A former high-school basketball coach led a small West Texas mining university’s team to the 1966 Division I NCAA finals with a roster composed almost entirely of players the top-tier schools didn’t heavily recruit: African-American kids from Houston, New York, Detroit, and Gary, Ind. There, the Texas Western Miners faced the lily-white University of Kentucky Wildcats, coached by living legend Adolph Rupp. Throughout the season Texas Western coach Don Haskins and his players faced harassment from university boosters, opposing fans, and freelance bigots who didn’t think blacks could handle the pressure, or were skilled or smart enough, to play big-time college ball—or should even be on the court. And in a final game that has become sporting myth, the Miners upset the Wildcats 72-65. For fans of cliché-ridden underdog sports flicks, you really don’t have to add to something this improbable to make it sing.
Thing is, those ordinary-people-coming-together-to-achieve-extraordinary-things formulas only work when you hit all the right marks, and director James Gartner’s Glory Road is occasionally so incomprehensible it makes this rousing yarn anticlimactic. Josh Lucas nails Haskins’ demanding presence, but the script doesn’t make him anything more than the cipher to utter the expected lines—e.g., “This is more than just a game now”—with all the conviction of a pizza flier distributor. Worse, so little time is spent developing the players—the showboating Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), styling big man David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr), budding black-power neophyte Willie Worsley (Sam Jones III), talent that needs a push Nevil Shed (Al Shearer), the all-heart Willie Cager (Damaine Radcliff), ball-handling wiz Orsten Artis (Alphonso McAuley), forward Harry Flournoy Jr. (Mechad Brooks)—as characters that they all bleed together, becoming little more than the descriptors that appear before their names above.
Granted, uplifting sports movies find their power because there is no “I” in “team,” but if filmmakers are going to flaunt dramatic license—here Haskins comes from a high-school girls team to lead the Miners to the finals in his first season, whereas the real Haskins came to Western from Dumas High School in 1961 as a boys coach, and Western was one of the few Southwest schools routinely recruiting black players from the 1950s on—manipulate the audience to care more, not less. For example, end-credits subtitles impart that many of the team’s players stayed in El Paso after graduation, including 1966 finals hero Hill, who didn’t play postcollegiate basketball but remained an active community figure until his 2002 death. Nearly 2,000 people attended his funeral—that’s a testament to the man, not merely the player, and Glory Road fails to touch on who that man might have been.