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March Madness Movie Suggestion

In 1966, one single college basketball game had a social significance that is rarely granted to games that are presented primarily for the our entertainment. That year, the NCAA’s final game pitted perennial basketball power Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph “Baron” Rupp, against hitherto unknown West Texas College (now UTEP), a team built around the talents of seven African-American players recruited from the playgrounds of Detroit, Gary, and New York. Coach Rupp had previously refused to play against any team with Black players, but he wasn’t about to pass up a chance at another NCAA championship, especially when he was sure he would win the game. His team was led by All-American Pat Riley, later to become one of the most successful coaches in professional basketball.

If “Glory Road” is a movie about basketball, then “Invictus” is a movie about rugby and “North Dallas Forty” is about football. The players on the West Texas team realize gradually as their story unfolds that they are engaged in something that is much larger than the game of basketball. The movie is based on the true story of Coach Don Haskins and the players he recruits for the 1966 season. As the film opens, we are reminded that this is when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is leading the fight for civil rights and the war in Vietnam is rapidly being escalated by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The story opens with the hiring of Don Haskins, a high school girls’ basketball coach, as  the men’s basketball coach of tiny Texas Western College. Played convincingly by Josh Lucas, Coach Haskins will live in a men’s dorm -- with his wife and children -- and keep order. Fielding a successful basketball team is secondary, to the college president who hires him. But Haskins is determined to succeed and immediately begins fighting for a larger budget with which to recruit talented players. Denied the funds, his solution is to go after the players that most colleges don’t want -- African-Americans from the playgrounds of big cities across the U.S. These players find it hard to believe they are wanted by anyone, let alone a white coach from West Texas. In one early scene, Coach Haskins tries to approach players leaving a steel mill in Gary, Indiana. Convinced that he is a cop, they take off running. When they get home, Coach Haskins is sitting in their living room having coffee with their mother.

The long season of college basketball provides plenty of great game footage. It’s clear in spite of the old-fashioned uniforms that this is the modern game of basketball, complete with dunks and fancy ball-handling. Yet the game scenes never undermines the sense of history that the movie conveys. The players are forced to confront what it means to be young Black men in the South. Their early conflicts with fellow white players are part of an effort by Coach Haskins to get white and Black players to work and live together. The sense of conflict that drives the film is intensified by a coach who insists on emphasizing old-school run-and-gun playmaking at the expense of playground moves. We have Black players against whites, the Coach against his team, and all the players fighting to be allowed just to play ball in a world threatened by racial conflicts.

Emily Deschanel is excellent as Mary Haskins, the wife of Coach Don Haskins. She begins by resisting the idea of her husband’s job and the life it imposes on her family. By the end of the film, she fully supports the mission in she is engaged. Derek Luke has a demanding role as one of the players who must evolve from someone who just wants to play basketball to someone with an appreciation of the significance of what he is doing. He becomes one of the leaders of the team during its most challenging moments. Jon Voight plays Coach Adolph Rupp, a figure from the country’s -- and basketball’s -- past, trying to convince his all-white team that the game belongs to them, and that the victory is theirs by right.

If you find yourself needing a break from March Madness, it wouldn’t be a betrayal of college basketball to take a timeout and watch “Glory Road.” Seeing this film might actually enrich your appreciation of the game, and of the role that sports can sometimes play in our social life.