“We do not back down here, ever!” coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, Sweet Home Alabama) exhorts his players at Western Texas University. His words challenge his young black athletes to cast off their victim mind-set and charge for glory — and establish integration in college basketball. The double-edged story of the greatest upset in NCAA history finds an exciting telling in Glory Road, Disney’s latest feel-good David vs. Goliath sports tale.
If you’re a basketball fan, you’ll love it. If you’re a parent looking for movie inspiration for your offspring, see it as a family outing. For everyone else, Glory Road is an accessible time capsule of American history. It’s 1966 — two years after the passage of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Black Panthers are formed in Oakland, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has two years to live, and although there are a few token “colored” players, basketball is unassailably a white man’s game.
Coach Haskins never intended to change history. He just wanted to win basketball games. But the small college in El Paso, Texas was too underfunded to attract many good white players. So he scouted the streets and playgrounds of the urban North and offered scholarships to talented black players. The “scrappy bunch” he created came from Brooklyn, Detroit and Gary, Ind. Most of the black players had never been out of the ghetto, much less south of the Mason-Dixon line, and the West Texas mining town was like a lunar landscape. Glory Road shows the funny stuff that happens when cultures clash — even for white players from the North, it’s hard to adjust to mariachi music and tacos. But thanks to Motown, the players find a common language and manage to survive Coach Haskins’ relentless discipline (“I’m tough on you because I know how good you are”).
Racism is never funny, however, and Glory Road doesn’t ignore the insults, death threats and personal attacks (a restroom assault is particularly horrifying) that the Miners endured. Although Haskins hadn’t intended to include social consciousness as part of his winning strategy, it comes with the territory. To win the NCAA championship, he must put his best players in the startup team — and they’re all black. So the upstart all-black team from West Texas faces the champion all-white Kentucky team, led by legendary coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight, National Treasure). The result changed college basketball forever.
The problem with any team-based movie is that there’s not enough time to portray each player in depth — and so you can’t fault Glory Road for its broad-stroke approach. But first-time director James Gartner does an admirable job with his mini-portraits, and he surrounds them with truly incredible nail-biting basketball action. All the players are terrific, especially Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the team’s star guard, Bobby Joe Hill. Though essentially a guy’s movie, Glory Road does pay homage to the steadfast inspiration of many black athletes — their mothers. In an unforgettable scene, Mrs. Cager (Valeri Ross) travels from New York to beg Coach Haskins to allow her son, Willie “Scoops” Cager (Damaine Radcliff), who’s been benched after discovery of a life-threatening heart ailment, to play in the game anyway. No matter what the cost, she wants her son to have his shot at glory — and his role in history.
Rated PG for racial issues including violence and epithets, and momentary language.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller