When Samuel L. Jackson — stepping into the role of a high school basketball coach — benches the bulk of his undefeated team to teach them a lesson about the importance of academics in the film "Coach Carter," you might write the move off as Hollywood imagination in far-fetched overdrive.
You'd be wrong. In 1999, coach Ken Carter locked the members of his Richmond, California, varsity basketball team out of the gym when 15 of his 45 players started to slip in the classroom — no games, no practice, not even a random layup until his team put the "student" back in "student athlete." It's a remarkable message, and that's exactly why Jackson is stepping into Carter's shoes for the film adaptation of his story.
"Coach Carter didn't take 'no' for an answer," Jackson said of the man that he portrays onscreen. "He was going to push these kids to their limits both physically and academically. He wanted to make sure that these kids understood that there were a lot of people who were going to give up on them, but he wasn't one of them."
"The coach genuinely cared about the guys," co-star Ashanti said of the real-life inspiration for the film. "He really wanted the best for them, you know, just explaining education and trying to get them off the streets."
The message is what roped in "Save the Last Dance" director Thomas Carter — well, that and the coach himself, who pitched the story to Carter years ago and kept the director at the top of his list as the project came to fruition. For his part, the filmmaker, whose mother worked as a teacher for years, was happy to sign on to the project.
"I said, 'Wow, this is a guy who has really put something on the line and taken a stand to do something positive,' " the director said. "This is a man of great personal courage who took a stand in the community in regard to academics and its relation to athletics. He took a stand against athletics at the expense of learning."
"School is school," Jackson said bluntly. "You go to school to learn. That's the initial activity that you do at school: learn. Basketball is an extracurricular activity."
Seems a simple enough message, but Carter (the director) took great pains to make sure that the message went down smoothly. "It's a movie with a message that's done in a really entertaining, honest and real way," Carter promised. "It's not a movie that preaches at you, but it definitely brings its message strongly."
"Coach Carter," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ashanti, hits theaters in January.
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