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Bet on Black 

How college hoops smashed the color barrier.

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Over the years, moviegoers who double as sports fans have had ample opportunity to choose their favorite miracle -- Shoeless Joe Jackson emerging from the tall corn, Rudy suiting up for Notre Dame, Rocky going the distance with Apollo Creed, the U.S. hockey team taking down the Russkies.

As if all that were not supernatural enough, now comes Glory Road, the story (more or less) of the 1965-'66 Texas Western basketball team -- underdogs who went 28-1 and won the NCAA national championship with a shocking victory over top-ranked Kentucky.

An impoverished little mining school in dusty El Paso, it was not the kind of place that inspired song or legend. But coach Don Haskins (former Stealth fighter pilot Josh Lucas) was a visionary: He recruited talented black players at a time when many brand-name schools (especially in the South) remained unwilling; in the final tournament game of 1966, he revolutionized an entire sport by putting five black starters on the floor against the legendary Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad -- a team that included Louie Dampier and future NBA coach Pat Riley. Texas Western ran the Wildcats out of the gym.

Ironically, the next year, the school changed its name to University of Texas, El Paso, largely because people around the country had gotten the mistaken idea that Texas Western was a predominantly black school.

As American history, Glory Road is by turns inspirational and thrilling. But, in keeping with Hollywood's gift for exaggeration, a couple of things about it are completely bogus. We see the team's entire season, ups and downs, in 90 minutes: When a black Texas Western player gets brutally mugged in the men's room of a diner, when administration officials and alumni whine about the number of black players on the roster, when the Miners' motel rooms are trashed and tagged with Ku Klux Klan slogans, we are reminded just how unenlightened the country still was in the mid-'60s. When Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr), and their teammates take the floor against the glowering Rupp (Jon Voight) and his charges, we feel a surge of pride -- even those of us who are not black. Rookie director James Gartner gives us the happy sense that the world -- not just college basketball -- is changing for the better and that all of us are about to get a little piece of that.

At the same time, the movie's liberties and falsifications can be irksome. As Christopher Cleveland's screenplay would have it, Haskins landed in El Paso in 1965, fresh from his long stint as a girls' high school hoops coach, set out on a magical recruiting spree in New York and the Midwest, and turned Texas Western's struggling program around in just one year. Actually, Haskins had been the school's head coach for nearly five seasons before the Miners won their national championship, and he had inherited several outstanding black players from his predecessor -- including eventual Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson.

In other ways, too, Haskins' story has been altered to suit Glory Road's agenda of social uplift. Even though inspirational sports movies are almost always predicated on contrivance and compromise, Glory Road could have done with a little more real-life Haskins and a little less manufactured sainthood.

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More by Bill Gallo

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