Comic/social critic Bill Cosby and northern California high-school basketball coach Ken Carter have much in common. Both men acquired great success and an equal amount of vilification. Coach Carter tells the true story of a man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of boys and did it, despite public outcry and a heart-breaking lack of community support. He took a losing team, transformed them into champions on the court — and then challenged them to become winners in life.
Carter defined “student athlete” as being student first, athlete second (what a concept). When the players didn’t measure up academically, he padlocked the gym. No games, no practice even, until the entire team improved their grades enough so the seniors could get into college. But most of the parents and teachers in their crime-infested, despair-saturated city were used to expecting nothing from these students. They wanted their team to go to the state finals, even if some of the players couldn’t understand most of the words in the newspaper accounts of their glory.
The school board voted not to support him, but Carter kept to his convictions. What happened then is the stuff of the movie.
You’d think Coach Carter might be yet another losers-become-winners-in-spite-of-themselves story, and it is, covering ground familiar from the classic Hoosiers and the recent Friday Night Lights. You also might expect some preachy moments, and there are a few of them. But Samuel L. Jackson (Basic) is so powerful and so consistently high-principled in his portrayal of the no-nonsense coach that you want him to preach to you. Yes, sir, make those kids get good grades. Yes, sir, wearing a suit and tie on game night looks cool. Yes, sir, gangsta rap is not an exercise in self-respecting language. Yes, sir, being a team member instead of a one-man preening-machine is awesome. Yes, sir!
Rob Brown (who was so wonderful in Finding Forrester) shines as the ambitious and talented Kenyon Stone, who dreams of college but also wants to be loyal to his pregnant girlfriend, Kyra (singer Ashanti). Rick Gonzalez (Biker Boyz) steals every scene as Timo Cruz, the attitude-prone rebel who realizes that following Coach Carter’s rules is a life-or-death decision.
As is common with male-bonding stories, the women who birth, nurture and inspire the men seem to disappear into the woodwork. And did I hear even one mention of the girls basketball team at Richmond High?
Though I haven’t dribbled in decades, I completely lost myself in the basketball footage, which is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in a movie. For that, kudos to director Thomas Carter (no relation to the coach), who used multiple cameras to follow the court action and took great care to re-enact some of the real team’s games. The audience I saw Coach Carter with, mostly high schoolers and basketball lovers, was enthusiastic. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material.
– reviewed by Marci Miller