There's a scene in "Glory Road" where black students at the University of Kentucky are huddled around a television set in a dorm room, secretly rooting for the Wildcats' opponent to win the NCAA Division-I championship game. Why? Because Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins decided to make a statement against racism by benching his white players and playing five black starters and two black subs against Adolph Rupp's all-white team.
We may never know if the UK dorm scene was based on fact, the way that a great deal of the film was, but this much is certain: all across the country, people who normally didn't care two free throws about the sport that James C. Naismith invented in 1891 were suddenly on the edge of their seats. It was the NCAA version of Jesse Owens at the 1936 summer Olympics.
Like "Hoosiers," this Jerry Bruckheimer film is a David and Goliath sports saga that holds just as much suspense and interest no matter how many times you watch it. That says something about the story, the writing, and certainly the performances. It may be a cliché, but it's a true cliché, and like the classic sports films, it works.
Josh Lucas is superbly convincing as a single-minded basketball coach who wants to make it on the big stage so bad that he'd agree to move with his wife and kids into a boys' dormitory and eat cafeteria food just to get the chance. Before getting the nod at Texas Western—which, incidentally, became the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) the year after he made history by taking the small mining school to the NCAA finals—he was a high school girls basketball coach. But by the time it was all over, Haskins ended up in the Hall of Fame, and his players were rewarded for all the racism that they had to endure throughout the season with a memory that would last a lifetime.
It wasn't a total surprise, though. In his very first NCAA game, Haskins started three "Negroes," which had the president who hired him and the school's biggest alumni donor starting to squirm. That was nothing compared to the taunts, the threats, the vandalism and the violence. And since black players hadn't been recruited or included on teams in the South, it was also no picnic trying to get the whites and blacks on the Miners to accept each other. All of which is to say that there's plenty of drama here apart from the usual sports-stage fare. Thankfully, there are also moments of comic relief. Much of the fun even comes before any of the balls start to bounce. As Haskins (Lucas) and his assistants go on the recruiting trail to convince stars on the playground, the YMCA's, steel-mill pick-up games, and high school leagues that they should come to Texas ("To get lynched?"), there's plenty of comedy.
First-time director James Gartner enlisted some actors with roundball experience, which adds to the realism. Damaine Radcliff, Schin A.S. Kerr, Al Shearer, Mehcad Brooks, Alphonso McAuley, Sam Jones III, and Derek Luke shine as the "colored" players—a term which, used by Haskins' assistant coach trying to recruit the New York standouts, ends up getting him stripped of his clothes and stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood. But Austin Nichols also brings an appropriate intensity to the part of Jerry Armstrong, the ostensible leader of the white players who, for the first time, find themselves not only forced to accept black players on the team, but to take a back seat to them as well.
There's plenty of life in the banter and player shenanigans, and just as much drama in pockets of prejudicial behavior that the players encountered throughout the season. But once Haskins and his players took a stand, other schools followed to end discrimination on the basketball court. Two years after the Miners appeared in the national finals with a record identical to Kentucky's 27-1 mark, I attended Utah State, which played UTEP in basketball, and there wasn't so much as a blink or a question mark attached to black players. We're told in the film's postscript that even the legendary-but-curmudgeonly Rupp (played with uncanny mimickry by Jon Voight) would himself recruit Kentucky's first black player before he stepped down as coach.
Gartner has a good eye and ear for what makes for an effective scene, and there isn't a shot that goes on for too long. Though he's covering some of the same ground as another Bruckheimer-produced film about racial pioneering in "Remember the Titans," he manages to focus on the things that matter and the things that keep the narrative moving forward. The first DVD Town review of this film complained that we don't get to know the characters enough. But how well do we get to know the players from "Remember the Titans" or "Hoosiers"? The focus is on the coach and the travails that the team encounters, while we get two facets of every player, with each character growing by the film's end. There's the showboating guard (Luke), the big man with a big heart . . . problem (Radcliff), the New Yorker who isn't as tough as he ought to be (Shearer), the flashy and mean-spirited big man (Kerr), the quiet guy who goes about his business (McAuley), the role player (Jones III), and the instigator of team adventures (Brooks).
Though Emily Deschane doesn't have all that much to do as Haskins' wife, Mary, veteran character actor Red West delivers a fine supporting performance as Coach Haskins' folksy assistant coach. To the writers' and performers' credit, "Glory Road" is a film that has as much sports drama off the court as on. Rated PG for racial issues and language ("racial issues" is a euphemism for Klan-style violence), "Glory Road" still makes for a great family film.
Video: This Blu-ray offers 1080p High Definition at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and the level of detail is excellent. There's clarity and good black levels even in low-light situations, and color levels that, while not fully saturated, appear natural. Great picture. Even the bonus material is offered at 1080p and 1080i High Definition.
Audio: Same with the sound, the most impressive option of which is the English 5.1 uncompressed 48kHz, 24-bit PCM. English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 are also offered, but there's a crisper sound with more back-speaker presence on the uncompressed audio. The bonus features are presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 or English Dolby Digital 2.0.
Extras: The audio commentaries by the writers and Bruckheimer are awfully low-energy for a film like this and not as illuminating as you'd hope for. There's also a lot of dead air, which makes these average at best. I learned more from short features on Don Haskins and the real players recalling that special year, but unfortunately those extras didn't make the crossover from the SD version to Blu-ray. The only other feature included here is "Surviving Practice," which features former Haskins' pupil and NBA star Tim Hardaway talking about what it was really like working for the coach. The best part of this segment is that it captures the real Haskins coaching the actors from a seat on the sideline . . . and running them down as if they were players disappointing him in a big game!
Bottom Line: Though it covers familiar ground, "Glory Road" does a good job of capturing the essence of what it was like to play for a legendary coach during a time of racial tensions. It might even make my Top-20 list of all-time favorite sports movies.