The underdog sports film is the most dependable of all. Whether based on true events or simply a tale of a ragtag team who wins the big game, the genre seemingly has crowds standing an applauding no matter how clichéd and tired it gets. Basketball has been the sports flavor of late. This time last year we had Coach Carter, and this year we have Glory Road. The story of the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team is one of the more inspiring and momentous of sports stories, and it has been given the feel-good Disney treatment.
Coach Don Haskins (Lucas) is a high school girls’ basketball coach as the film begins. His skills catch the eye of Texas Western, a small Division I school in El Paso, and he is eventually offered the job. The school has a very small budget (Haskins and his family must live in the men’s dorm facilities), thus little recruitment potential. Haskins and his assistants hit the road in search of prospects, and find several in the playgrounds and underprivileged areas of the country. Haskins ultimately assembles a team consisting of seven black players and five white players which, in an era of overt and rampant racism, turns heads, to say the least. The Cinderella team makes it to the NCAA Championship that year to take on Adolph Rupp (Voight) and the said-to-be-unbeatable Kentucky team. Haskins will start five black players in the game, a NCAA Division I first.
Glory Road is exactly what you’re expecting it to be, plain and simple. The core story has been told countless times, but it feels more relevant and important here because this team and, in particular, the 1966 NCAA Championship changed basketball forever. First-time director James Gartner brings the necessary enthusiasm and Disney sheen to the production, which essentially means he maximizes the drama and musical swells that accompany it. His fine job gets a tad mangled in the editing lab as somehow the film feels rushed even at 106 minutes. The script by Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois shies away from the true racism the black players faced (obviously to keep that PG rating), but still offers more depth and character development than your usual underdog yarn.
Josh Lucas, who is on screen for virtually every frame of the film, makes a solid comeback after the horrendous Stealth. Here he is dynamic, alternating between being a player’s best friend or his worst enemy. The supporting cast is also commendable, particularly Jon Voight as the racist and despicable Adolph Rupp. A great coach he may have been, but here he is easily detestable and a true “villain,” if you will. Derek Luke brings emotion and believability to his portrayal of Bobby Joe Hill and Schin A.S. Kerr, portraying David Lattin, seems like he belongs in the NBA in reality. Emily Deschanel is completely wasted as Haskins’ wife as she mainly does a lot of standing around and looking worried.
Glory Road is that annual old dependable, always willing to bring inspiration and good cheer to the cold month of January. The film contains no big surprises or startling revelations, but its social conscience and understanding of the groundbreaking relevance of the season and the game make it superior to other recent genre entries. Be sure to stay for the end credits as they contain interviews with the real-life Don Haskins as well as several players from that amazing 1965-66 Texas Western squad.
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
Length: 106 Minutes
Rating: PG for racial issues including violence and epithets, and momentary language.
Theatrical Release: January 13, 2006
Directed by: James Gartner
Written by: Chris Cleveland & Bettina Gilois.
Cast: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Austin Nichols, Evan Jones, Emily Deschanel, Sam Jones III