A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG, 106 mins.
Don Haskins: Josh Lucas / Bobby Joe Hill: Derek Luke / Adolph Rupp: Jon Voight / Jerry Armstrong: Austin Nichols / Harry Flournoy: Mehcad Brooks / Orsten Artis: Alphonso McAuley / Willie "Scoops" Cager: Damaine Radcliff / Nevil Shed: Al Shearer / Willie Worsley: Sam Jones II /
Directed by James Gartner / Written by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois
GLORY ROAD – at face value – contains many of the standard, stock elements of other run-of-the-mill sports genre pictures. It has the vigilante and highly determined coach; the team of misfits who can’t seem to get along but find ways to overcome differences and be a cohesive team; and the road from spiritual and literal defeat to the final “big game” where seemingly everything is on the line and – inevitably – the underdog team achieves final victory. GLORY ROAD never once professes to not embody these key elements.
No, the subtle secret to the overall effectiveness of the film is in the manner in which it’s not just about the young, cantankerous players, their often rocky relationship with their tough-as-nails coach, and their final moments of absolution when they band together in a unified effort to be the best they can be. GLORY ROAD has a much larger and more prevalent modus operandi – it strives to tell an important story of America’s cultural and social history that, to some, is an unfortunate distant memory. This film does a very noble and competent job of taking this otherwise historical footnote and amplifies it. After leaving the film one just may wonder why the events it dramatizes have not been focused on in any detail in history classrooms. Just because its narrative is a sports story should not alone preclude its lack of value and relevance.
With a U.S. history degree firmly under my belt, I feel somewhat ashamed to have little – if not any – knowledge of what a crucial figure Don Lee Haskins was. According to my brief research, he was a basketball player that played for over three years under the tutelage of legendary coach Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M. After a brief stint coaching women’s basketball he was hired on as a head coach of Texas Western College (later renamed the University of Texas at El Paso). He did so for from 1961 to 1999. At the time of his retirement his statistics were quite astonishing. He was tied for fourth place as the NCAA most winningest coach with a 719-353 record. In his 38 years he suffered only 4 losing seasons, which in itself is an incredible credit. On paper, Haskin’s sterling set of credentials can’t be undervalued.
Yet, GLORY ROAD does not tell the story of Don Haskins career, nor does it feel slavish to focus on his lifetime accomplishments on the court. Rather – and more importantly – it focuses on a decidedly narrower segment of his career at Texas Western in 1966. It was during this time where he took a relatively unknown group of players and defeated The Wildcats of the University of Kentucky (under legendary coach Adolph Rupp) to a NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The victory, according to many sports analysts, is one of basketball's most stirring and shocking upsets. The latter sentiment has been juiced up and milked by far too many sports writers. Although Texas Western was less revered than their Kentucky opponents, their record was a brilliant 27-1 entering into the final NCAA game. In hindsight, The Western Team was not a struggling “Cinderella Team” as many historians have lead on.
Yet, this 1966 Championship victory may now be more regarded and respected for its overall societal implications. If anything, Haskins and his ’66 team can be credited with revolutionizing the sport of basketball and changing the shape of amateur and professional sports forever. His final game starting line-up for the NCAA tourney had five black players on it.
Big deal, right?
Wrong. Kentucky’s squad was all white and head coach Rupp was largely regarded as a supporter of racial segregation, or at least very reluctant to recruit black players (some sporting historians disagree on this assessment and it remains controversial to this day). Nevertheless, Coach Haskins saw past the color barrier and did something no other basketball coach did before him, and GLORY ROAD is a strong and involving film for following this story.
Now, it should be noted that Texas Western had been recruiting and playing black players in the 1950’s when no other school was offering them any types of scholarship. When Haskins arrived in El Paso he already inherited some of the school’s black players, but he decidedly took it a step forward with his rigorous recruitment of other black players. It is here, as with the final NCAA game, where Haskins and his El Paso team deserve a coveted spot on the history of the de-segregation of the sport.
Yes, his college did have black athletes before his arrival and many other schools were moving towards a larger and more global policy of inclusion and de-segregation in school sports. But the crucial significance with Haskins is with his NCAA team and the boldness of his move to play an all-black starting line against an all-white team. This can not be unappreciated. Athletes in basketball, and perhaps in other sports, were effectively emancipated because of Haskins' actions. The fact that this game is not as significantly studied and remembered seems somewhat sad in many ways.
But, that’s why GLORY ROAD is an engrossing and fascinating film. Like other great biopics about historical figures – sports related or not – it begs you to want to learn more about its story. The film’s real strength is in the manner it confidently marries the trappings of a sports picture with issues of social relevance. It’s more of a civil rights history film than a sports history film and it concentrates its attention more on the personas and less on game dynamics. You are not going to come out of the film with a better understanding of the game of basketball. Contrastingly, you should come out of the film with a better understanding and respect of the actions Haskins took to putting a winning team together and the implications (and unfortunate consequences) those actions had. Yes, he helped to de-segregate sports, but it was not a squeaky clean road for him and his team to take.
Josh Lucas, in one of his finest performances to date, plays the young up-and-coming Haskins as he is recruited to Texas Western to forge his winning basketball team in the 1965-66 season. At the time there seemed to be a rule (basically unwritten) that you could only have a certain number of “colored” boys on your sports team. Haskins knew this and, at a risk to his reputation and occupational livelihood, he daringly overlooked that. He essentially inherited a team that was underachieving, albeit not entirely weak. Yet, he seized the opportunity by not looking at schools for recruitment of players, but rather in the backyards and alleys of America. Why does he do this? For starters, his college was a poor one that has no money to recruit the more highly prestigious white talent. Secondly, he saw natural talent in some black players who toiled around in mundane existences in the North. With the offering of a full scholarship and a chance to play competitive b-ball, that seemed to be all the coaxing he needed to recruit them. His rich college advisors, obviously, did not like the prospects of their team going “all colored.”
Of course, as with all sports genre pictures like this, clashes result between the coach, the black players, and the white players. The coach wants the black members to play a more “fundamental” game and not the Harlan Globetrotter style of flashy moves that they have been accustomed to play. There is resistance on either side, but surprisingly there is a mutual acceptance of each other’s methods to the point where both are combined together to form a successful one-two punch on the court. GLORY ROAD goes against the grain of other sports films in this respect. It’s not just about the coach teaching them an methodology and forcing the team to stridently stick to it. The team learns from the coach and the coach learns that maybe there is room for the players’ mode of play. Their relationship becomes much more reciprocated and appreciated in this capacity.
GLORY ROAD, thankfully, also does not sidestep the overall issue of racism and bigotry. For a film that has the more saccharine rating of PG, GLORY ROAD deals with the often violent and vile implications of racism front and center. We see how the South still despised the idea of black players and how this is manifested in both verbal and physical attacks on the players. They are often spat on and yelled at with condescending epitaphs at games, whereas some are even accosted in bathrooms. A few of them have their motel rooms sprayed with derogatory messages. Even the white team-mates display levels of animosity. GLORY ROAD tells a tense story that is frank and honest with the realities of its time.
The basketball scenes and all of the motivational moments scenes are competently handled. GLORY ROAD’s strength is not in these moments (you’ve seen one moment of a coach trying to rally a team then you’ve seen them all). However, despite having known the outcome, the final “big game" does have a level of anticipation and excitement. I also liked the handling of the role of Adolph Rupp himself, played in a subtly brilliant and assured cameo performance that is far too short for its own good by the great Jon Voight. His role has baggage, to be sure, but Voight wisely does not extrapolate a performance from this real life figure and paint him as a one-sided racist that is a pure caricature. Voight plays him in a careful balancing act. He's the antagonistic presence of the film, but he is not overly reprehensible. Lucas’ portrayal of Haskins is equally layered and nuanced. He’s not a saintly figure either. Oftentimes, Haskins is shown as a tough and hot-tempered general on the court. He wants to win, and will not let anything stand in his way.
The film does a very good job of carving out Haskins story and Lucas, as stated, has a field day capturing the essence of the man. The film’s only real weakness is in the development of the black athletes themselves. We sort of get an impression of them, but they are presented more in generalities and less as fully realized characters. Some of the supporting performances are fine, like Derek Luke (playing Bobby Joe Hill), Damaine Radcliff (playing Willie Scoops Cager), and Schin A.S. Kerr (playing David Lattin), but the film felt a bit negligent with its focus on them. We feel their pain and understand their frustrations, but a bit more investing into them should have been warranted. Other characters, like Haskins wife (played by Emily Deschanel) are so limited that you forget they are there. Then again, this is a story larger than the one about marital strife in the wake of a husband’s hunger for a championship. The film tells a story too important for those melodramatic underpinnings.
GLORY ROAD reminded me considerably of another exemplary sports biopic – 2004’s very underrated MIRACLE – in the sense that it tells a real life tale of a coach and his aspirations and concludes with a final game where you know the outcome. Yet, both films work extremely well in their attempts to create emotionally grounded characters and both effectively set their time periods in proper social-political context. But GLORY ROAD goes even further in the way it attempts to emphasize and explore a mostly forgotten moment in the history of racial equality. It has those standard, obligatory moments that scholars of the genre have come to expect in these types of pictures. Nevertheless, the film is well crafted, solidly acted, and does a polished job of combing a familiar sports story with one of a historical social heartbeat. It’s deceptively easy to dismiss GLORY ROAD a simpleminded and lightweight genre picture. In the large scheme of things, the film deals with larger issues than basketball and it does so with a surprising competence and tact.