Basketball as it wasn't

Glory Road

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, February 13, 2006


At least since 1967's Best Picture-winning "In the Heat of the Night," in which Rod Steiger's bigoted Southern sheriff and Sidney Poitier's angry Northern detective reluctantly team up to solve a murder, movies aimed at guy audiences have often astutely promoted racial harmony not as an end in itself, but as the most efficient way for real men to work together for important manly goals. A canonical illustration is the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced 2000 hit "Remember the Titans," in which the black and white football players at a tense newly integrated Virginia high school in 1971 learn to play as a team to win the big game.

Bruckheimer's new basketball movie "Glory Road" purports to be similar. Yet, this story of the 1966 Texas Western Miners, the first squad to win the NCAA championship game with an all-black starting line-up, actually exemplifies more unsettling historical trends: the beginning of the de facto re-segregation of basketball and of the triumph of recruiting over coaching.

Josh Lucas, who exhibited ornery charm as Reese Witherspoon's redneck husband in "Sweet Home Alabama," gruffly plays new coach Don Haskins, who in 1965 brings to the benighted Southern school (now the U. of Texas at El Paso) the radical idea of recruiting blacks. Although his seven Northern newcomers are the victims of racist violence and vandalism, they persevere to the NCAA Final where they confront august coach Adolph Rupp and his mighty all-white Kentucky team, backed by their Confederate flag-waving fans. To make a civil rights statement, Haskins chooses to play only African-Americans. Their astonishing victory finally opens the doors to black basketball players.

Unfortunately, that paragraph is mostly Hollywood hooey.

For example, it was 1961 when Haskins arrived in El Paso (which is so far from Fort Sumter that it's west of Denver), and Texas Western already had three black players. In the 1966 Final, Haskins didn't bench his white and Latino players as a political gesture -- he'd barely played them all season. Not only was there no violence, but relatively few fans noticed he'd started five blacks in the 1966 Final -- after all, three blacks had started for CCNY's championship team way back in 1950 -- until 25 years later when Sports Illustrated mythologized the game as an epochal triumph over racism.

Because college sports are more decentralized than professional leagues, they had never been fully segregated and thus lack national desegregation milestones like Jackie Robinson breaking big league baseball's color line in 1947. Indeed, before WWII at UCLA, Robinson himself had starred in basketball, football, track, baseball, golf, and swimming.

By the mid-60s, blacks were playing virtually everywhere except the South, where white boosters were denying themselves victories by insisting on all-white teams.

From today's perspective, the remarkable story in 1966 was not Texas Western's triumph, but how far Rupp got with such a physically inferior Kentucky team. "Rupp's Runts" were so short that they had to use 6'-4" Pat Riley, the future NBA coaching legend, for the opening center-jump.

Kentucky's old-school coach Rupp was called the "Baron of Bluegrass" because more than 80 percent of his players were Kentuckians. Yet he molded these local lads into four NCAA winners. Rupp thought it unseemly to pester high school stars to accept valuable scholarships. When Rupp unsuccessfully tried to sign big Wes Unseld to be his first black player in 1964, the future Hall-of-Famer was offended that Rupp paid only one visit to his home.

In 2006, Rupp's faith in nurture over nature seems hopelessly outdated. The younger Haskins, in contrast, scoured distant cities for superior black talent rather than cultivate El Paso's white and Mexican players.

Today, African-Americans outnumber white Americans in the NBA by an order of magnitude. Yet, has American basketball improved by evolving from integrated to overwhelmingly black? In 1992, the two-thirds black Olympic "Dream Team" thrilled the world with its overwhelming virtuosity. But by the 2004 Olympics, the all-black American squad of squabbling, gangsta rap-loving NBA stars lost to Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Lithuania.

As entertainment, "Glory Road" offers respectable family fare, with a strong, amusing first half. Eventually, however, the script locks into the well-worn grooves of the inspirational sports movie genre and loses its distinctiveness. Also, the decision to focus on all seven black players was a mistake. Audiences find it hard to keep straight more than four characters of the same sex, age, and race.

"Glory Road" is PG-rated for some bad words.


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