The surprising and emotional story of Texas Western University's championship basketball team and how sometimes you just do the job you're "handed"
When you mention inspirational sports stories, the 1966 Texas Western University basketball team winning the NCAA Tournament probably doesn't come to mind. Even when I asked my dad, who was in the Army in Fort Knox, Kentucky at the time, he hadn't heard of the event.
Why that's significant is the TWU team started five black players in the middle of the Civil Rights struggle and defeated the number one team in the country, University of Kentucky, and most decorated coach, Adolph Rupp. I say this, because as an avid sports fan, even I had only briefly known of the game. If you've ever watched the NCAA Tournament now, the commentators always talk about it at least once during the two week event.
But, this previously under-the-radar true story will now be told to everyone as it's shown on the big screen in the new Disney film, Glory Road which chronicles the team's journey throughout that magical season. It stars Josh Lucas as the coach of the team, Don Haskins and Derek Luke as one of the players on the team, the late Bobby Jo Hill.
I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of the film where I spoke with some of the actual members of the team. You could see it in their faces how happy they were that their story was finally being told. None of them really knew how significant this was until after it was over. But they all felt a sense of pride as they took the floor that night of the game.
I also sat down with the cast and crew of the film a few days later to talk about portraying these now legendary people. Ben Affleck was originally going to play Coach Haskins, but when he demanded too much money, Josh Lucas stepped in and was humbled to meet the real man. Since his portrayal is of Haskins as a younger man, Josh tried to emulate his actions as him at that time.
However, as Josh points out, Haskins as an older man is a much different person. ‘I realized I couldn't quite play Haskins at that point. I had done a lot of research of that 1966 season, and the racial opinion in the country, but more about Haskins' life. And he and I would disagree about his own life where he would say ‘I never wore cowboy boots.' And I would say ‘Now Don, that's not true.' And what I had to figure out is how to play him pre-National Championship, going from a girls basketball coach, living in the dorms with his family; it was like one year and he was a different man. He had so much to prove during that time in his life and have to deal with some of the disrespect he would get from some of his players. But most of it came from speaking with the actual players and his assistant coach, who is now the head coach of the USC team, Tim Floyd. And Floyd was with Haskins for seven years; he would talk to me about the way Haskins coached. The times I spent with him, he was so great and so fun; and to hear that some of his players hated him, he's an odd combination of this power and anger and charisma.'
Executive Producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, said after Ben dropped out, Josh was there to take this story to the next level. ‘He's a wonderful actor, and the fact that he's good looking helps; but he's a great actor, and that's the key. He believed in this role; he became the coach.' He did mention that Ben and Disney couldn't come to terms on money, and Disney felt he wasn't worth the money he was asking. In my opinion, I think Josh is the perfect choice; after seeing the film, I couldn't see Ben playing the role.
To find the perfect cast of characters, at first Jerry put out a casting call in Hollywood for actors who said they could play basketball players, but ‘We got them out on the court and they couldn't play, they lied; so we started all over again.' So the next step was to find basketball players who wanted to act. His team went on a nationwide search to find these people. ‘They do a great job, and you'd never know they never acted before.'
Al Shearer, who plays Nevil Shed in the film, had never done any major screen acting before; he had small parts in Honey and How High. You may, however, recognize his face more from Ashton Kutcher's show Punk'd; he was a field agent on the show for two seasons. Getting this part was like a dream come true; ‘I got a call saying there's a script with Jerry Bruckheimer. I said I got to be a part of this; if I have to have a towel in my hand, being the towel boy, I have to be a part of this.' When asked about the casting process, having to prove himself as an actor or basketball player, he joked ‘I have game! Who's that I used to teach this cat Jor – Mike, something, Kobe fellow, something like that. No, I hadn't played in 12 years, my vertical leap was like a millimeter high; I had to shake a lot of rust off.
A scary moment for Al happened two days before shooting was to start that almost ended his chances to be in the movie. During practice he broke his ankle. ‘We were rehearsing moves and the choreographer told us just to work on our shooting and don't do anything crazy. So, of course, I was like ‘oh, between the legs, through the legs, behind the back;' I went up for the shot, came down on someone's leg and broke it. You know something's wrong, but you don't want to look down and see if my foot's even on my ankle. So when I finally looked down, I knew it was messed up.' After getting the results from the doctors, producers told him he was out. But, even with a broken ankle, he was determined to be in this film. ‘It's too important of a story, it's too well written of a script, a chance to work with Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney, so I can toughen up. So we rocked and rolled, wrapped it up, and shot on it for four months with it broken.'
Another face you may recognize is Mehcad Brooks, who plays Harry Flournoy in this film, but is also Alfre Woodard's son, Michael, on Desperate Housewives - you know, the one who wasn't locked up in the basement. Mehcad actually grew up in Texas; his father would tell him bedtime stories about the team. If it was a dream come true for Al, this was a lifetime goal of Mehcad's whole family. ‘My dad grew up in west Texas, so I used to go to bed hearing about the Expos and Minors; I knew about the score. So when I told them I got it, they were like ‘You got it, you got it! Who are you playing?' ‘Flournoy.' ‘Flournoy, he's a great scorer, he's a great rebounder!' This meant so much to him, it was his favorite team of all time, so it's amazing how it manifested into my life again.' Mehcad's family saw the film at a screening in Texas and loved it, not only because their son is in it, but because of the story it tells. ‘It's like the Ali-Frazier fight for a lot of people; it meant so much and the fact that it said that we're here, and we can play, and we can beat you, and we can beat you at the highest level.'
This film marks the directorial film debut for James Gartner; previously, he had directed Super Bowl-winning commercials. When he got the call about this film, he felt a bit intimidated. He knew Jerry Bruckheimer, and had been offered other films, but none of them really worked for him. But with this script ‘I read it and felt like this is one that I would be more comfortable with. We sat down and talked about it, and made sure we were doing the same movie. With Jerry, you get an awful lot; I think all those war stories you hear about, dealing with the studio, Jerry is a guy who makes sure you are removed from all that stuff.' James found a very smooth transition coming from the commercial world to the movie world, but he found challenges in ‘how big it was and there was not a day off for months and months and figuring out a way to better pace myself.'
Josh Lucas wasn't able to spend months and months studying Coach Haskins, but there was one particular night that was very memorable; it was the essence of who Haskins was and always will be. ‘We went out to dinner with him, and Jon Voight, and Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tim Floyd; Pat Riley was at the head of the table with Haskins next to him (Pat was on the losing side of the Kentucky/Texas Western match-up). And Haskins lorded over Riley that he beat him the entire time, basically; and he had to just sit there, and Riley hates the fact that he lost this game. Pat helped us out with this movie, but one of the things that he has to do is re-live this loss over and over again. It's an amazing competitive spirit.'
And speaking of Jon Voight, he plays Adolph Rupp; he said he had a responsibility to get this story right. Jon questions ‘Would this event have been as good, been as successful, been as indelible without Rupp? Probably not, it was just another team. He was the winningest coach in basketball at that time. It was great drama; he provided the aura of the best, and he played the best, so and they won.'
This truly is a very inspirational story, movie, and one that everyone should see. There are some scenes with some scary racial drama, some language that will take you back, but you have to realize it was those times in the 1960's. Jerry Bruckheimer and James Gartner really show the real drama that went on during that special season. The basketball games are well shot, and the game playing is even better.
Glory Road opens in theaters January 13th; it's rated PG. The supporting cast also includes Emily Deschanel as Don Haskins' wife and Tatyana Ali as the girlfriend of Bobby Jo Hill.