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'GLORY' COURTS GREATNESS DESPITE HACKNEYED THEME.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

NOTHING BORES ME more than triumphal sports movies. The hard-case coach always has his kids' best interests in mind. The team you've been following always wins the climactic game. And in the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced genre entries, of which ``Glory Road'' is one, prejudices are overcome and interracial respect is learned by all.

So why did I completely groove on ``Glory Road'' in a way I just couldn't with, say, ``Remember the Titans''? Shouldn't have, since this true story about the lowly Texas Western Miners' rise to the 1966 NCAA basketball championship makes all the standard plays and ain't exactly deep, character development-wise.

It probably has something to do with the great, easygoing humor screenwriters Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois weave among the athletic cliches. And with how their adroit handling of the racism that increasingly fuels the film's drama stays sharp, but never becomes hectoring.

Director James Gartner is no slouch, either. A successful commercials guy making his feature debut, Gartner has a knack for zeroing in on the key comic or emotional moment of any given scene with potent detailing and little waste. He also knows how to shoot hoops; the key plays of each game flow with a live-observation clarity here, something which cannot always be said of basketball movies.

``Glory Road's'' greatest strength, though, is that it's just a great story, acted well. Earning forgiveness for ``Stealth,'' Josh Lucas plays coach Don Haskins. First seen heading a Fort Worth girls' high-school team, Haskins is hired away by El Paso's modest, cash-strapped TWU. The school mainly wants him to dorm-monitor, but Haskins is determined to build a winning team.

With a laughable recruitment budget, though, the coach has to use his imagination. So he tours Northeast ghetto playgrounds and ends up busing half a dozen African-Americans to the banks of the Rio Grande.

This proves to be a culture shock on both sides. The local whites and Latinos don't know what to make of the new scholarship students, while the Northern urbanites get their first tastes of deserts and tacos.

Although this results in some racial tension, Haskins soon has his white and black players on the same page. He's a tough taskmaster, hates showboating, all the usual cliches - but unlike the superconfident Coach Carters of the sports movie world, Haskins refreshingly acknowledges that he's not that talented and doesn't have all the answers.

Of course, once the Miners start winning, most of El Paso's reservations evaporate. But as they move up the national rankings, other places - especially elsewhere in the South - grow more vehement and even violent in their animosity. This has its effect on morale; in one near-brilliant sequence, the black players refuse to work with their white teammates, resulting in a rare, humiliating loss.

When the Miners reach the final against dismissive ``Baron'' Adolph Rupp's (Jon Voight) dominant Kentucky Wildcats (which include, amusingly, a young Pat Riley, played by Wesley Brown), Haskins decides to make a statement by only playing the African-Americans.

``Glory Road'' unfolds about equally from Haskins' and the athletes' perspectives. Derek Luke's talented Bobby Joe Hill has the most dimensions. Others are pretty much defined by a single trait. There's the big guy who's a little too timid (Al Shearer), the big-hearted dude with the heart condition (Damaine Radcliff), the white farm boy whose team spirit trumps his need for Daddy's approval (Austin Nichols) and many others that will seem familiar.

Yet the young actors' spontaneity and believable sense of enforced, then embraced, camaraderie makes all this stuff feel new and vital.

That, more than anything, makes ``Glory Road'' a movie worth cheering. Without feeling stupid about it.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

GLORY ROAD - Three stars

(PG: racism, violence, language)

Starring: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Jon Voight, Red West.

Director: James Gartner.

Running time: 1 hr. 49 min.

Playing: In wide release.

In a nutshell: Surprisingly satisfying sports/racial drama about the underdog, integrated Texas Western basketball team that took the 1966 championship from mighty Kentucky. Hits all the formula notes, but somehow seems fresh and light on its feet.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

The Texas Western players pull through together in the surprisingly entertaining ``Glory Road,'' starring Josh Lucas as the gritty coach who integrates the college team and wins.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 13, 2006
Words:719
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