Glory Road
directed by James Gartner
(Buena Vista, 2006)

When Don Haskins took his team to the NCAA Division I basketball finals in 1966, he had something no other coach in his position had: seven black players. While nowadays that number might seem a bit low, remember, those were the LBJ days.

Haskins was given a rule of thumb when he took the head coaching job at little-known Texas Western in El Paso: You can play one black player at home, two on the road and three if the game's a goner. How Haskins circumvented that rule and went on to win the NCAA championship in his first season is the stuff of Glory Road, the latest film to feature producer Jerry Bruckheimer's name above the title.

After a Miracle-like montage to remind us how divisive the '60s was, Road shows how Haskins (Josh Lucas), a girls' high school basketball coach, leaps at the Texas Western job even though it requires him and his wife and three young kids to move into the athletes' dorm and "keep the boys in line."

It shows Haskins going out on the road to recruit, all the way to the playgrounds of Gary, Ind., and the Bronx to pull in talent nobody else will look at -- because the so-called real talent won't look at him, or El Paso. And it shows the reaction his black players have to Texas Western: "It looks like Bonanza," one of them says. And he's being kind.

That's followed, of course, by the usual shots of the coach working his team half to death and insisting they play the game his way, by his rules.

And, this being El Paso, we get the added bonus of watching the boys learn about the forbidden fruits of Juarez, just across the Rio Grande. Interestingly enough, in a film designed to follow a Glory Road, it's often the detours that prove most interesting, or at least the most natural and free-flowing, like the boys doing the Four Tops' "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" in sombreros backed by a mariachi band in their favorite Juarez watering hole.

But always, of course, they get back to basketball, and after a lackluster season-opening win over lackluster opponent Eastern New Mexico State (who?), the guys come back from a 16-point deficit at halftime to take out Top 10-ranked Iowa and guarantee themselves some media attention.

But more importantly from a cinematic standpoint, the team members begin to stand out as individuals -- a real challenge given the pace of the film so far. The best -- though not always from a basketball standpoint -- are Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke of Friday Night Lights fame), who gives the team what little romantic interest Coach Haskins allows in his fling with Juarez waitress Tina Malichi (Tatyana Ali); Willie Worsley (Sam Jones III), a Stevie Wonder-wannabe who adds some silly-hat shenanigans to the script; and Harry Flournoy (Mehcad Brooks), who has an excellent reason to do well in class -- his mother (Elizabeth Omilami), sitting right behind him, making sure he answers just about any question his geology prof can come up with.

But the fun and games come to a screeching halt when Texas Western gets a little too big for those tight white shorts hoopsters had to play in. And when Haskins' integrated team refuses to roll over for East Texas State, the fans leave them a few presents they'll never forget: team member Nevil Shed (Al Shearer) gets badly beaten up in the men's room of a nearby restaurant; the team's hotel rooms are trashed and grafittied with words I can't repeat here; Haskins' family receives death threats; and the team sees enough Confederate flags at their NCAA championship game against Kentucky to last them a lifetime.

It's here that Glory Road starts to rise to the level of the true story that inspired it. Sadly, however, it can't stay there long enough. By trying to pack Glory Road with everything that made Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Rookie and Friday Night Lights great, Bruckheimer all but guarantees that his film won't do what it needs to do most: find a central conflict, focus on it for the film's 106 minutes and deliver something fans haven't seen before.

There's plenty that's old, borrowed and blue in Glory Road, plenty of good game footage and sing-alongable tunes. But there's little that's new, little that's going to take us to the next level. And even if there were, at this pace we wouldn't have time to think about it. Haskins, not surprisingly, went on to become a hall-of-fame coach.

Bruckheimer himself could make the Hall of Fame for Titans. That we remember. But Glory Road? For all its moments, for all its great themes, it's headed for the Hall of Fast. Fast.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

11 August 2007

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