The surprising and emotional story of Texas Western University's championship basketball team and how sometimes you just do the job you're "handed"

Derek Luke has come a long way since his heralded debut in Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher. He’s proven himself as a serious actor by taking a lot of diverse and dramatic roles. Derek plays star point guard and team leader Bobby Joe Hill in Glory Road. Hill was the best player for the 1966 Texas Western Miners. The team that won the NCAA College Basketball National Championship with all black players. It was a benchmark in sports history and directly challenged the racial injustice of that era.

You seem to play a lot of athletes. Does that come naturally to you?

Derek Luke: I thought the physicality was natural when I was running to catch the bus; living out here (New Jersey). When you get on the court, it’s a different thing. It’s called technique now. Naturally, I train like an athlete, from the lifestyle to the diet, and I just like to work out.

Can you talk about going to basketball boot camp?

Derek Luke: First, let’s start with the shoes we had to wear. We wore these (Converse) All-Star shoes. I couldn’t figure out how on earth could somebody run in these shoes. Every actor complained. We were like, ‘can we please wear Jordan’s?’ Blisters and everything, then we had the short shorts. We had great practices because spiritually, physically, and mentally, we had Coach Haskins. We had Pat Riley and we had Tim Floyd. Literally, our tongues were hanging out. The real players, they said the practices were worse than the game. That’s why they played games to win, so they didn’t have to go back and practice.

Were you familiar with the story of Texas Western beforehand?

Derek Luke: No, I was more familiar with the civil rights aspect and more interested in how it affected these lives. But I never heard of the Texas Western story.

What was the hardest part of filming the movie?

Derek Luke: The basketball, the thing about making any kind of action film is that you’re not just 100% acting. You’d be doing 70% basketball and then they say, ‘Derek, you have a line right here.’ What? You want to be all method, but they just want the line. The basketball was a challenge because you had to depend on others to help you. When you have people helping you, you end up having ten different directors.

Was it harder playing a real life person?

Derek Luke: I think I get a kick out of it. I think because it’s real. More than the research, I like that people are apt to be more conversational with me, not that I’m an actor from Hollywood. People start talking about foster care. We just start talking. It doesn’t feel like I’m carrying a cross.

Did you ever meet the real Bobby Joe?

Derek Luke: No, I never met Bobby Joe directly. He passed in 2002, but I did meet his wife Tina Hill.

When we first met in Antwone Fisher, you were very new to this process. Do you ever stop and think about how far you’ve come?

Derek Luke: The more and more I tell the story of Antwone, it becomes new all the time. I remember the smell of the store. I remember catching the bus at five in the morning to get to work at nine. When people ask me about it, it charges me up.

The other actors have said you weren’t the best basketball player and you’re the star player of the team.

Derek Luke: (Laughs) Who’d you interview first? I know Austin (Nichols) ain’t talking…

He said you were the second worst.

Derek Luke: Second worst? (Laughs) He probably was. Every day the challenge was to be the star basketball player on the team. That’s where the character came from and it was backwards to me. Because usually you develop a character and then give him shoe laces. This one was unlaced. Bobby Joe had passed away and he was such a laid back character. He avoided the press. You had to get snippets of his personality here and there.

He never went on to play professionally. Do you know why?

Derek Luke: That’s what I like best about him. He was unaffected. That’s why I was drawn to him. It was just a game. The basketball, when he was done, he put it down and walked off the court. Nobody knew why, but he married his college sweetheart. To me, Bobby Joe was on the court. But where I really found him was at his end, his decision to marry Tina.

Did you ever get a chance to play in comfortable shoes?

Derek Luke: We did, but it was like somebody moved the magic carpet from under our feet. They were like no. I thought it was going to be like Hoosiers, getting shot from the neck up. (Laughs) They were like, we demand reality, so we had to take everything off and put those All-Stars on.

The other actors have said there was a bond between everyone. Can you talk about that?

Derek Luke: We got evacuated filming in New Orleans. We got a call, everybody pack up what you have. If it’s not necessary leave it behind. I’m like ‘leave it behind?’ Basically, New Orleans to Baton Rouge is an hour and a half. It took us fourteen hours to get to Baton Rouge, and when we got there, everything was closed. We saw one McDonalds in the hood. In the hood, stores be open late. We tried to negotiate Tatyana Ali. They were like, ‘we’re not opening up McDonalds.’ Long story short, we had to cook our own food. The whole cast and crew went in, like sixty to eighty of us, and made our food. I was on fries. Austin Nichols, he couldn’t make a shake. (Laughs) I have a degree in fast food. I used to work at Roy Rogers and Wendy’s.

Did you share the fries?

Derek Luke: I had to share…

Did you teach anyone else?

Derek Luke: I tried to get a little managerial thing going, but it was so fun. It was just about us camping out and eating. It was a crazy bond.

Were did you go after the hurricane?

Derek Luke: It took us two days to get home. I think we went to Dallas and some us went back to LA, because we didn’t know how long the storm was going to last. Then we went back to Baton Rouge to finish the film. We had a lot of bonding. I think we went backwards because this film deals with racial equality. All of us were pretty close, it was when we were shooting the scenes that we became separate. Because the issues were so severe, they said you don’t like him. You’re like ‘ha ha’, then he says, ‘nigger.’ You just snap to it. You become a robot, ‘what did you say to me!’ It was interesting chemistry on the set.

Black history month is coming up. What role does this film play in that?

Derek Luke: For me, when I came to Hollywood, I was rough around the edges. I was street. I used to wear like jewelry, gold in my mouth, and the whole nine. People didn’t think they would accept me. For me, I wanted to be part of this film because it was harder back then. I wanted our generation to go, ‘how did they do it?’ People say you see the past and don’t repeat it, but there are principles to the past. Hopefully, there will be some principles from the story. Basketball is not an obligation, it’s a privilege. I didn’t feel that way until I saw what those guys went through. There was a reverence. Take what you do in life seriously.

What are you doing next? Any baseball or hockey movies?

Derek Luke: Man, I’m telling you; those scripts are knocking on the door. Which is a blessing. I just did a film in South Africa with Tim Robbins, a political thriller. It’s called Hot Stuff. Hot Stuff was any paraphernalia that was anti-apartheid.

Who directed the film?

Derek Luke: Phillip Noyce

It seems like you’re picking films with a social message, is that a conscious decision?

Derek Luke: I think its grace. My mother taught me about grace. It’s an unearned favor, an unearned situation. When I grew up, not being around my dad, all the inner city was made up of issues. Most of the issues were depending on the men. I always had a heart for men. A lot of films I get a chance to be blessed to do, has a lot to do with male issues, more than just social issues. I feel like Tupac spoke of his game. People who have longevity always have a focus. I try to focus on that.

Glory Road opens on Friday the 13th, 2006 nationwide from Walt Disney Pictures.