I first saw "Glory Road" right before it came out, at a special screening attended by some of the real-life people portrayed in the movie. I bring that up, because the movie walks a fine line between "based on a true story" and "Hollywood fiction". I think it works fine as a movie, but not quite as well as a vehicle for telling this incredible story.
Haskins puts together his team, consisting of seven black players and five white players, and there are conflicts immediately, both because of race and desire for playing time. Meanwhile, the school's administration is unhappy over the racial makeup of the team, and the team grows unhappy with Haskins's harsh training techniques and deliberate in-game strategy.
Despite some early success on the court, Haskins realizes he's going to have to loosen the reins on his black players, letting them play their style of game. The team faces adversity midseason, when forward Willie Cager is discovered to have a heart problem, forcing him to the bench.
The team begins to bond, despite the racial inequities and the hatred from opposing crowds, and looks to be on the verge of an undefeated season. Following a win over East Texas State, the team returns to its hotel to find the rooms of the black players trashed and vandalized with racial slurs. This leads to the season finale at Seattle, where the black players play tentative -- and divided from the white players -- resulting in the team's first loss of the season. Following the game, the black players admit the pressure is getting to them, and they see the white players on the team lumped in with everyone else. The team hashes out their differences in the locker room in a heated scene, and heads into the NCAA Tournament, with the boost of getting Cager back, after an impassioned plea from his mother.
The movie skips Texas Western's first two wins in the NCAA Tournament, getting right to the regional final against Kansas. After an intense, heated game, the Miners advance with a dramatic one-point win in double overtime. The team arrives in Maryland for the Final Four, where Texas Western's racial makeup is immediately contrasted with Kentucky's all-white blue bloods.
The night before the national championship game (the movie skips the semifinal win vs Utah), Haskins tells his team that he's sick of the racial bias from the fans, the media, and everyone, and he's only going to play the black players in the final game. The white players, despite their desire to play, are supportive of the move. The next night, Texas Western's all-black starting five takes the floor against Kentucky's all-white starting five. Kentucky's coach, Adolph Rupp is noticeably agitated. Texas Western opens the game with big center David Lattin dunking strong over Kentucky's All-American Pat Riley, setting the tone for the game. As the game goes on, the Miners gain control and win over the crowd, making history in the process, much to the obvious displeasure of Rupp.
The team returns to El Paso, where they get a hero's welcome at a packed airport. The players are show with text telling what they did after college.
There are two ways to look at "Glory Road".
As a movie, with a narrative enhanced by Hollywood storytelling, it's a really good watch, and incredibly compelling. The movie works in some comedy in the early scenes, allowing the viewer to ease into the story, before hitting with a lot of the harder social issues. The drama as the team comes together, and is nearly torn apart, is moving, and the locker room scene after the Seattle game definitely induces chills. The championship game is shot remarkable, using cuts between the players and coaches and fans, and a flash-bulb technique to increase the impact of every play. It may seem like it follows the "Rocky" formula of a scrappy underdog coming together and rising up against impossible odds, but it plays that old tune so well that you invariably get sucked in anyway.
The problem that prevents my rating from being higher is how fast and loose the movie plays with the facts of the '65-66 Texas Western men's basketball team, particularly in the early scenes of the movie. First, '65-66 was not Don Haskins's first year at the school, it was his 6th. Many of the players he's shown recruiting in the summer of '65 were already at the school then, though they all had been recruited by Haskins. The bigger issue comes with what is supposed to be one of the defining scenes of the movie -- the meeting with the team the night before the title game. Simply put, it didn't happen. Haskins himself has said that the decision to start five black players was purely a basketball strategy move; he wanted his best players on the court.
Personally, I think the movie would have been even stronger if it had portrayed Haskins's choice to play an all-black starting five closer to how it happened in real life. That way, it actually does a better job making Haskins seem color blind, rather than making him put race ahead of the game. Social progress often comes from people making everyday choices, not world-changing decisions, and that was the case in reality here. By portraying it differently, it actually weakens the movie.
There's a lot of actual on-court action in this movie, and most of it is shot pretty well. There are times when director James Gartner has to resort to movie tricks to make the on-screen action match what's supposed to happen, but it's not nearly as prevalent as it is in many other basketball movies. For the most part, when you're watching the movie, you get the sense that these guys can play. The frequent cutaways to Haskins on the sidelines are mildly distracting, but necessary since the movie is really centered around him. I think my only real problem with the basketball as portrayed is the frequent use of dunking techniques -- particularly the off-the-backboard alley-oop -- that couldn't possibly have been used in the 1960s.
"Glory Road" is good. Really good. It's just not as good as it's supposed to be, and its key problem is in narrative vs reality. Does that make it Derrick Rose? Eh, it's not THAT good.
BETTER OR WORSE THAN A LOCKOUT?
So much better. It's even compelling enough to take your mind off the lockout for a couple hours. Plus, Pat Riley shows up and doesn't even bring up the 2010-11 Heat, so that's a positive.