Bet on Black

Glory Road relives the season college hoops smashed the color barrier

Jan 11, 2006 at 4:00 am
Over the years, moviegoers who double as sports fans have had ample opportunity to pick and choose their favorite miracle — Shoeless Joe Jackson emerging from the tall corn, Rudy suiting up for Notre Dame, Rocky going the distance with Apollo Creed, the U.S. hockey team taking down the Russkies.

As if all that were not supernatural enough, now comes Glory Road, the story (more or less) of the 1965-'66 Texas Western basketball team — underdogs who went 28-1 and won the NCAA national championship with a shocking victory over top-ranked Kentucky. As upsets go, neither the small-town hoopsters of Hoosiers nor the pint-size sluggers of The Bad News Bears have anything on Texas Western. An impoverished little mining school in dusty El Paso, it was not the kind of place that inspired song or legend. But coach Don Haskins, played here by former Stealth fighter pilot Josh Lucas (a late replacement for Ben Affleck), was a visionary: He recruited talented black players at a time when a lot of brand-name schools (especially in the South) remained unwilling; in the final tournament game of 1966, he revolutionized an entire sport by putting five black starters on the floor against the legendary Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad, a team that included Louie Dampier and future NBA coach Pat Riley.

Haskins' move was not only radical, it was brilliant: Texas Western ran the Wildcats out of the gym. Even the people waving Confederate flags got the message. Looking for ironies? The next year, Texas Western changed its name to the University of Texas at El Paso — largely because people around the nation had gotten the mistaken idea that Texas Western was a predominantly black school.

As American history, Glory Road is by turns inspirational and thrilling. But, in keeping with Hollywood's gift for exaggeration, a couple of things about it are completely bogus. We see the team's entire season, ups and downs, in 90 minutes: When a black Texas Western player gets brutally mugged in the men's room of a diner, when administration officials and alumni whine about the number of black players on the roster, when the Miners' motel rooms are trashed and tagged with Ku Klux Klan slogans, we are reminded just how unenlightened the country still was in the mid-'60s. When Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr) and their teammates take the floor against the glowering Rupp (Jon Voight) and his charges, we feel a surge of pride — even those of us who are not black. Rookie director James Gartner gives us the happy sense that the world — not just college basketball — is changing for the better, and that all of us are about to get a little piece of that.

At the same time, the movie's liberties and falsifications can be irksome. As Christopher Cleveland's screenplay would have it, Haskins landed in El Paso in 1965, fresh from his long stint as a girls high school hoops coach, set out on a magical recruiting spree in New York and the Midwest, and turned Texas Western's struggling program around in just one year. Actually, Haskins had been the school's head coach for nearly five seasons before the Miners won their national championship, and he had inherited several outstanding black players from his predecessor — including eventual Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. In other ways, too, Haskins' story has been altered to suit Glory Road's agenda of social uplift. In his autobiography of the same name, the coach (who retired from UTEP in 1999, after 38 seasons and 719 wins) reveals himself as a classic Texas hustler, specializing in snooker and golf, and Frank Deford's Sports Illustrated story about the 1966 NCAA Finals (which didn't mention race at all!) has Haskins staying up all night before the Kentucky game, drinking beer with students from the University of Maryland. These interesting and humanizing details have not made their way to the screen. Neither has the coach's rather strange post-game comment: "I'm just a young punk; it was a thrill playing against Mr. Rupp, let alone beating him."

Still, Don Haskins was the man who hastened the desegregation of college sports, and the movie is unequivocal on that crucial point. Lucas' performance hints at the coach's spiky absolutism ("Here you will play fundamental, disciplined, defensive basketball," he bellows) and his infamous rages, and the fit young actors who portray the players (Damaine Radcliff, Al Shearer, Sam Jones III, et al.) not only have dramatic skills, they also look pretty credible on the basketball court. These are major pluses. But inspirational sports movies are almost always predicated on contrivance and compromise — in last year's The Greatest Game Ever Played, the makers even changed the scores of the 1913 U.S. Open golf tournament — and Glory Road could have done with a little more real-life Haskins and a little less manufactured sainthood. One omission has stirred Haskins himself to publicly complain: As a boy, he played one-on-one basketball with his friend Herman Carr, who is black. Why does the film ignore such a telling detail? Your guess is as good as Haskins'.