A Jan. 13 Style review of the movie "Glory Road" incorrectly said that Don Haskins was coaching high school basketball in 1965. The film portrays Haskins as a high school coach at that time, but he began coaching at Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) in 1961.
Friday, January 13, 2006
Josh Lucas does a creditable job of channeling Don Haskins in "Glory Road," a movie made to answer what will most likely be your next question: Who's Don Haskins?
If this moving and even thrilling little movie finally brings Haskins and a truly great American sports story to light, then three cheers and hooray.
In 1966, Haskins led the first all-black starting lineup to victory in the NCAA basketball championships, along the way becoming a sports legend and a political hero. If "Miracle," the marvelous 2004 movie about the 1980 Winter Olympics, was about hockey as proxy for the Cold War, then "Glory Road" -- which it resembles in all the right ways -- is about basketball as proxy for the civil rights struggle. At once funny, inspiring, nostalgic and riveting, it's about a proud moment in an otherwise shameful history.
The film opens, after a black-and-white montage set to "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in 1965, when Haskins was coaching girls' basketball in Fort Worth. When he's tapped as head coach at Texas Western University in El Paso, college basketball -- like the rest of the country -- is still mired in segregation and racism. But Haskins wants to win, and in order to recruit winners he goes where the strong players are -- on the streets of Detroit, the South Bronx and Gary, Ind., where young black men are playing their own highly expressive, individualized style of basketball involving showy footwork, jump shots, passes and dribbles.
When Haskins succeeds in overcoming the boys' skepticism -- at one point winning over a protective mother by telling her that her pie's "so good it makes me mad at my mama" -- he puts them on a bus bound for El Paso, where they will encounter white curiosity and hostility, but also their first Mexican food and run-ins with tequila. Haskins puts his team through a rigorous disciplinary process, subjecting them to punishing training sessions and insisting that they stick to the fundamentals of the game and let go of the street moves he sees as signs of insecurity.
"Glory Road" consists of the usual sports movie cliches -- the fights, the tough love, the setbacks, inspirational speeches and ultimate triumph -- but first-time director James Gartner executes them with terrific assurance, coming up with a film that begins as a fish-out-of-water comedy and ends as a rousing David-and-Goliath morality tale. The secret of the balance, no doubt, lies in Haskins himself, who according to most accounts was genuinely color blind and just wanted to win; it's only late in the story, when the team starts to win and the black players begin to experience racist violence on the road, that he realizes the broader social implications of what he's doing.
Gartner, who until now made TV commercials for a living, has done an outstanding job where it counts in this kind of movie, starting with the cast. For one thing, the actors all look like they could have lived in the early 1960s. Lucas ("Sweet Home Alabama," "A Beautiful Mind") put on weight to play Haskins, but still exudes the sly sex appeal of a "Hud"-era Paul Newman. Derek Luke, who made such a promising debut in "Antwone Fisher," heads a spot-on ensemble cast that portrays the West Texas Miners. (Even Haskins's bosses at West Texas look like they've just stepped out of the Johnson administration.)
From its sepia-toned palette to the Motown hits that drive its terrific soundtrack, "Glory Road" is utterly authentic. But most astonishing is an unrecognizable Jon Voight as Adolph Rupp, head coach of the University of Kentucky Wildcats, whom the Miners played in the championship game. Bearlike and jowly, Voight's Rupp is a poignant symbol, an old white man frantically calling timeout as history passes him by.
But more important than casting or even getting the period details right, Gartner has gotten the basketball right. The three pivotal Miners games -- against Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky -- are splendidly staged, shot and edited. Wisely, the director ratchets up the action with each successive game, so that when Haskins sends in all his black players in the final game, viewers' hearts are suitably secured in their throats.
As faithfully as "Glory Road" hews to the conventions of the sports-drama genre, there's one crucial twist, of course: Haskins turns out to be wrong in his purist insistence on fundamentals. Indeed, during the game with Iowa, the players persuade him to let them do their own thing, and basketball's new era is born, an era that would result in showboating, bloated egos and bling, but one that would also make basketball a sport of incomparable artistry and grace. It's one helluva story and "Glory Road" tells it with verve and skill.
Glory Road (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for racial issues including violence and epithets, and mild profanity.