Not a glorious film, but a great sports story
"Glory Road" begins in 1965 and quickly follows Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) as he's elevated from a high school girls basketball coach to the leader of the Texas Western (now UTEP) Miners. Uncomfortable with his cast of returning players, Haskins travels the country recruiting the best available athletes, in this case, African-American players. He's told that black stars are unwelcome in Southern college basketball, but Haskins is blind to race. He just wants to put together the best team. He's a tough taskmaster, but he has to learn to let his new players do their own thing. In no time, they've become nearly unbeatable, helping to usher college basketball into its modern era.
The film climaxes, as most fans will know, in the 1966 NCAA final between the Miners, with an all-black starting five, and the all-white Kentucky Wildcats, coached the legendary Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight).
The script by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois gives the impression that Haskins' entire journey takes place over a matter of months and that the first-year coach led his group of freshmen to glory. Does it matter that Haskins first started coaching at Texas Western in 1961? Does it matter that Texas Western had already begun recruiting black athletes before his arrival? Only if you want an indication of just how tidy and contrived "Glory Road" feels like it needs to be.
The same people bothered by those shifts will likely be infuriated by the choice to update the 1966 basketball action to a game that will be recognizable for today's young viewers. People who have seen footage of the championship game will wonder where all the tomahawk jams and alley-oops came from and why they have to be accompanied by Trevor Rabin's cloying and insistent score.
The screenwriters have tightened the story, but they haven't really determined whose story "Glory Road" wants to be. Lucas is the film's nominal star and token attention is paid to his wife (underused Emily Deschanel) and kids, but all hints of his personal life vanished by the halfway point. Similarly, the film loses any grasp of what, exactly, Haskins brought to the table as a coach beyond putting these young men on the court and letting them loose. It's not his discipline or his strategy, if you trust this movie. Lucas' Haskins is just along for the ride and becomes increasingly less interesting.
The marginalization of Haskins isn't necessarily a bad thing. If "Glory Road" had tried to go with the message that it was the strict white guy who molded an assortment of unruly street players into a machine, that probably would have been even more worrisome. However, the Miners basketball team had seven African-American players (and a couple token farm-bred white guys as well) and so they're all given one character trait or one defining scene and that has to be enough. It isn't. The players all blur together. Somebody will have to go and look at earlier Disney underdog sports successes like "The Rookie" and "Miracle" to figure out why those efforts were so much richer and more fully realized.
"Glory Road" just falls into a lazy routine of alternating games, humanizing details and increasingly ugly incidents of racism. In the final scenes, the filmmakers take an awkward stab at showing how the Miners have become important for the nation's entire black community, but it's an artificial gesture (a crowd of anonymous people at some anonymous barbershop, because somebody must have told the writers that that's where African-Americans congregate).
Under director James Gartner's careful direction, the actors all give the impression that they're capable of shooting hoops, though the game footage has, of course, been chopped into many small pieces. Because he has the most screentime -- complete with a girlfriend played by Tatyana Ali -- Derek Luke makes the biggest impression, as star guard Bobby Joe Hill. Mehcah Brooks' Harry Flournoy and Al Shearer's Nevil Shed also stand out. The character holes somewhat doom Lucas' Haskins, because he's denied an emotional investment in the team's success. After the final moments of the last game, none of the players come over to hug him or shake his hand and that distance is emblematic of something bigger.
The movie's best performance may come from Red West as assistant coach Ross Moore, a wiry old salt who has to reevaluate his own attitudes, but isn't forced to give a long speech explaining his new enlightenment.
I base my appreciation for underdog sports movies on whether or not I can muster at few manly tears by the end -- "The Rookie," "Miracle" and "Friday Night Lights" are just a few recent entries that have worked. I'm sure that I've felt the necessary swelling of heartstrings watching documentaries about the 1966 Texas Western team. But with "Glory Road," I came away with nothing.