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Aiming to put the "student" back in "student-athlete," Richmond, California, high school basketball coach Ken Carter set rules that placed good grades before good plays. With his playoff-bound team struggling academically, he benched them, setting off a storm of irate parents. The real-life incident is the inspiration for the movie "Coach Carter," and star Samuel L. Jackson sat down recently with MTV to discuss the sports-movie genre and where "Coach Carter" fits into it.

MTV: Why do you think audiences love sports movies so much?

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Samuel L. Jackson: Well, I guess they feed into our sports fantasies and things that we kind of want to do and things we wish we could do, to things we may have done in the past — you know, reliving glory days. And everybody likes stories about underdogs that overcome. We sit at home every Sunday and we watch. We cheer for our teams. And when you go into these particular films, you find out enough about these particular guys on these particular teams that you feel like that's the team you cheer for. So we get involved in 'em easily.

MTV: What are some of your favorite sports movies? Do you have a favorite football movie?

Jackson: "Rocky," we all love the "Rocky" movies. I loved 'em. Wow, what's my favorite football movie? Uh, "North Dallas Forty."

MTV: What about basketball movies?

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Jackson: I hadn't seen a lot of them. ... Everybody talks about "Hoosiers," but, well, I grew up during segregation in the South ... so the only player I ever saw was Pete Maravich. So when I watch "Hoosiers," it's kind of like I don't relate to it in that kind of way because there's no brothers on the basketball teams. How can it be basketball, you know?

MTV: Do you think there's a formula that all great sports movies have?

Jackson: Well, you gotta have the kid on the team who's a rebel. You gotta have the kid on the team who's kind of, I guess sort of nerdy, who all of a sudden blossoms into a good player. You gotta have a coach who has a specific set of goals that he's trying to get the kids to meet. And he has to find a way to relay that message to the team. And you have to have a rival, a sports rival that that team is particularly afraid of or hadn't been able to beat or has a real beef with to make the final game a game that everybody wants to see in the movie.

MTV: It seems like there's certain scenes every sports movie has.

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Jackson: That whole slow-motion basket thing — are they gonna win the game, or are they not going to win the game? There's that one. There's the theme of them being a team in total chaos that finally comes together and embraces the coach's philosophy. I think the real great scene in this particular film is when I kicked this kid off the team and he has this impossible task to accomplish to get back on the team. And all of a sudden, he's about not to make the team and all the other players decide to take on part of his responsibility. And it creates a whole sense of team spirit that the audience kind of grabs real quick.

MTV: Why do you think those kinds of movies are so popular?

Jackson: Well, sports is a real viable job choice for kids now. So kids focus on becoming the best athlete they could possibly be. And these films embody something that lets them know that there are guys that make it, there are guys that don't make it. So it's in your best interest to take advantage of the opportunity that sports affords you, [but to also] give yourself another chance at life somewhere else [besides sports]. That message needs to be relayed to these kids because there are so many kids that don't make it. And that's not the end of life. Life goes on.

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MTV: It seems right now that pro sports has suffered some black eyes lately, what with steroid use in baseball and brawling with fans in basketball.

Jackson: Well, sports has always been sort of the same. You know, we hold up guys on pedestals that have average lives. I mean, they're just like us in a lot of ways, except we see them do their job every single day. It's kind of like me. ... I'm actually very ordinary, except people get to pay their money to come watch me work. The same way that we go to McDonald's — we don't care about the guy behind the counter, but if he was doing something special, we'd pay our money to go watch him cook that hamburger. So the seedy side of what these people do seems to be the newsworthy things. The guys who go to the hospitals, seeing the kids in the cancer wards, or the guys who are donating the money to kids' educational funds or collecting toys for underprivileged kids for Christmas is not a big story. It's a much bigger story to say, "Well, this guy's cheating because he takes this particular drug." Or "These guys are out of control because they went into the stands and beat up some fans." But fans are out of control, too, because they have expectations or they think they could get away with things that they shouldn't be able to get away with. So it's a very double-edged sword. We all walk the line, and we want them to be better human beings than they actually are, when they are just guys who have a special ability in one discipline.

MTV: There's so much happening at once in the sports world, this seems like the perfect time for a positive story like this.

Jackson: Things happen in bunches. ... Last year, there was all this college stuff that was going on — kids not going to class and people taking tests for them and not giving them money. You know, the race car circuit has its own thing about guys bumping other guys. Horse racing has its own set of doping things, you know, jockeys doing whatever they do. So there's always something, and they all come in bunches. It so happens that now we're dealing with two of the biggest sports in America, so it seems like a much bigger thing than it actually is.

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MTV: Do you think movies like this show the purity of sport?

Jackson: They should. But in my opinion, they're stories about something that most people relate to in a very specific kind of way. And it gives them an opportunity to be on the inside of it, the same way we go on the inside of the action movie and feel safe. You know, like riding a roller coaster, you strap yourself in and take the ride. You live their lives. You go through the triumphs, the defeats, you see how their minds work and you're able to leave the theater and kind of, you know, say you've been a part of something. And that's what storytelling is really supposed to be. There are really good stories that you wanna be a part of.




NEXT: Who's your daddy? For some players, you could say it's coach Carter ...
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Photo: Paramount Pictures


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