January 29, 2006 -- “Glory Road” would be a pretty run-of-the-mill sports movie except for one thing, it is based on the true story of one of the most important society-changing games ever played in any sport. It was also one of the greatest upsets in sports history. What happened on the basketball court in the NCAA championship game in 1966 ranks right up there with Jackie Robinson playing his first major league game, Joe Louis beating Max Schmelling in pre-war Berlin, or Jesse Owens' magnificent triumphs in the pre-war Berlin Olympics.
“Glory Road” follows the amazing 1966 championship season of the Texas Western College basketball team, coached by Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas of “An Unfinished Life”). The Texas Western Miners, who had seven black players, more than any other team in the south, lost only a single game during the entire season. The Miners swept through the NCAA playoffs, beating the highly favored Kentucky Wildcats, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp (played by Jon Voight), for the championship. What made the championship game such a landmark, however, was Haskins' decision to play only his black players in the championship game against Kentucky's all-white team, starring two players who would go on to become stars in professional basketball, Pat Riley (now an NBA coach) and sharp-shooter Louie Dampier. No coach had ever fielded an all-black lineup in an NCAA finals game before.
One of the reasons I went to see this movie was that I had seen Haskins coach in person several times. My local team is the Wyoming Cowboys and they played for years against Haskins' Miners in the Western Athletic Conference. The first time I saw the Miners play I was impressed how well the team was coached, sharp passing, solid defense, tough rebounding. I recognize those things because I've played the game for many years. The Miners played beautiful fundamental basketball. Their style was spare, nothing fancy, but they were as tough as nails. The Miners were always a worthy opponent, even when Haskins was short on talent. The Miners never gave away victories. You had to take it from them. It was always a tough battle. I really admired Haskins' coaching. I had heard stories of the Miners' championship season in 1966, and even saw a documentary about it recently. That's why I wanted to see the movie.
The movie features Haskins' tough in-your-face coaching style, his emphasis on good fundamental skills and superior conditioning. It also shows how he demanded, and got, the best from each player. It also shows that Haskins had a different take on race than most southern coaches. He recruited in a color-blind manner, getting the best talent he could find. The movie shows Haskins coming to Texas Western in 1965 and winning it all in his first season. That is not the way it really happened. Haskins became the Miners coach in 1961, winning the championship five years later. The movie also indicates that Haskins had more than one reason for recruiting so many black players. One reason is that he believed these players were talented. Another reason is that he was unable to attract the top white players to Texas Western because of a non-existent recruiting budget and the school's reputation as an athletic dead end. The implication is that because of racism there were plenty of unrecruited black players available for Haskins to recruit, and those players didn't have many college options. I don't know if that is a truthful depiction of Haskins' situation. The movie also indicates Haskins had to compromise a bit on his opposition to playground style basketball.
Except for the historic nature of the story, this is a typical Disney sports movie filled with sports clichés. It is a well-made movie, but is very predictable, composed of familiar elements. However, the movie also shows us the hatred, intimidation, taunts, threats and beatings the players had to endure from racists. When the Miners won the championship, it initiated a new era for black basketball players. That game opened up new opportunities for blacks at colleges, particularly in the south. It forever changed the landscape of American basketball. Up until that game, it was widely supposed that blacks did not have the intelligence, the leadership abilities or the grace under pressure to win big games. The Miners exploded all those racist theories with their resounding victory. For that reason alone, this is a film worth watching. It rates a B.
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