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All Hype 

In the fall of 1966, I set off for Davidson University to play basketball for Lefty Driesell. Among my new teammates was a skinny 6-foot-7 forward from New York named Mike Malloy. Mike had great foot speed, terrific inside moves and a chunk of the times on his back: He was the first African-American athlete in Davidson history. Mike was an emblem of the slow pace of racial integration in American society. He came to Davidson 12 years after Brown v. the Board of Education and six months after Don Haskins won the NCAA championship at Texas Western with five black starters.

Haskins' team's march to the 1966 title is now being featured in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's new sports flick Glory Road, which hypes itself as the story of the "team that changed everything." That claim, among many embellished details in the film, is unfortunate and untrue. Texas Western's upset of top-ranked Kentucky in the championship game is a great story, but it didn't begin to change everything. Lefty had already recruited Mike. Up the road, University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith had already recruited Charlie Scott. Jackie Robinson changed everything when he broke the racial barrier in Major League Baseball. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. changed everything. Don Haskins was an excellent coach, and his players were overlooked at least in part because of their color. But in claiming an influence they didn't exert, Bruckheimer diminishes rather than enhances the excitement of their accomplishment.

Glory Road mysteriously plays fast and loose with facts. The film submits that Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) moved from coaching high school girls to the national men's collegiate championship in a single season and that he was the first Texas Western coach to recruit and play black athletes. In fact, Haskins inherited black athletes from previous coaches and won the championship in his fifth season at Texas Western, a better testimony to his drive and coaching ability. Assembling the players who went 28-1 in 1965-66 wasn't an overnight miracle but the product of a long-term recruiting and coaching strategy.

Glory Road does some things commendably well. It features a cast that can actually dribble and shoot, something Hollywood frequently fails to bother with in basketball movies. It correctly underscores Haskins' rigorous conditioning drills and emphasis on "hand-in-face" defense. Former players will be pleased to see Haskins showing players how to use the rocker step (and dismayed that the film doesn't quite get it right). The cut of the uniforms and the lighting and structure of the vintage gyms are captured accurately, and the latter communicate the intimacy of the game as played before the advent of modern arenas. But regrettably the filmmakers include anachronistic elements of flash from today's game that didn't exist 40 years ago: between-the-legs dribbling, behind-the-back passing and every other basket a reverse slam. The crescendo field goal in the championship game results from an off-the-glass pass and dunk that's lifted from a Globetrotters routine.

Meanwhile, Glory Road's sociology possesses all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The real Texas Western ballplayers were heroes in El Paso, but in the film they are everywhere eyed with suspicion and greeted with a sneer. An ugly scene shows a black player being brutally beaten in a restaurant restroom; another has the black players taunted with racial epithets painted in blood. These events didn't happen, and including them removes the chance for the film to explore the more muted and insidious examples of racism that the players did encounter.

My most enduring objection to this film, though, occurs at the climax. As detailed, Texas Western defeats Kansas in the national semi-finals when a white player throws a second-half defensive shroud around high-scoring Jayhawk guard JoJo White. But as Haskins prepares his team for the showdown with Kentucky, the Texas Western coach announces that he's only going to use black players in the final as a rebuke to racist Wildcat coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight). Outrageous nonsense. Haskins started five black players the entire 1965-66 season, not as some political statement but because the black players were the best. Haskins would no more have kept a white player he needed on the bench than he would have asked his black players to forfeit. To suggest otherwise is to make Haskins something that he wasn't -- something less, not more.

We're obviously still struggling with race in this country, and I certainly won't argue that the sports arena is free of racism. But I will argue that it's freer of racism than other venues of contemporary life because success is so directly measureable. I won't say that Mike Malloy didn't have to endure hurtful instances of racial discrimination during his time at Davidson. But I do know that he was quickly embraced by his teammates and by Davidson fans because he could play. We passed him the ball because he could score. And because he could score, we would have passed him the ball if he had been white, or brown or green.

click to enlarge Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) - puts it to his players during a timeout in Glory Road.
  • Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) puts it to his players during a timeout in Glory Road.
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