Disney’s profitable roster of uplifting, fact-based sports movies (“Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “The Rookie”) has a new hardcourt addition drawn from a terrific story — the saga of the all-black Texas team whose success spurred the integrating of college basketball throughout the South — that is, for the most part, deftly executed. Although doubtless destined to evoke comparisons with “Hoosiers” and even TV’s “The White Shadow,” “Glory Road” is a slick enterprise buoyed by a Motown-flavored ’60s soundtrack and an appealing ensemble cast. Box office should be in line with its predecessors and might go higher, provided today’s urban teens can accept basketball players wearing short shorts.
For years, Texas Western (now the U. of Texas at El Paso) has been the answer to a college basketball trivia question — it’s the little school that won the national championship in 1966, sandwiched by UCLA’s nine titles over a decadelong span beginning in 1964.
Behind that improbable victory was Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who was given his shot at coaching Division I basketball in football-mad Texas, where part of the job meant living in the dorms with his wife (Emily Deschanel of Fox’s “Bones”) and three kids while supervising the athletes residing there.
Quickly realizing that he won’t be able to compete with traditional college basketball powers for topnotch players, Haskins begins recruiting black players — who were already playing at other major colleges, but not in the South — prompting grumbling from his boss and school boosters. “Son, you can’t win playin’ nigger ball,” one tells him.
Undaunted, Haskins presses forward, bringing wide-eyed city kids from New York and others from Indiana to the open spaces of Texas, where they immediately break curfew and team rules with an amusing, sombrero-wearing road trip into Mexico.
Standout guard Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke) is among Haskins’ biggest challenges, as the coach must try to rein him in to play disciplined ball without muffling his showboating skills. All the players, meanwhile, are subject to indignities on the road, from being pelted with food as they enter arenas to having racial epithets scrawled on their hotel-room walls.
A stunning win streak nevertheless ensues, building toward a championship showdown against Kentucky, whose legendary coach, Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight, borrowing Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose from “The Hours”), refused to recruit black players at the time.
Meticulously appointed to capture the look and feel of the ’60s, pic largely avoids the Tarzan trap of exalting the white coach at the expense of his black players. Moreover, James Gartner — a commercial director making his feature debut, from a script by husband-and-wife writing team Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois — elicits nice performances throughout as well as fine little moments, such as a mother imploring Haskins to allow her ailing son to play.
Rebounding from “Stealth,” Lucas is perfectly cast as the driven coach, with Luke and Mehcad Brooks (“Desperate Housewives”) leading a solid cadre of youthful players who manage to both look convincing on the court and convey the mix of anger and enthusiasm that the youths felt.
The real letdown, alas, comes in the climactic basketball sequence, which adopts an MTV-influenced pace and style that’s incongruous with the ’60s setting. The producers essentially acknowledge as much — saying in the press notes that the game action has been enhanced with “dynamic basketball moves that would speak to today’s love of slick, fast-paced, tightly competitive action” — though the final result proves curiously flat and devoid of suspense.
The closing credits help offset that via interviews in which title game participants — including the real-life Haskins, team members and Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, a then-Kentucky star — reminisce about the contest. The footage not only lends authenticity to the film but should offer a poignant reminder to younger auds that the overt segregation of a sport now dominated by African-Americans, which feels so distant, really wasn’t that long ago.