Monday, January 09, 2006

Crash and burn on "Glory Road"

Just how many movies can tell the story of the "greatest game ever played?" We get what must be the 101st entry with Disney's "Glory Road," a severely dumbed-down take on Texas Western College's 1966 run to the national championship in men's basketball.

For once, the game itself lives up to the hype. By fielding an all-black team that beat Kentucky at Maryland's since torn-down Cole Field House, coach Don Haskins changed the course of sports history by integrating college basketball, even if his main motivation was just to win. To Disney, however, it's just an excuse to compile a highlight reel of scenes you've seen before, and much better done, in great sports movies like "Hoosiers" and "Bull Durham."

The most disturbing thing is how the racial incidents are dismissed. The scrutiny these players were under as they kept winning, from both friend and foe, was intense. In what could have been one particularly troubling scene, they get off the bus to find words like coon (and another one you won't see printed here) written on the walls of their hotel room in what appears to be blood.

However, with very little discussion and no reflection, they're right back on the bus. By glossing over such conflicts, you're left with what I can only assume is the exact opposite impression than director James Gartner was going for, that hate of this magnitude is really no big deal, just something to shrug about and move on. It's at best stupid and at worst destructive.

On the upside, the very short scenes are punctuated by some of the great songs from the Stax catalog. Even the sourest swill goes down just a little better with some Sam and Dave. And the basketball scenes are well choreographed, capturing the excitement of the moment.

The performers are also clearly more inspired than the filmmakers. Josh Lucas, who apparently starred with Reese Witherspoon in "Sweet Home Alabama," wades through his coaching cliche-ridden dialogue with spirit, and "Antwone Fisher" star Derek Luke leads the fairly dynamic cast of ringers Haskins snagged to run to the championship. And I won't spoil the movie's funnest surprise: who plays Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp under a heavy dose of makeup.

If you sit through the credits at the end you'll see interviews with some of the Texas Western and Kentucky players who were there, including Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who played for Kentucky in 1966. It's a fascinating glimpse into the minds of some truly inspirational athletes, but it only left me wondering how great their story could have been in the hands of someone who actually cared about their accomplishment.

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