on his desire to make a statement about human equality. And it is a great, moving movie moment. It’s also pure fiction.
Haskins is on record denying that he was ever interested in anything but victory. If playing the strongest players he could recruit helped to open the door to widespread recruitment of black players, so be it, but that wasn’t his motivation for doing so. Haskins wanted to win, plain and simple.
But, hey, the Hollywood version is more fun and, in the hands of first-time director James Gartner, easily ranks as the feel-good film of the year. OK, the year’s only three weeks old. All the same, I’d be surprised to see such a winning sports saga come along anytime soon.