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Movie Review: "Glory Road"

This past weekend is the one I call "Sports Interregnum Weekend".

The NFL is on its silly extra-week-break before the Super Bowl. And speaking of that hype, check out this silly statement by John Mullin of the Tribune, in regard to the Pittsburgh Steelers' fan support:

... by 11 a.m. Monday after the Steelers' AFC championship victory over the Denver Broncos, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette already had had 1.1 million hits on its Web site.

Just western Pennsylvania mania? Uh, no. The population of Pittsburgh is 334,563. So unless every man, woman and child in the city went to the paper's site three times each before noon, the Steelers have quite a few fans around the country.

So what this is saying is that once you cross the Pittsburgh city line, there aren't any Steelers fans? The US Census website says that the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh as of 2000 was 2,358,695... so it appears that only half of them clicked onto the Post-Gazette's website the day after the AFC championship game.

Yet another MSM statement debunked.

The NBA is playing some relatively meaningless regular season games, and colleges are playing even more meaningless regular season games.

And it is still two weeks till pitchers and catchers report.

Thus, it seemed like a good Sunday to take Mark and his friend Mitchell to "Glory Road", the story of how Don Haskins went right from coaching girls' high school basketball to NCAA Division I college men's basketball, recruited seven black players, and led them to a championship in one year.

Stirring, right?

Well, yabbut...

This movie does play somewhat fast-and-loose with the facts. Haskins had actually been the coach at Texas Western (which is now UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso) for five years before he pulled the miracle upset against Kentucky in 1966, and he had inherited a handful of black players from his predecessor (one of those was Nolan Richardson, who eventually also won a NCAA title as the coach at Arkansas).

That said, movies like this sometimes have to modify what actually happened in order to tell a story in a two-hour time frame. I don't have a problem with this, because it is billed as "inspired by a true story" rather than a straight documentary, and frankly, a documentary of Haskins' story wouldn't have been as compelling as this film is.

The point isn't that they won, the point is that Haskins DID make a statement by going out and recruiting black (and you can see the conflicts even among the recruited players, because that was the era in which old-line Southerners still called them "colored", the 'official' term at the time was still "Negro", and many of them were beginning to call themselves "black") players, and the conscious choice he made in starting five of them in the 1966 championship game against Kentucky, seen as a bastion of racism. Kentucky's coach, Adolph Rupp, is played well and NOT as a racist, by Jon Voight, and the closing titles remind us that Rupp, after this loss, recruited the first black player Kentucky had.

Josh Lucas does a nice job capturing the intensity of Haskins, who in addition to making this statement, really wants to win, no matter how hard he has to work his players, and he does a masterful job at toning down the real suspicions the black and white players have about each other and forging bonds between them. In fact, Lucas spent a lot of time with the now-75-year-old Don Haskins before the film was shot -- Haskins wasn't just a one-win wonder, he coached 38 seasons at UTEP, and his 719 wins ranked fourth all-time at the time he retired in 1999, and it seems like half the UTEP campus is named after him.

This being a Disney movie, there's also the almost-stereotypical long-suffering-but-supportive-wife, played by Emily Deschanel; the very same character appeared in "Miracle", about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, and "The Rookie", the story about Jim Morris' improbable rise to the major leagues. In this case, Mary Haskins really was the way she was portrayed, and has one terrific scene when put with other coaches' wives at the NCAA tournament.

What stays with you most after this film is the violence that was still being inflicted on black men in the South in 1966 -- beatings and destruction of property -- and the anger that was beginning to come out, and what these young black men had to overcome to succeed. It is hard to believe now, forty years later, that only a blip ago in human history, people were doing this to each other in this country. The end credits have a brief note on what each man did after winning the NCAA championship, and all of them DID have successful lives.

The game at the time was billed as the "biggest upset in NCAA tournament history". Forty years later, it probably still is.

Go see it, and don't get too bogged down in the specifics. The movie's trying to make a point, and it succeeds.

AYRating: * * *