I liked it better than “Hoosiers.”
In “Hoosiers,” the new high school coach in a small Indiana town in the ’50’s preached teamwork, teamwork, teamwork, pass the ball, set picks, four passes before every shot, and then when the star shooter arrived, all that went out the window.
His big motivational ploy was to get them to measure the hoop when they went to the State tournament. They reported it as ten feet from the floor, the same height as every basketball hoop. It was his way of demonstrating to them that they didn’t need to be intimidated. And in the end, they go all the way to the State Finals.
Now it’s the ’90’s. Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at Richmond High in California, a school that graduates only 50% of its students; a school where only 6% go to college. When he preaches “teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” he means more than passing the ball to the best shooter, or running a trap play to force a turnover. He means taking responsibility for yourself, and for everyone else on the team.
He has them all sign contracts (along with the parents) demanding a minimum GPA of 2.3, when the school’s eligibility rule is only 2.0. Coach Carter’s argument is that with a 2.0, the SAT score has to be over 1000 for college admission, while with a 2.3, the SAT score can be in three figures, which is a lot more attainable.
Coach Carter is serious about doing calisthenics in the event of being late for practice, missing class, or mouthing off. He even forbids “trash talking” to the other team, because it is not about putting others down; it is about concentrating on the task at hand. He is not eager to reinstate someone who quits in a huff, and makes their calisthenics load almost impossible to bear.
The big breakthrough comes when someone else on the team volunteers to take on himself one of the other player’s burdens. Then another on the team volunteers to do the same, then another, then another, until suddenly they’re all on the floor doing push-ups. That’s when Coach Carter knows he has a team.
The next crisis was when he gets the mid-term grades and most of the guys are failing at least one subject. Coach Carter closes the gym and demands to meet them at the library, along with a few teachers who volunteer to tutor. He forfeits the next two games, until the team pulls up its grade reports. It breaks their record win streak. But the team members also start helping each other with their homework assignments. Algebra equations take on equal significance to lay-up drills. Now Coach Carter knows they really are in this together.
That year, the basketball team at Richmond High sent six players to college, five of whom were on basketball scholarship. Coach Carter endured the indifference of an administration that had grown complacent in its academic failures and accepting of lower standards, and the ire of parents who’d rather see their kids play basketball than see to it they did their homework. He could get away with this in part because he was a private businessman hired only as the basketball coach. He said if they wouldn’t let him do it his way, he’d just quit.
Sometimes the only way to make a difference is by sticking to your guns while others are taking potshots at you. Coach Carter taught a bunch of undisciplined brawlers how to work together, trust each other, and depend on each other. Coach Carter instilled some work ethic and some self-reliance in some boys who were only too close to gangs and drugs and prison. In short, he made them men.
Samuel L. Jackson does a good job in the role. But the real focus is on the values that the real Coach Carter managed to instill in just one group of boys. As if redemption can only happen one soul at a time. And each must work out his own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
RON SALFEN is pastor of Westminster Church, Dallas, Texas