Texas Western College and its men's basketball coach, Don Haskins, helped open a lot of doors back in 1966 by fielding the first all-black starting lineup in an NCAA tournament championship game. So we are told in Glory Road ... and told, and told, and told.
But Glory Road never shows us much of anything, either on or off the basketball court. It tells us all kinds of stuff, about the racial inequities these young players had to overcome, about the bravery they exhibited, about the relentless methods their coach used to motivate them. But the end result is more a lecture than a film; audiences may come away understanding what went on, but for most, the emotional connection will be lacking.
Josh Lucas plays Haskins, who's coaching high school girls basketball when he's offered the chance to take over the men's team at Texas Western. It doesn't matter to Haskins that no one at the school cares about basketball (in Texas, football is king), or that he's given hardly any scholarship money to recruit with. He's dreamed for years of coaching college hoops, so he takes the job.
Quickly realizing the bargain-basement program he's been handed, Haskins is forced to come up with unconventional ways of building a contender. And what could be more unconventional in 1966 than actively recruiting black players? How about actually putting them among the starting five - at a time when black players, the few there were, generally rode the bench, or were talented enough to stand out as the black superstar on an otherwise all-white team.
Haskins brings players from Detroit, Chicago, New York, all over the map. And he drills them relentlessly in the essentials of team play - selflessness, ball-handling, strong defense. They do OK, but only take off when Haskins reluctantly agrees with star player Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke) and lets his recruits play the game "their" way, complete with dunking, behind-the-back dribbles, no-look passes.
Haskins and his team rip through the regular season, but the road to the championship runs through the University of Kentucky, where legendary coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight, his performance restricted to a perpetual scowl) isn't about to let a bunch of Texas upstarts rule the day.
Glory Road has been committed to film with a singular lack of panache. First-time director James Gartner, a TV commercial veteran, plods along without any noticeable sense of pacing or momentum-building. His game footage, especially, seems drained of emotion. Even worse, whenever the action takes to the court, he commits the cardinal sin of letting his "commentators" (two guys at courtside, probably doing radio play-by-play) explain all the action. It's they who tell us how good these guys are, how close the game is, how the excitement level is getting amped up.
By comparison, consider 2000's Remember the Titans, a similarly inspirational film, also from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, in which a newly integrated high school football team from Virginia, with a black coach, takes on both rival football teams and the region's crushing racism. Titans had its faults, but you felt the emotion throughout the film; no one had to prompt audiences, at the end, to stand up and cheer.
It didn't hurt, of course, that Titans had Denzel Washington in the lead. Lucas does what he can in a pretty one-dimensional role, but he's no Denzel.
The fact that the story is true helps a bit. But when the best thing one can say about a film like Glory Road is that it really happened ... well, in basketball terms, you've thrown up an airball.
Glory Road (Walt Disney Pictures) Starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke. Directed by James Gartner. Rated PG. Time 106 minutes. Review C