Saturday, January 21, 2006

Who Paved Glory Road?

Imagine a Hollywood movie that attempts to tell the story of Jackie Robinson’s introduction to Major League Baseball through the eyes of Branch Rickey – the MLB executive who signed Jackie to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The story would begin in Rickey’s birthplace, Flat, Ohio. It would follow Rickey’s short, embarrassing MLB career as a catcher – one that consists of earning the record for most bases stolen while he was “guarding” the plate. Next we’d see a quick reference to Rickey having been in the Armed Forces (to sell him as dutiful and patriotic) and move on to him establishing himself in minor league baseball. Rickey, we would learn, was one of the first people to successfully groom minor league players for the majors. We’d then see how Rickey became manager of the Cardinals during their championship-form heyday throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s. Finally, the coup de grace: Rickey thumbing his nose at tradition and signing Jackie Robinson. To be sure, such a movie would have to make mention of Robinson’s struggles against racist resistance. But these problems would be muted in favor of romanticizing the courageous white visionary who would go on to challenge Major League Baseball’s status quo and ultimately destroy the color barrier. After all, it wouldn’t be about Jackie. This story would be bigger than Jackie Robinson. It would be about Rickey saving the Soul of Baseball! Actually, now that I think about it, I’m surprised that it hasn’t already been made.

Sound ridiculous? Then consider the recently released Glory Road. This movie tells the story of the 1966 NCAA basketball champion Texas Miners through the eyes of their white coach, Don Haskins. Haskins is the protagonist. The movie centers on how he prepares his players, not only for the championship game, but for life afterwards. We all know the story. It relies on the same tired recipe as most of these post-civil rights era cinematic and televised walks in the park. Take a noble white guy struggling for redemption, meaning or cash (or some combination thereof). Mix in some black sass, give them a common adversary and goal and voila: a tepid pseudo-examination of race and brotherhood that lacks meaning or value.

What needs to be noted is that the story of the five black men who won that basketball championship in 1966 is not considered significant unless it can be tied to the courage of their white coach. By fixating on Haskins, the makers of this film turn the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship into an episode of The White Shadow instead of the direct slap to the face of Jim Crow that it was.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the decency of Haskin’s historic all-black-starting-five act. I’m not dismissing his commitment to his black players. I’m certainly not pooh-poohing the significance of the Miner’s victory in the history of American sport. The question I ask is this: why does the courage of the five black players on the front line have to take a back seat to Haskin’s act? After all, it was they who had to deal with the direct racist animosity of screaming, belligerent, hostile fans. It was they who put the ball in the hoop more times than the Kentucky squad. And it was they who would have to live in America with black skin long after the ball stopped bouncing.

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At 9:40 PM , Blogger Harold M. Clemens said...

Last 5 lines of this are priceless...I'll watch the flick when it comes on HBO...This should be in one of the majors. Maybe you should think about shopping it.

At 9:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I'm guilty. I never thought about it as a "White Shadow" flick. However, now that you put it in perspective, I totally agree.

I recently spent some time in El Paso, TX home of the movie's history, and the people there have an ENTIRELY different view than Hollywood about the historic event. It was actually quite fascinating to speak with the people that lived through it. Their take on it was that the players and coach were all equals and deserved the credit for being brave souls attempting to usher in change. To this day the locals idolize Nolan Richardson. One of the gentlemen I was working with stated that UTEP offered Richardson the head coaching job after Haskin's retired. However, his daughter was sick at the time so he couldn't take it.


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