Welcome to the back of the bus, white boy.
—Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), Glory Road
You know the drill. Enthusiastic, hard-driving coach arrives at a backwater school and inspires his underdog team to athletic and moral victories, and oh yes, coach’s wife provides heartfelt reaction shots from stands. This version is yet again based on a true story, wherein brilliant young basketball players must contend not only with better-funded school programs and lack of respect, but also U.S. racism in 1966.
James Gartner’s Glory Road is wholly, probably even proudly formulaic. It includes all the expected tricks of the genre, from vintage soundtrack and heart-pounding court action to excellent performances and heartfelt lessons underlined by teary eyes in close-up. Coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) spends a couple of minutes with his Fort Worth high school girls’ team, to show why he’s so desperate to work with an NCAA team. Invited to coach at Texas Western in El Paso, he packs up wife Mary (Emily Deschanel), who tends to appear with baby on hip, to live in the boys’ dorm, where they wear towels in the hallways and… well, that seems to be the extent of that possible upset.
The film spends little time considering anything other than the team dynamics. This leaves the 1960s context (the Vietnam war, the Black Panthers) to tv images and brief comments. That’s not to say that these framing devices are ineffective, but they are occasionally set alongside trivial jokey bits, as when forward Harry Flournoy’s (Mehcad Brooks) mother is called to sit in on his classes to ensure he does his homework. (“All my classes are about rocks,” he complains to coach before mama shows up. “I’m a black man, I don’t do rocks.”)
Don appears to “get” racism and specifically, racist violence against his players (white fans throw trash at them as they enter arenas, graffiti is left on their motel room walls). But he stays focused on the game, seeing winning as the best way to “instruct” opponents. That is, until he learns he’s been getting hate mail at home and Mary’s been hiding it from him. Now, he’s upset. Still, it’s up to the players to deal with the fact that one of their number has been beaten bloody in a diner bathroom as they bus through the South, with coach mostly unseen during their deliberations. His most radical act—and it is a profound one in its way—is to start five black players at the finals, the first time in NCAA history.
By then, the players have come together, after their own ups and downs over the course of the season (some more obviously “dramatized” than others). He’s found his stars from around the nation, with the university apparently footing the bill for him to scout nontraditional sites, including a Gary, Indiana steel mill and street courts in the South Bronx. (The fact that Don sends a bespectacled, nerdish assistant to recruit some of these “urban” players allows for broad visual comedy when players take the recruiter’s clothes when he calls them “colored boys.”)
Don has his own recruiting tactics for the Miners, as when he tells potential guard Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), “I can make your dreams come true faster than a twister’ll take your socks off.” Bobby Joe’s jaw drops as he notes, “You talk funny.” But the corn-speak is part of Don’s cagey shtick; he knows his game. He convinces another player to sign on by challenging him to a little one-on-one: “I’ll eat your lunch, steal your girl, and kick your dog at the same time.” And he does, more or less, at which point the kid signs up. When one mother worries that he wants to take her son to El Paso (“To get lynched?” she asks), Don charms her in a couple of lines of dialogue. He even convinces star center David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr) to sign on, a surprising turn marked by his arrival in a very fancy car, with all kinds of attitude.
The team in place (though the black players feel like they’ve landed “in Bonanza,” and the white players marvel at the first black people they’ve ever seen), Don sets about the usual drilling and lecturing. He has a specific dribbling and passing program in mind, which the sharpshooters he’s brought in resent (when he relents and lets them play “their” game, they win). Don encourages short Willy Worsley (Sam Jones III) to use his speed, Nevil Shed (Al Shearer) to lose his fear of being hurt, and doesn’t want to play Willie Cager (Damaine Radcliffe) when he learns the kid’s been hiding a heart ailment. He also ensures that the white players, including Jerry Armstrong (Austin Nichols), get on board, so that by film’s end, they give up their starting positions in order to join their new friends’ struggle.
All this mutual team devotion is in place by the time they arrive at the ‘66 NCAA finals, where they face the much better funded, all Caucasian University of Kentucky champions. They’re coached by the unfortunately named Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight under yet another inventive makeup job), whose exasperation shots tend to feature confederate flags in the background. Yes, he’s the bad guy, sneering at the black players at a moment in history when no white authorities in the sport imagine that “Negroes [are] gonna be the future of basketball.”
Such observations allow the film’s viewers to snicker at the folly of these ancient opinions. But Glory Road also includes enough images of hard violence to underline at least some of the costs for the Miners, not to mention their less well looked after peers. Rousing, manipulative, and predictable, the movie knows its business.