"What, you're going to tell me that blacks are the future of basketball?"
That laughable one-liner is quipped quite seriously in the true-life tale "Glory Road," which takes place in the racially segregated American South of the 1960s. In it, Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins, in an unprecedented move, recruits seven black players onto his college squad.
Out Friday, the flick stars Josh Lucas ("Stealth," "A Beautiful Mind") as the overbearing and unrelenting coach of the scrappy Texas Western Miners and tracks the lives of Haskins and his predominantly black team as they journey toward the 1966 NCAA championship.
Powered by an all-black starting lineup — the first ever in NCAA championship history — Haskins led his underdogs to 27 victories his first season and eventually took down four-time powerhouse champs the Kentucky Wildcats in a showdown that would alter the landscape of basketball forever.
"These guys changed the sport in a way nobody had ever done before. They opened up the floodgates," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who also oversaw 2000's equally inspiring "Remember the Titans." "[Back then], black players weren't allowed to play. They couldn't get into schools and couldn't get the education they deserved, but this coach and these seven kids changed all that."
Not many people today know the story of Haskins and his dream team, said Bruckheimer, who was inspired to take it to the masses after talking with former Wildcats player and NBA coach Pat Riley. "What's so interesting about Don is that he wasn't looking to make a statement. He was simply driven to win, [but yet] he changed history."
At the time, basketball was viewed as a white man's game, and talented young black players had to resort to honing their skills on the streets, never once imagining they would be able to take their skills elsewhere. That is, until Haskins, in color-blind fashion, began plucking kids from inner cities to be on his starting lineup.
"Haskins would never give himself credit for what he and this team did," said Lucas, who spent months by the coach's side to study his every nuance. "He's a guy who just didn't want the fanfare. [And even after] he had the chance to coach in the NBA and at the biggest NCAA schools after winning that championship, he chose not to. He wanted to stay on a smaller stage and have more of an impact. He wanted to be a life teacher."
A small-town family man who spent years heading up an all-girls high school team, Haskins was brought in by the obscure college to revive its lackluster program and vowed to do so by any means necessary. Instilling in his men the value of "fundamental basketball" ("Showboating is for folks making up for low self-confidence," he tells them), the passionate leader also taught his men how to win with guts, heart and self-respect, both on and off the court.
"The nice thing about [this film] is we can see how we've come such a long way in a short period of time," declared Oscar winner Jon Voight, who, with the help of prosthetics, transforms into Haskins' main rival, brazen Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp. "It really was a historic turning point."
"Glory Road" also features "Friday Night Lights" star Derek Luke as star player Bobby Joe Hill, and it marks the acting debut of newcomers Mehcad Brooks, Al Shearer, Damaine Radcliff and Sam Jones III. To prep for their roles as major ballers, the crew had to undergo three weeks of extensive basketball training from USC basketball coach Tim Floyd.
"Man, we went through every drill, every practice, everything," said Luke, who had no prior experience. "We'd play for 12 to 14 hours a day, and now I know what to do to get the basketball to stick to my hand."
"My vertical leap was like a millimeter high," joked Shearer, who plays forward Nevil Shed. The actor had played hoops during high school but had hung up his gym shoes nearly 12 year ago. "I couldn't run five feet without [gasping for air]. It was out of control."
"I thought we were shooting 'Chariots of Fire 2,' because all we did was run," added Brooks, who portrayed forward Harry Flournoy. "But in retrospect, it was worth it because when you see the basketball sequences, they're real."
Shearer said he hopes audiences will walk away with a newfound respect for what that Miners team accomplished. "I think too many players [today] complain about 'Oh, are my shorts long enough?' or 'Why do I have to wear this outfit?' but they forget we [as black men] didn't have the right to play basketball in 1966, so it's kind of a necessary film to show you where we're at today and how we got here — the LeBron Jameses, the Carmelo Anthonys, the Kobe Bryants — all that," Shearer said.
"It's crazy more people don't know this story, because it's the type that everyone likes," added Brooks. "It's a true American story about these average guys who are put in an extraordinary situation and they succeed. Who doesn't love that?"
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