As I have mentioned in a number of reviews on The Legionnaire, I received my Ph.D. from Loyola University Chicago. If you are a sports fan like me, and cared little for the Florida schools from whence I obtained my other degrees, then you followed Loyola basketball. Unfortunately, my time at Loyola did not see a lot of success. They waited until after I graduated to make a run to the Final Four in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball tournament. Still, no matter if you went to games before this recent run of success or after, the one that will become apparent is that Loyola once won the national championship, doing so in 1963. In fact, they are the only institution of higher learning in the state of Illinois to garner such a prize in any of the major sports. They also celebrate it like it was yesterday. This was particularly true in 2013, the year I graduated, it being the fiftieth anniversary of this accomplishment. The last thing to bear in mind about the 1963 team is that they were the first integrated team to achieve this goal in the nation. I bring this up because today’s film is Glory Road (2006). It tells the story of the first team to start all African Americans to win it all. I think about my alma mater while seeing this movie, and I was disappointed that there was no mention of Loyola. The school in question, Texas Western College in El Paso, especially its coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), should be lauded for what they did. Yet, they were not quite the first, which is what the film would lead you to believe.
Coach Haskins does not start at Texas Western as Glory Road shows at the outset. Instead, he is guiding a girl’s high school basketball team to the Texas state championship. His success earns him the invitation to interview for the head coaching position for the school in question. Interview is probably too fancy a word. The college is not the most financially well-off, which is why they are handing the position to a young, unknown coach like Haskins. He and his family would also have to live in the dormitories. The draw is the fact that it is Division I basketball, meaning they would be competing against the nation’s best teams. There is one more catch to this situation: they do not have the resources to recruit the more well-known talents from the high school ranks. Forced to tap into other player pools, Coach Haskins starts looking at African American hoopers that have to this point gone ignored by the bigger institutions. His visits to the homes of these potential Miners (the school mascot) surprise everyone, including the families of the men he is trying to woo. Many of them do not routinely see white people in their neighborhood. Still, what Coach Haskins can offer is an education at an established university. This is particularly attractive for the parents. For the players, it is the opportunity to compete for a national championship. In total, he brings seven African American players to Texas Western, and five white players, an unheard of ratio to this point in college athletics (see introductory paragraph). His next task is to mold them into a team, which proves no easy task for a number of reasons. Race is the most obvious hurdle to overcome. Texas Western is a predominately white school, and the white players on the team are not used to African Americans, to say the least. Their first real interaction comes in the cafeteria when a competition over who would be the starters on the team boils over into a food fight/pick-up basketball game. Some of the players, particularly Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), also do not appreciate Coach Haskins strict disciplinarian approach to their lives off and on the court. As such, there is an adjustment period. Despite these early struggles, the team starts winning games. It is somewhat difficult early on as Coach Haskins continues to insist that his players implement his style of play. The victories become easier as he adapts to the players’ strengths, allowing the team to come together more organically. This includes in their free time as well, with the entire team hanging out together at parties on both sides of town, if you get my meaning. As a result, they stick up for one another as teammates should do. This becomes important because the more they win, the more society reacts negatively against them. At one point while on the road, one of their forwards, Orsten Artis (Alphonso McAuley), is beaten up in a restaurant bathroom. At another stop, their rooms are vandalized with racist graffiti. As a result, despite being a close-knit group, they lose the final game of the season. However, that does not stop them from going to the 1966 NCAA tournament, in which they make it through to the final game. In it, they are matched up against the perennial winning school the University of Kentucky, led by their legendary coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight). Few, including Coach Rupp, take them seriously, but they manage to pull of the improbable and win the title. They return to Texas Western with a hero’s welcome.
Glory Road is a sports movie, though it has the added dimension of overcoming racism. All the characters have to do it in some form. The majority of my plot synopsis focused on the basketball side of this equation. The film has a number of other vignettes pertaining to this issue that I did not enumerate. If this is disappointing, then I recommend seeing the film. It is a good one. What this Catholic reviewer appreciates most about the of the movie is how Coach Haskins remind his players that dignity comes from within. This is where God resides in those of us who believe in Him, but it is also something implanted in each of us from the moment of conception. It is a spark of the Divine that makes us humans more than simply bones, flesh, and muscles. Jesus added a layer to our dignity when He died for us, making us spiritual children of God. There are many other ways of describing this unalterable fact. It is also why racism is so galling. It seeks to contravene what God has made of all of us. Racism is dehumanizing, in other words, to undo that which, as we have established, God has done. Coach Haskins reminding his players of the fact that their dignity comes from within is him telling them there is something inside that nobody can touch. In turn, this makes what racists try to do with their ignorant actions and rhetoric a fool’s errand in the truest sense of the term, and a waste of time put more simply. When you have knowledge of God, are in tune with that part of you most closely associated with God, anything is possible, including what the Miners of Texas Western did.
When it comes to sports movies like Glory Road, I often worry that the play of the actors they get to perform as athletes is not going to be believable. It is tough to find people who are gifted in the dramatic arts as well as on the field of play. This film has a good mix of both, yet that is not the main reason to see it. Watch it because it is a good movie. As a graduate of Loyola, I may have a slightly different take on the story, but that does not take away from its quality.